The authors call for the forthcoming report of the UN Secretary-General, 'Our Common Agenda,' to specify the necessary steps toward establishing more effective, agile and accountable sustainable development governance by the UN.
In addition to welcoming moderate reforms, the analysts argue that "riding things out" is not an option when the need for action is so pressing.
A UN Sustainable Development Council – created by upgrading and transforming ECOSOC – could become the centerpiece of more ambitious reforms.
By Heidemarie Wieczorek-Zeul, Silke Weinlich, Imme Scholz, Lisi Maier, Cornelia Füllkrug-Weitzel, and Marianne Beisheim
In the declaration to mark the 75th anniversary of the United Nations, world leaders reiterated their commitment to implement the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development in full and on time, and underlined this as a necessity for survival. They asked the UN Secretary-General to present recommendations for advancing the vision expressed in the declaration and respond to current and future challenges. We call for this report on “Our Common Agenda,” to be submitted by September 2021, to specify the necessary steps toward establishing more effective, agile and accountable sustainable development governance by the UN.
We need structures for scrutinizing short-term national interests from the perspective of the global common good.
The current approach to governing the UN’s sustainable development work has a number of shortcomings, particularly in these four areas:
- Mobilizing political will, decision-making, financing, and follow-up,
- Driving and demanding policy coherence at all levels,
- Identifying and disseminating effective instruments for the SDGs Decade of Action, and
- Harnessing analysis and forecast for knowledge-based decision-making.
If improved, the UN could more ambitiously support national efforts for sustainable development in the remaining nine years until 2030.
In the current negotiations on the review of the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) and the High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development (HLPF), UN Member States are considering various reforms. Among the proposals, a high-level meeting for coordination would take place earlier in the year, combined with a multi-stakeholder partnership forum, and stronger follow-up of the HLPF would be pursued through a more systematic assessment of voluntary national reviews (VNRs) and better use of lessons learned.
These moderate reform steps are needed and welcome and must be accompanied by adequate resources. In order to enhance analysis and forecast, the capacity and mandate of the independent group of scientists that produces the Global Sustainable Development Report (GSDR) every four years would also need to be significantly upgraded. All this could indeed lead to more ambitious VNRs that are discussed in detail and enhance peer learning to accelerate SDG delivery across countries.
Even in the absence of large institutional reforms, an upwards spiral towards more ambitious and self-reflective reporting and learning could be initiated. However, the challenges ahead are complex. Accelerating negative trends in climate change, biodiversity loss, as well as the grave social and economic consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic, are all sounding the alarm.
The current geopolitical landscape as well as the resistance of many UN Member States to take steps that they consider a relinquishing of national sovereignty do not augur well for more fundamental reforms. At the same time, riding things out is not an option when the need for action is so pressing. An interconnected and interdependent world requires structures that allow for scrutinizing short-term national interests from the perspective of the global common good.
We call on UN Secretary-General António Guterres to consider in his report more ambitious UN reforms for more effective sustainable development governance. In our view, a UN Sustainable Development Council – i.e. an upgraded and transformed ECOSOC – could become its centerpiece. Such a council was already debated in the context of the Rio+20 conference in 2012 (which led instead to the creation of the HLPF).
The council would have decision-making powers to effectively tackle pressing sustainable development challenges of global significance, including by giving clear guidance on how to handle conflicting goals. It would also benefit from access to enforcement tools.
This council could have a governing body consisting of various chambers. In the chamber of States, 27 States could assume leadership responsibility on a rotating basis (as recommended by the UN High-Level Panel on System-Wide Coherence in 2006). Relevant stakeholders could be involved in the other chamber(s). This would engage those who are affected by the decisions and those with capacities to act on a more effective and committed basis than now. The UN Secretariat could support decision-making with combined scenario and foresight to develop a range of plausible future pathways.
With the 2030 Agenda, the UN has created a powerful and common vision for the future. However, its slow implementation so far illustrates that we may need reforms that enable the UN to foster faster, solution-oriented action and decision-making in the next decade.
This guest article is authored by Heidemarie Wieczorek-Zeul, member of the German Council for Sustainable Development and former German Federal Minister for Economic Cooperation and Development; Silke Weinlich, Senior Researcher at the German Development Institute / Deutsches Institut für Entwicklungspolitik (DIE); Imme Scholz (Deputy Chairwoman of the German Council for Sustainable Development and Deputy Director of the German Development Institute / Deutsches Institut für Entwicklungspolitik (DIE); Lisi Maier, member of the German Council for Sustainable Development and President of the German Federal Youth Council; Cornelia Füllkrug-Weitzel, member of the German Council for Sustainable Development and former President of Bread for the World; and Marianne Beisheim, Senior Associate at Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik (SWP)/German Institute for International and Security Affairs.