What Will Spell Success at the SDG Summit?
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How will governments make use of their short time to reflect on the 2030 Agenda?

The UN Secretary-General has asked leaders to come to the Summit “not with beautiful speeches, but with concrete actions, plans and commitments” to accelerate implementation, insisting that people "do not want half measures or empty promises”.

This policy brief provides further context for what to expect.

In two weeks, Heads of State and Government will meet in New York for the first time since the adoption of the 2030 Agenda to take stock of progress in its implementation. The UN High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development (HLPF) convening under UNGA auspices in September 2019 (the SDG Summit) will provide world leaders with a chance to reflect on achievements and challenges. How will they make use of this short time?

In his speech at the opening of the Ministerial Segment of the July 2019 HLPF, the UN Secretary-General specifically asked leaders to come to the Summit “not with beautiful speeches, but with concrete actions, plans and commitments” to accelerate implementation. He insisted that “the people of the world do not want half measures or empty promises.” This policy brief provides further context for what to expect.

The Potential

“The global picture is unsettling. Yes, we have made encouraging progress despite political and other headwinds. But we are not yet on track and must step it up,” cautioned UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres in July.

Indeed, the Special Edition of the annual SDG Progress Report found that there is progress in SDGs implementation, including that:

  • extreme poverty dropped to 10% of the world’s population between 1995 and 2015 (SDG 1);
  • child deaths declined by nearly 50% from 2000-2017 (SDG 3);
  • nearly nine in ten people now have access to electricity (SDG 7);
  • the proportion of people living in urban slums has been halved, declining from 46% to 23% from 1996 to 2016 (SDG 11); and
  • since 2010, the marine protected area globally more than doubled (SDG 14).

However, no country is on track to achieve gender equality by 2030 (SDG 5). One in nine people globally is undernourished (SDG 2). More than 50% of children and adolescents are not meeting minimum standards in reading and math, and 30% of young women and 13% of young men are not in education, employment or training (SDG 4). Three billion people do not have washing and hygiene facilities (SDG 6). Global unemployment levels have dropped since 2015, yet young people are three times more likely to be unemployed than adults (SDG 8). And inequality between and within countries remains, as Guterres noted, “disturbingly high” (SDG 10).

Furthermore, material consumption is on the rise, up to 92.1 billion tons in 1997, a 254% increase since 1970 (SDG 12). “Climate change is moving faster than we are,” Guterres told the HLPF, with greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) having reached a record high in 2017, and being 146% higher than pre-industrial levels. Sea levels “are not only rising, they are rising at an accelerated pace,” he stressed (SDG 13), while fair and efficient justice systems “remain beyond the reach” of approximately five billion people (SDG 16). Civil society organizations and human rights defenders are facing increasing levels of intimidation, disruption and violence, while migrants and refugees are suffering “intolerable” levels of insecurity, poor treatment and discrimination, making the 2030 Agenda promise to leave no one behind more a trope than a fact of life.

Guterres invited world leaders to use the SDG Summit “to ratchet up the ambition and […] kickstart a decade of delivery and action for people and planet.” To that end, the UN has also created an ‘SDG Acceleration Action’ platform, where countries and other actors can publicly post their initiatives that contribute to accelerating implementation of the 2030 Agenda. The platform was announced by UNGA President Maria Fernanda Espinosa Garces on 30 May 2019.

The Plans

In an attempt to discourage speech-reading and encourage action-oriented interactions that keep leaders’ eyes on the 2030 Agenda as a whole rather than a splintered discussion on the individual Goals, governments have agreed that the Summit will consist of a series of six 55-minute Leaders Dialogues, the themes for which were announced in July. A page featuring submitted SDG Acceleration Actions is expected to be launched shortly.

The themes are focused on national experiences and aim to support knowledge sharing and partnerships, being inspired by the 2019 Global Sustainable Development Report (GSDR) – prepared by a team of independent scientists – as well as the UN Secretary-General’s Special Edition of the annual SDG Progress Report. The GSDR will be officially launched during the SDG Summit, but UN Member States and stakeholders have had access to preliminary versions to inform their interventions.

The first theme, ‘Megatrends Impacting the Achievement of the SDGs,’ will consider: the response from governments to the 2030 Agenda in terms of how they have planned for and adapted themselves to achieve SDG actions; opportunities presented by megatrends for accelerating progress across multiple Goals and targets; and the potential impact of collaborations and partnerships towards more sustainable outcomes. The concept note does not specify how the megatrends will be identified.

For the second theme, ‘Accelerating the Achievement of the SDGs: Critical Entry Points,’ Member States are invited to explore how strategic actions can be applied by multiple actors and institutions at critical “entry points” for the transformations needed to accelerate progress across multiple SDGs. The concept of entry points is presented in the GSDR, which describes them as areas of particularly strong interconnection across SDGs and targets that can help accelerate transformation towards sustainable development. The report is expected to identify six entry points:

  • human wellbeing and capabilities;
  • sustainable economies;
  • energy decarbonization and access;
  • food systems and nutrition;
  • urban and peri-urban development; and
  • global commons.

Under the third theme, ‘Leveraging Progress Across the SDGs,’ world leaders are expected to discuss how “levers for change” (or tools) like governance, economy and finance, individual and collective action, and science and technology can be used in strategic combinations and partnerships to drive the transformations towards sustainable development. According to the concept note describing the themes, the emphasis will be on success stories and approaches that can be transferred from one national or sub-national context to another.

The fourth theme, ‘Localizing the SDGs,’ will invite a focus on country-level experiences in localizing the SDGs, adapting them to national and local situations, and incorporating them in policies, institutions, financial frameworks and ways of working.

The fifth theme, ‘Partnerships for Sustainable Development,’ aims to foster discussions on the progress in revitalizing the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development and international cooperation. Governments will be invited to identify “impactful” multi-stakeholder partnerships for SDGs implementation, as well as to highlight good practices and lessons learned in overcoming the various challenges brought by the multi-stakeholder approach, in order to improve partnership effectiveness.

The sixth theme ‘2020-2030 Vision,’ focuses on the vision for the period remaining until 2030, and aims to address the SDG targets that have a completion date of 2020, in order to assess progress and options for the way forward. For instance, 21 of the SDGs targets have a 2020 deadline, and 12 of them are biodiversity-related and unlikely to be met. Leaders will be further invited to highlight the “critical actions” they intend to take in the short- and long-term to ensure all targets and Goals are achieved by 2030.

The SDG Summit will convene back-to-back with other high-level meetings, including: the UN Climate Action Summit being convened by Secretary-General Guterres and high-level meetings on universal health coverage, financing for development and the SAMOA Pathway. In April 2019, a UN system task team prepared a common narrative for all of these high-level events as well as the UNGA’s 74th general debate, which the UN Secretary-General then presented to governments in order to support their preparations. The narrative frames the series of events as a singular world gathering with a three-fold aim of taking stock of progress, increasing ambition, and highlighting “scalable, just and tailored” solutions to global challenges.

The Path

The July 2019 HLPF tried to chart the path for accelerating progress in SDG implementation. A focus on several issues sets the stage for leaders to address them at the SDG Summit. The issues highlighted by the HLPF participants include: science, technology, inclusion, financing, international cooperation, meaningful stakeholder engagement, and increased momentum.

Identifying messages to transmit the SDG Summit, HLPF participants noted that few countries have concrete plans for financing the SDGs.

In addition, a specific discussion on the last day of the July HLPF identified key messages to be transmitted to the Summit. Summarizing these key messages, Rapporteur Gloria Amparo Alonso Másmela, Minister of National Planning, Colombia, said the strong country ownership of SDGs is evidenced by: the 142 VNRs that have been presented to date, with 15 countries presenting twice; national actions on the SDGs; local-level reflection; and budgetary allocations for the SDGs. She also listed challenges, including difficulties in long-term planning, awareness building and resource mobilization. On ways to accelerate actions, she said governments have emphasized education, reducing inequalities, providing decent work, scaling up climate action and ensuring peaceful and just societies. Rapporteur Christian Wenaweser, Permanent Representative of Liechtenstein, noted that few countries have concrete plans for financing the SDGs. To accelerate progress on the Goals, he noted that UN Member States have proposed:

  • understanding interlinkages, synergies and tradeoffs among the SDGs;
  • the role of science, technology and innovation (STI) in enabling co-benefits;
  • governance approaches that focus on integration and coordination;
  • accurate and timely data for informed decision-making;
  • gender equality and empowerment of women and girls;
  • partnerships, including international cooperation; and
  • regional fora that enable a space for peer learning and showcasing practical solutions.

Specifically, and as highlighted by the ECOSOC President following the meeting, HLPF participants noted that investment in data and capacity is needed for adequate measurement, to inform policies that ensure no one is left behind. They said science should guide governments in shaping policies that address the interactions among the SDGs – both the co-benefits and the trade-offs – in a way that will spur the systemic transformations needed to achieve the Goals, with some highlighting the GSDR as an important tool to inform policy makers. Many emphasized that special efforts are needed to integrate youth, women and vulnerable groups in the labor market.

There was consensus that substantial gaps remain in financing the SDGs. To address them, many noted the need for strengthening domestic resource mobilization, including through an enabling environment for private investment, strengthening tax administrations and addressing illicit financial flows. Partnerships and international cooperation were seen as fundamental, especially with regards to supporting vulnerable countries in achieving their SDGs. Strengthening the role of non-state actors was also highlighted as important, with some drawing attention that meaningful stakeholder engagement should include broad, inclusive consultations and the establishment of formal mechanisms for sustained engagement in SDG implementation and VNR preparations, as well as in discussions at the HLPF.

The Prospects

More than anything, what the discussions during the July 2019 HLPF reflected was that governments and stakeholders have the plans and the tools needed to build the world envisioned through the SDGs by 2030, but so far, only the foundation seems to have been lain. The missing ingredients are political will and cooperation.

In her keynote speech to open the HLPF Ministerial Segment, Mary Robinson, former President of Ireland and Chair of The Elders, underscored that we will not overcome “the key existential challenges” facing the world today, from nuclear weapons to climate change, “if we spurn cooperation.” She cautioned that “it is when we all play safe that we create a world of utmost insecurity” that will lead to our doom. Noting that it is in the “dark shade of courage alone that the spell can be broken,” she emphasized that the HLPF is the moment to demand real ambition from world leaders.

So far, governments show varied responses to the UN Secretary-General’s call for ambitious commitments and actions to be shared at the SDG Summit. Japan announced that it is making arrangements to pledge about USD8.55 billion for SDG implementation in September, while the environment ministers from Brazil, China, India and South Africa, in a declaration negotiated in August and meant to send a message to the UN Secretary-General on the occasion of the Climate Action Summit, stressed that the responsibility for tackling climate change (SDG 13) belongs with richer countries.

“No one denies we’re all in a boat on a wild sea,” emphasized screenwriter Richard Curtis during the same Ministerial Segment. That is the reason for which, he argued, cooperation is essential and everyone’s skills are necessary: “some to build the boat; some to guide it; some to row the boat; some when the boat sinks, like the refugee boat Yusra Mardini, grab the ropes and swim the boat to safety.”

Curtis reminded governments that they are “the generation with power in the UN and power in every country in the world, who could and must make it happen.” The SDG Summit will provide a snapshot of how they plan to deliver.


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