Photo by IISD/ENB | Kiara Worth
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As more countries engage in VNRs the number of second-and third-time reports will rapidly increase.

This could mean that the spirit of the review scheme set by the 2030 Agenda could be lost.

Moving towards second-generation VNR reports is the only way for governments to fulfill their promises.

Voluntary National Reviews (VNRs) lie at the heart of the global SDGs follow-up and review mechanism set by the 2030 Agenda. Since 2016, 142 VNRs have been submitted to the UN High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development (HLPF), and 50 new reports are expected to be presented at its 2020 session. These numbers show that governments have responded well to the reporting arrangements for the 2030 Agenda. The reports have given the international community a broad perspective on the advance towards the SDGs at the national level around the whole world.

A closer view shows that 15 out of the 142 reports submitted are second-time reporting exercises. Another 24 out of the 50 VNRs to be presented in 2020 will be “second VNRs.” In addition, Colombia and Qatar volunteered to present VNRs in 2020 but, considering the high number of volunteers, were asked to drop their offers. These would have been their third VNRs each.

As more countries engage in VNRs, the number of second-and third-time reports will rapidly increase. This could mean that the spirit of the review scheme set by the 2030 Agenda could be lost.

Cepei is a Latin American think tank providing analysis of global development agendas. According to recent work by Cepei, the VNRs have mainly exposed “photographs” of SDG implementation at the country level. The reports illuminate static situations, one-time pictures that show where each country stands at the moment of reporting. That could work for first VNRs exercises aimed at marking a country’s departure point as it moves towards sustainable development. However, this can’t work for subsequent reports, as it would make the follow-up and review a process of jumping between photos without reference to what happens in the lapse between them.

It is time for countries to move from second-time VNRs to second-generation VNRs, providing “movies” not “photographs” of SDG implementation.

It is urgent to move towards “movies” reporting that showcases the entire story of SDG implementation in a country, focusing on processes and not only situations. VNRs should answer questions like, “how have we progressed since our previous report?” “What worked well and what failed since then?” “How and why did our national efforts succeed (or not) in reaching our proposed goals?” “Is the pace of our progress fast enough to meet the SDGs in 2030?” “What have we learned on our way towards the SDGs at the national level?” and “Where do we predict we will be in the short and medium-term?”

The only way to move from photos to movies is by changing how we are reporting. Countries must move from second-time VNRs to second-generation VNRs. To that end, some required steps are:

  • Assume a cycle perspective, implying that the review must be presented as a continuation of the previous one, and that it is the starting point for future reports. To build bridges between reports, clearly express the implementation commitments assumed by governments, and variables used to measure their success.
  • Break the habit of working in watertight compartments, and provide traceability on SDG advances, stagnations, and setbacks. Link the current status of each situations to what was previously reported. If poverty has been reduced, it is encouraging (progress), if it shows a tightening, it requires more attention (stagnation), and if it has increased, new paths must be sought (setback). Finding the paths that must be followed in each case requires knowledge of their causes. Second-generation VNRs should devote attention to finding theses causes so they can plan and build evidence-based policies.
  • To teach silos to dance, a task of second-generation VNRs is to be clear on the process of integrating ministerial and sectoral silos in favor of an integrated approach to sustainable development.
  • Utilize the VNRs both to share successful experiences and to highlight failed attempts in national SDGs efforts. This will generate lessons for others while also facilitating requests for cooperation from potential partners to overcome the identified obstacles.
  • Track impacts of sustainable development efforts on the most vulnerable groups, and identify the most vulnerable groups in each report.
  • Ensure empirical justification for the timing of second-generation VNR submission. These reports require verification of changes and new lessons learned regarding what was reported in previous opportunities. Given the timeframes required to show changes in SDG indicators, presenting VNRs in successive years only produces an unnecessary “inflation” of the number of reporting countries not matched by the importance of its contents.
  • Democratize VNR production at the country level. Second-generation VNRs should allow non-state actors to assume the drafting of short chapters expressing their opinions on how SDG implementation has evolved in the period between reports. It is not necessary for the government to “voice” the social actors’ experiences, but rather to allow them to use the voice they already have.

As part of the 2030 Agenda, countries have committed to engage in a follow-up and review process that must be systematic, robust and effective, and aimed at tracking progress in implementing the SDGs. None of this can happen if countries continue to report by the logic of photographs. Moving towards second-generation VNR movies is the only way to fulfill those promises.

The author of this guest article, Javier Surasky, is Cepei’s Governance for Development Research Area Coordinator, and Chair of the International Cooperation Department at the Institute of International Relations, La Plata National University, Argentina.

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