Network Reviews Challenges for National SDG Planning During Pandemic
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The Partners for Review network convened a series of "virtual networking days" for government representatives and stakeholders involved in reviewing countries’ efforts to achieve the SDGs.

Interactive panel discussions addressed the effects of COVID-19 on the follow-up and review process for the 2030 Agenda, and lessons from the first four years of SDG implementation with regard to engaging stakeholders, localizing the SDGs, accountability, and data visualization.

Partners for Review (P4R) held a four-day virtual meeting of government representatives and stakeholders who are involved in reviewing countries’ efforts to achieve the SDGs. Interactive panel discussions addressed the effects of COVID-19 on the follow-up and review process for the 2030 Agenda, and lessons from the first four years of SDG implementation with regard to engaging stakeholders, localizing the SDGs, accountability, and data visualization. 

The virtual networking days took place from 5-8 May 2020, instead of the in-person meeting that had been planned in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. The event was convened by the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) on behalf of BMU and BMZ.

Reflecting on how COVID-19 has affected the achievement of the SDGs and the review process for the 2030 Agenda, one speaker said that it is still possible to conduct intergovernmental decision-making in the current environment, despite the difficulties of doing so virtually, and the UN High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development (HLPF) ministerial declaration is being negotiated despite the inability to convene in-person events.  

The UN Secretariat told participants the July 2020 session of the HLPF is likely to convene virtually or in a hybrid format including both virtual and small in-person meetings. Of the 51 countries that had planned to present Voluntary National Reviews (VNRs) during the 2020 session, the Secretariat said all but a few have confirmed their intention to finish preparations and present their report. It is hoped that the VNRs can be presented in a video format that allows for interactive discussion.

Participants shared how COVID-19 has affected the preparation of their countries’ VNRs, such as by creating obstacles to meaningful consultations with non-state stakeholders and national statistical offices. One country representative said their government has been holding electronic consultations with thematic working groups for the VNR.

One speaker said COVID-19 has revealed things that we took for granted and exposed systems that were weak, such as data collection in parts of Africa. He said “we cannot collect household level data if we cannot visit homes and markets are closed. We need to think differently and work with new partners.” He said the Data for Now initiative of the UN Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) and the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data (GPSDD) is working to find solutions to such data challenges.

Participants said the pandemic has clarified the linkages among the SDGs, as the health crisis triggered a domino effect on rights and inequality. It has also shown the interconnections and interdependence between us, underscoring the “psychology behind the SDGs.” 

Speakers expressed concern that the pandemic “throws us years back” from achieving the SDGs. However, one said, this is a long-term agenda, an entire decade of action: “today and tomorrow are challenging, but we are doing something for the next ten years and beyond.” In addition, while progress is likely to slow down for the next few years, it may be even more important that good habits of policymaking take root. These habits include mutual support among governments and peer review, which are built into the SDGs through the HLPF and the VNRs. One speaker observed that amid the challenges to multilateralism, the SDGs are the only global agenda that remains uncontested.

Participants emphasized that keeping the Goals at the forefront of governments’ strategies can increase resilience to future shocks. One participant said the climate crisis, for example, “will be a far bigger shock than this pandemic,” and others described the 2030 Agenda as the best way to insure against global risk.

In a session on accountability for the SDGs without a “hard” accountability mechanism, a participant said COVID-19 is being used as grounds for some governments to enact emergency measures and extend their control. The discussion stressed that it is all the more important that citizens hold them accountable, and that the SDGs be the basis for local recovery.

Another session highlighted benefits of localizing the SDGs and engaging local governments in the national VNR process. Some said the collection of information to assess local SDG implementation is a valuable process in itself. While the information may all be publicly available, organizing it for the VLR “makes it useful.” Participants heard that only 33% of the 142 countries that have done VNRs have a mechanism to coordinate the involvement of local governments, and only 42% engaged local governments when preparing the VNR. A few countries have created a formal place for local governments in their VNRs, such as Spain, which devoted a full chapter to local government. Other countries, such as Benin, Iceland, Serbia, Turkey, and Uruguay, have integrated the role of local governments broadly throughout their reports.

Participants said a big question for many localities is how to develop local indicators, especially amid resource challenges. In Europe, the European Commission has supported the development of local indicators, but elsewhere it is very difficult to collect data and collection is limited, in particular on SDG 11 (sustainable cities and communities).

Another session highlighted trends in multi-stakeholder engagement in SDG reporting, such as increasing youth engagement and the formalization of stakeholder engagement mechanisms. For example, 60% of VNR countries reported a formal mechanism in 2019, compared with 39% in 2018. However, one presenter reported that in the 2019 VNRs, countries reported a greater focus on involving stakeholders at a technical working group level than high level, which signals that stakeholders may not be able to influence higher level policy. Participants heard that the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA) and the Oslo Governance Centre are working on a framework for stakeholder engagement processes.

In Kenya, a multi-stakeholder engagement framework was finalized in March 2020. The speaker credited the VNR process with driving the institutionalization of stakeholder engagement. The government consulted additional stakeholders for its second VNR, it will include stakeholder reports as an appendix to the VNR report, and it will prepare biannual SDG status reports in the years when it does not do a VNR.

One speaker illuminated how governments can benefit from civil society (“spotlight”) reports on national SDG progress, saying they are based on active consultation processes and contain concrete recommendations for strengthening SDG implementation. Therefore, these reports can provide an efficient way for countries to include civil society’s recommendations in their VNRs and complement official statistics with qualitative data. He said the government’s VNR should include an action plan to address the civil society recommendations.

Finally, a session on data visualization and availability highlighted that data literacy is top-of-mind right now, as COVID-19 has led average citizens to constantly monitor data. To show how SDG visualization tools are being adapted for different countries’ contexts, the national statistical offices of Germany and the UK provided case studies on their open-source tools. Speakers said the technical process of setting up such a platform is straightforward – especially thanks to open source tools like ‘Open SDG’ – but a greater challenge is ensuring that it meets the needs of different user groups and that the data within the platform are sound and comprehensive. As one speaker said, “setting up a platform is easy; getting up the data (having quality data) is more difficult.”

Finally, when displaying data, it is essential to be make sure users can quickly understand the main takeaways and not “get lost” in the data. People need to see numbers in relation to the end target to make sense of what they are seeing, and data on progress made should be complemented with stories and narratives to help users understand the information provided. It was noted that “one set of data can tell many different stories.” [P4R Virtual Networking Days webpage] [SDG Knowledge Hub sources]

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