19 March 2019
Governments Consult on Themes, Format of HLPF Summit
Photo by IISD/Mike Muzurakis
story highlights

Ruben Escalante Hasbun, Permanent Representative of El Salvador to the UN, held consultations with UN Member States on the activities of the summit-level HLPF.

Member States and groupings exchanged views on the format, purpose and key messages of the Summit, inclusiveness and communication, links to other high-level events, and the importance of the Global Sustainable Development Report.

A few also raised the need to begin planning for the UNGA’s review of the HLPF, which is mandated to take place during the 74th session.

15 March 2019: UN Member States held a discussion on the purpose, format and key messages of the meeting of the UN High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development that will take place under the auspices of the UN General Assembly in September 2019. Ruben Escalante Hasbun, Permanent Representative of El Salvador to the UN, held consultations with UN Member States in his role as facilitator on the activities of the summit-level HLPF. He said he aims to present recommendations to the UNGA President in mid-April.

The UNGA-convened HLPF will take place at the level of Heads of State and Government from 24-25 September 2019, which is the week of the UNGA’s 74th high-level debate. In February 2019, the UNGA President appointed Escalante as facilitator for informal consultations on the organization of activities for the summit-level HLPF. He reported that he then conducted approximately 25 bilateral meetings with governments and groupings.

On 11 March, Escalante circulated a letter expressing his intention to make recommendations that highlight best practices, trends, success stories, leapfrogging cases and enablers, and taking stock of the strides made since the adoption of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development in 2015, while taking advantage of the Global Sustainable Development Report (GSDR) to inspire discussions. His letter also outlines the mandates underpinning the UNGA-convened HLPF.

Opening informal consultations on 15 March 2019, Escalante said the Summit represents the “moment to see how far we have come and what to do next,” and finding the right format is important in order to allow Heads of State and Government to share their visions for accelerating implementation. He outlined the stringent time constraints for the Summit, noting that it must allow for participation by 197 members and the Summit will take place over one-and-a-half days – a total of only nine hours – because of the crowded schedule during UNGA week. He urged everyone to see the high-level events of the week as “an interrelated whole.”

On the format and focus of the Summit, Escalante recommended not including a general discussion or debate, as this would give each Head of State or Government only two-and-a-half minutes to speak. He said the high-level UNGA debate the same week is the opportunity for general statements. He also suggested reducing the proliferation of side events.

On substance, Escalante cautioned against “fracturing” the 2030 Agenda by attempting to cover all 17 SDGs individually. Instead, he said the Summit could highlight megatrends that cut across the 2030 Agenda, such as domestication/localization efforts, and budgeting for the SDGs. Escalante also suggested:

  • Enabling governments to comment on the reforms to the UN development system that have been undertaken since the 2030 Agenda’s adoption;
  • Using the 2019 edition of the Global Sustainable Development Report (GSDR) as an inspiration for discussion;
  • Accounting for the HLPF Ministerial Declarations since 2016, which he said outline what is important for implementing the Agenda;
  • Showcasing examples of “leapfrogging” as illustrated through the Voluntary National Reviews (VNRs) that have been presented to date, as part of infusing the Summit with optimism; and
  • Leaving aside issues that will be addressed by other high-level events of the week, such as climate change, means of implementation/financing for development (FfD), and challenges facing specific groups of countries, such as small island developing States (SIDS).

In statements from the floor, Member States and groupings exchanged views on the format, purpose and key messages of the Summit, inclusiveness and communication, links to other high-level events, and the importance of the GSDR. A few also raised the need to begin planning for the UNGA’s review of the HLPF, which is mandated to take place during the 74th session.

One group’s representative welcomed an effort to reach and include people around the world, and supported making use of linkages with the other high-level events of the week, including on FfD, climate change, the Samoa Pathway for SIDS, and universal health coverage. On format, she expressed openness to a creative, innovative approach, but stressed the intergovernmental character of the Forum and its guidelines for stakeholder participation. Among the challenges that cut across implementation of the entire Agenda, she cited frontier technologies and means of implementation.

Another group’s representative encouraged an interactive, dynamic programme for the Summit, and said it should resonate with and include citizens and non-state actors, since the Agenda’s success depends on them. On substance, this speaker said the GSDR should be the backbone of the discussion and key messages should be that: multilateralism works; the SDGs bring enormous opportunities for everyone; and there is a need to speed up and raise ambition in order to achieve them. Finally, he called for a smart and ambitious communications strategy to provide a clear overarching message for the Summit as well as the other high-level events of the week. He suggested calling the event the “SDG Summit,” instead of HLPF.

On the event’s purpose and key messages, a delegate called for putting the focus on political leaders and their commitments to achieve the SDGs, and the need for leadership to sustain progress. He said a “single powerful narrative” should emerge from the week, with the HLPF as the “centerpiece” of all the high-level events. Another delegate said the Summit should be the “overarching platform at the heart” of the high-level week. Delegates also said the HLPF should be complementary to other events, and that the week’s five high-level events should be seen as a whole.

A representative said leaders should reaffirm their commitments and send a strong political message that “we will continue to move forward, make progress, and accelerate further efforts in a more robust, action-oriented manner.” He called for paying attention to the challenges faced by different groups of countries including SIDS, the least developed countries (LDCs), landlocked developing countries (LLDCs) and middle-income countries (MICs). Another representative recalled that the HLPF is particularly important for SIDS, as it was established to replace the UN Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD), which was the main forum for discussion on SIDS.

A delegate said the Summit should enable countries to present their work on the 2030 Agenda, promote best practices, and advance concrete action towards the Goals and targets. Learnings can then be replicated by other countries. He said the Summit is the first chance to review the Agenda as a whole rather than in the fragmented way it is considered each July.

On the GSDR, delegates: advocated for taking advantage of the report as an inspiration to guide discussions; recalled that it is produced only once in four years and it should have some space at the meeting in September; called for drawing on the GSDR’s findings in identifying cross-cutting issues to structure discussion; and said it will help to identify areas where we are lagging behind.

A delegate said migration and technology could be useful cross-cutting themes for discussion, and that a focus on “leaving no one behind” could integrate migration and challenges faced by LDCs. Speakers also said the Summit should be used to address gaps and challenges at the highest level, in order to give a push to the next four years and to renew commitments to implementation.

On the format, the discussion indicated a divide between, on the one hand, an interest in an innovative format and engaging people beyond the UN’s walls, and on the other hand, a preference for a more traditional approach to enable governments to voice political support for the 2030 Agenda. On the first viewpoint, a representative cautioned against a debate made up of national statements, preferring a panel format. A delegate suggested three cross-cutting topics for reviewing the 2030 Agenda: statistical measurements on SDG achievement; efforts to address the most vulnerable groups and needed measures to leave no one behind; and accelerators to achieve the 2030 Agenda, with a focus on science and technology.

Some delegates expressed strong support for making the Summit interactive, dynamic and inspirational, in order to send a strong call to action, and challenged the group to “dare to be different” and hold a meeting that allows Heads of State and Government to have a real, interactive discussion of how they can advance the 2030 Agenda.

Another representative suggested: reviewing all 17 SDGs, divided into the three dimensions of sustainable development; reflecting on regional and sub-regional trends; and allowing the UN development system to follow up on the ongoing reform, including through presentations from UN country teams on their ideas for the way forward.

One delegate said the Summit should be similar to other UN events and include a general debate, but the debate could be more action-oriented and inspire peer learning. Another stressed the intergovernmental format of the event, and said that, if governments are not given the chance to make statements, “what is the point in meeting together?” With this in mind, he said everyone should be patient and listen to others, as that is the main point of the UN, and “if we have to sit here into the night, then we have to do that.” One delegate stressed that the Summit’s arrangements should “respect” Heads of State and Government, and guarantee that they can indicate their further plans and give impetus to implementation.

On making the Summit an inclusive event, a representative said raising awareness among the general public is important to incentivize action and garner creative commitments and means of implementation. Several delegates highlighted the need for communication to “bring the UN to the world and the world to the UN,” including through live stream, webcast, and other ways to bring more opinions into the Summit’s discussions. A delegate also underlined the need for a good communications strategy to make use of the world’s focus on New York at that time, and added that the private sector must be involved in the Summit, given its importance in implementation and financing. Another country, however, said the effect of multi-stakeholder participation in UNGA events is “really worrisome.”

Escalante noted that while the Forum is an intergovernmental process, resolution 67/290 defines interactions with stakeholders. He said he will ensure that paragraphs 11 and 15 are the basis for stakeholder interaction in both the preparatory process and at the event.

Delegates noted that a UNGA review of the HLPF is mandated in Resolution 70/299, and stressed the need to begin discussing the modalities, expressing concern that preparations for the July 2020 HLPF and other ECOSOC segments will fall behind if discussions do not begin. One suggested discussing the review modalities in parallel to planning for the HLPF Summit.

Also during the event, Japan announced that as the host of the 2019 G20 Summit, it plans to conduct a review of G20 members’ efforts on the SDGs. He said Japan’s Prime Minister would like to report on this review directly to other leaders during the HLPF in September, if this could be included in the HLPF programme.

Concluding the discussion, Escalante said that, while it will not be possible to hold specific panels on every group of countries and people, he will work to find ways to capture all realities. [SDG Knowledge Hub sources] [DESA Webpage on HLPF Summit] [Letter of facilitator, including annex on mandates]

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