By John Gilroy, Abdulrahman Al-Thani, and Nudhara Yusuf

On 14 September, SDG Lab, CEPEI, and the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD) hosted a pre-SDG Summit dialogue where the three of us spoke about what to expect from the upcoming SDG Summit. Now that the Summit has come and gone, we thought we’d better do our own “voluntary review” and bookend our pre-SDG Summit discussion with a post-SDG Summit review. What happened in the areas we flagged to keep an eye on? Was the summit a “success,” and, importantly, what happens next?

A quick recap of the pre-Summit dialogue

When moderator Trine Schmidt, Strategic Advisor, SDG Lab, asked us what our expectations were, the analogy that stuck was ‘halftime in the game.’ While we hadn’t scored many goals yet, the SDG Summit was a moment to “go back to the locker room” and re-strategize because games are won or lost in the second half. Abdulrahman emphasized the importance of using this moment to generate political will and high-level engagement with the agenda, especially implementation through national action plans. John highlighted the window of opportunity in moving the needle on SDG financing, as well as accelerating the right kind of change by advancing our monitoring and tracking capacities. Nudhara presented a general framework to think about the approach to the SDG Summit:

  • Bucket 1: which reforms and initiatives have we already agreed on that we should propel forward and implement?
  • Bucket 2: which agendas have consensus in principle but we need to agree on actions?
  • Bucket 3: which ideas do we need to start building consensus on?

Here is our hindsight review on these three “buckets.”

What was propelled forward for implementation?

The negotiated outcome document of the SDG Summit, the SDG Political Declaration, adopted at the UN General Assembly (UNGA) on 29 September 2023, makes significant headway on both SDG financing and data for monitoring and tracking.

The cluster of roman numeral commitments (i-xiv) under paragraph 38t address directly the means of implementation for the SDGs. While there has been some criticism of the Declaration as being too focused on financing with insufficient actions on the social dimension of sustainable development in particular, if the needed acceleration is to be delivered, it is absolutely essential that the necessary fiscal and, by extension, policy space is created to allow the most vulnerable countries deliver on their SDG commitments. Negotiations on this suite of paragraphs were difficult, involving finance and treasury departments as well as foreign ministries, and the mandates of other multilateral institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) needed to be considered. Still, the commitments on financing are strong and far-reaching. Heads of State and Government commit to advancing the UN Secretary General’s SDG Stimulus proposal, which could potentially unlock USD 500 billion in additional financing and investment annually.

Paragraph 38r pledges to strengthen local, national, and international data systems and the following paragraph, building on the 2023 Global Sustainable Development Report (GSDR), includes an action to make implementing the 2030 Agenda and achieving the SDGs a central focus in national planning and oversight mechanisms. The role of the UN is also built out, committing to use the forthcoming review of the High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development (HLPF), which should commence in early 2024, to improve how data are harnessed for tracking SDG progress, as well as strengthening analysis of SDG interlinkages, synergies, and trade-offs.

What have we agreed to devise actions on?

Key ideas that stand out as advances beyond consensus building and toward an agreed call to action include paragraph 18 of the Political Declaration highlighting universal health care (UHC), paragraph 22 on the importance of the role of parliaments, 38s emphasizing integrating the SDGs into national action plans for follow-up, and the general recognition of the importance of empowering women and youth.

Some areas for further progress also stood out. While political will seemed to come through in the declaration, the Head of State from only one of the five permanent members of the Security Council came to the UNGA High-level Week.

Paragraph 23 commits to actively working with youth, women, and civil society to achieve the SDGs and their localization, but the UN Youth Office did not come up at the High-level Week, and gender mainstreaming of the SDGs continues to be an area for further progress to be made. Still, the technical expertise of young people was showcased at the SDG Torchbearer sessions in SDG Action Weekend, and we look forward to the intergenerational partnerships that will help flesh out the accountability frameworks needed for forward progress on the SDGs.

Which new ideas have gained consensus or been better mainstreamed?

Paragraph 17 commits to “stepping up our efforts to fight against racism, all forms of discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance, stigmatization, hate speech, through cooperation, partnership and inclusion and respect for diversity.” This is an important statement in recognizing the intersectional impacts of the SDGs and the call for not just passive prevention, but actively fighting against all forms of discrimination. A clear commitment endorsed by Heads of State and Government to respect diversity is a significant achievement. Additionally, we saw both in the Political Declaration and in the SDG Summit Leadership Dialogues, a clear recognition of the connection between sustainable development, the right to development, and future generations, a discourse to be actioned on through the soon-to-be-negotiated Declaration on Future Generations ahead of the 2024 Summit of the Future.

Finally, reforming multilateral development banks (MDBs) to support progress on the SDGs entered the mainstages with force at the SDG Summit. The Declaration calls for improved international debt mechanisms, a critical step given that over 50 countries globally are currently facing a severe debt crisis, limiting their ability to invest in the SDGs. While largely under the remit of the IMF, the importance of rechanneling Special Drawing Rights (SDRs) is stressed, alongside a commitment to explore how future SDR allocations could be designed to benefit those countries most in need. And significantly, Member States commit in the Declaration to intergovernmental discussions on the reform of international financial institutions (IFIs) and to supporting MDB reform efforts.

What comes next?

The SDG Summit has been described as a bus stop on a long journey, and there are a number of key milestones ahead of us. These include the HLPF review early next year and the Forum itself in July, the two significant SIDS and LLDC conferences in 2024, and, looking ahead, the convening in 2025 of the World Social Summit and the fourth International Conference on Financing for Development (FfD). This latter meeting could be a critical terminus for much of what is ongoing on reform of the international financial architecture.

The Summit of the Future in September 2024 was designed to develop the tools to turbocharge the SDGs, while also addressing gaps not addressed in 2015, such as artificial intelligence (AI) and digital technologies. It provides a platform to edit, adjust, and renew our multilateral governance systems and advance much of what has been agreed on in the SDG Summit’s Political Declaration. Capitalizing on the 11 months ahead will be crucial to ensure the ambition and success of this summit is elevated as a follow on from the SDG Summit.

At the UN, we often define “outcomes” in the form of an agreement toward action – a declaration, pact, or resolution – this is but step one. We have designed the game plan, now we need to play the game and start shooting for the goals – the whistle has been blown to start the second half.

* * *

John Gilroy is Climate and Sustainable Development Lead at the Permanent Mission of Ireland to the UN, New York.

Abdulrahman Al-Thani is Second Secretary, Permanent Mission of Qatar to the UN, New York.

Nudhara Yusuf is Executive Coordinator, Global Governance Innovation Network, and Global Youth Coordinator Coalition for the UN We Need.