Assessing the HLPF Four Years On: Enhancing Integration, Linking Processes, and Strengthening Political Leadership
Photo by IISD/ENB | Kiara Worth
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The HLPF has struggled to encourage countries to “integrate the three dimensions” of sustainable development, even though interlinkages among the 17 SDGs and their targets have been identified.

A clear illustration of different tools, approaches, and conceptual frameworks for better understanding interlinkages between the SDGs would make integration more concrete and actionable.

One way to enhance political leadership and guidance for sustainable development is to bring more local and regional governments into the VNR process.

The UN’s review of six SDGs in July 2019 generated a familiar conclusion: we are not making sufficient progress to achieve them by 2030. Nevertheless, this year’s session of the High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development (HLPF) was unique in that it also reflected on past HLPFs, and whether the Forum has served the function of promoting and supporting the implementation, follow-up and review of the 2030 Agenda.

A survey was also conducted to collect stakeholders’ views on the HLPF. Three of the more salient concerns drawn from the survey were as follows:

  • The HLPF’s goal-by-goal review helped build stakeholder support for different issues, but it also encouraged a siloed rather than an integrated approach to the economic, environmental and social dimensions of sustainable development;
  • The HLPF is not linked effectively with other processes related to sustainable development (e.g. those on climate change, financing for development, and biodiversity); and
  • The HLPF was supposed to be a platform to provide political leadership and guidance for sustainable development, but both political leadership and guidance have been lacking.

On the eve of the September HLPF, which is taking place at the “summit level” as part of the opening of the 74th session of the UN General Assembly, it is critical to deepen our thoughts on how these three areas of need can be addressed. Leaders’ statements at the Summit may set the tone for the HLPF review process that will take place later in the 74th session. This commentary suggests some ways forward.

Moving from siloed to integrated approaches to sustainable development

As the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA) survey indicates, the HLPF has struggled to encourage countries to “integrate the three dimensions” of sustainable development, even though interlinkages among the 17 SDGs and their targets have been identified. Similar to previous HLPF sessions, a number of speakers at the 2019 Forum called for integrated approaches to implement the SDGs, yet spoke little of how to actually achieve this. A clear illustration of different tools, approaches, and conceptual frameworks for better understanding interlinkages between the SDGs would help to make this recommendation more concrete and actionable.

To some extent, these illustrations can be made more tangible by reflecting content from HLPF side events in formal proceedings and the Voluntary National Reviews (VNRs). For example, a meeting organized by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in collaboration with the Government of Finland on policy coherence for sustainable development offered useful insights into tools that facilitate integration. Bringing recommendations on policy coherence for sustainable development from the OECD-led event could add much-needed substance to calls for integration. Similarly, the Science, Technology, and Innovation (STI) Forum can also showcase tools that facilitate integration. This year the STI Forum emphasized how cutting-edge science and technology and traditional knowledge can support integrated approaches. This could be a continued point of emphasis with even greater attention given to how breakthroughs in STI can lead to more integrated VNRs.

In addition to the above efforts, there may be potential to understand interlinkages and break down silos more systematically, while retaining what many feel are useful reviews of each Goal. One way forward would be pairing two clearly contradicting or synergetic SDGs (such as Goal 9 and Goal 13, or Goal 2 and Goal 15) in goal-specific conferences. Such meetings might help policymakers better understand how to address both positive and negative linkages between Goals, and offer more practical examples of how to move interlinkages forward. Not surprisingly, a greater emphasis on integration would also benefit from stronger connections to other sustainable development platforms and related processes.

Strengthening existing links between the HLPF and regional sustainable development platforms, and connecting HLPF with other related processes

Another critique of the HLPF is its weak linkages to the sub-regional and regional sustainable development platforms. The HLPF is expected to benefit from the inputs provided by regional sustainable development platforms and other UN processes, such as the UN Environment Assembly (UNEA). However, these connections may not be strong enough. The current practice of dedicating a session at the HLPF for reporting by regional fora may also be inadequate. This is problematic because various stakeholders’ voices and inputs gathered at these fora, including preparatory ones, are not adequately shared with the world. However, over nearly two weeks the HLPF already has a packed schedule of events, with multiple parallel sessions. With this crowded schedule there is little room for increased connection-building at the HLPF itself. As such, strengthening existing connections may require looking at the HLPF not as an annual event, but as an ongoing process in which stakeholders, both at the global and regional levels, continue their dialogues to learn from each other and adapt better practices.

Another way to overcome weak linkages may be sharing some responsibilities of the HLPF with other fora, such as those that at the regional level. This would allow for issues that are discussed at the HLPF to be moved to the regional level, such as some presentations and discussions of VNR, if so desired by Member States. In other instances, there may be opportunities for the regional and sub-regional meetings on sustainable development to mirror the HLPF structure. For example, extending the VNR labs to the regional level would allow for more focused “how to” discussions about the tools and frameworks that facilitate shared areas of concern, such as integration. The UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP) has already implemented a similar idea in the form of a ‘VNR Learning Café.’ Building stronger links between these learning sessions would also enable the more dedicated stakeholders to deepen, apply, and then share their knowledge over time.

The following points suggest the need for integration not between sustainable development, but related international environmental and development processes. A clear example of where this is feasible, and that has been pointed out by human rights experts, is that the HLPF can learn from the peer review mechanism – the Universal Period Review (UPR) mechanism – of the Human Rights Council. Science-based goal setting for climate change (for example, drawing upon work in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Report Global Warming of 1.5°C, or domestic efforts to measure, report and verify (MRV) emissions) may also be beneficial for the community working on SDGs, and vice versa.

Strengthening political leadership and guidance for sustainable development

As suggested at the beginning of this commentary, there is a need to enhance the political leadership and guidance provided by the HLPF. As is explained below, this can be achieved by strengthening the VNR processes themselves. Yet this is also an area of concern because one of the paradoxes that became evident at the recent HLPF is that while VNRs suggest that countries have invested considerable energy and effort to achieve the SDGs, global and regional assessments of progress tell a different story.

One way to enhance political leadership and guidance for sustainable development is to bring more local and regional governments into the VNR process. Their involvement is important because the most visible impacts of the SDGs are seen at the local level; demonstrating these effects will create stronger political motivation for leadership at different levels to propose and deliver ambitious SDG outcomes. Unfortunately, according to a survey conducted by the Global Taskforce of Local and Regional Governments (LRGs), only 42% of all VNRs have engaged LRGs (Global Taskforce, 2019); furthermore, there are some doubts about the extent to which those “involved” are actually involved.

There have nonetheless been some forward steps with the LRGs in Japan, Mexico, the UK, Brazil, and the US, as some LRGs in these countries have conducted voluntary local reviews (VLRs). In addition, a voluntary small and medium-sized enterprises (SME) review, presented by the solar system installer Taiyo Jyuken (and supported by researchers at our home institute), suggests that the SDGs can offer a useful vehicle for small and medium enterprises (SMEs) as they encourage LRGs to set a proper policy and long-term vision at the local level, direct local investments (like those from SMEs) into areas related to the SDGs, and, once again, show the kind of impacts that can attract political support.

Another potential channel through which this political leadership and guidance at the HLPF could be enhanced involves the MGOS reviews of the VNRs. The HLPF has provided a useful multi-stakeholder platform in which stakeholders play an important role in highlighting issues that are given insufficient attention or require further progress in the VNRs. Due to time limitations, however, the HLPF’s discussions do not allow for countries to cover all of the areas related to major groups and other stakeholders’ (MGOS) expertise and knowledge, nor does it offer sufficient time to hold countries accountable for all of the points covered in the VNRs. While it may not be feasible to extend the times for VNR presentations, it would be useful to strengthen channels where MGOS can offer a more comprehensive review and feedback on the VNRs. To some extent, the involvement of the regional civil society engagement mechanism (RCEM), in a more complete review of the countries’ VNRs at the regional level, could help in this regard. Pioneered by the Asia-Pacific RCEM, a similar RCEM was established in the UN Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) region, while there is also an ongoing discussion to do so in UN Economic Commission for Africa (ECA) region.

A related reform would involve enhancing accountability through peer review of the VNRs. Most countries impact other countries in a range of policy areas, such as marine litter, air pollution, and imports and exports, among others. Moreover, what might be considered desirable in one country may be viewed differently in another. This is evident in the example of VNRs from Egypt and Ethiopia, as these two countries provided contrasting views on the same dam project. While Egypt addressed the adverse impacts of Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) in its VNR (Egypt, 2018, pp. 35-36), Ethiopia highlighted it as an “outstanding example” of infrastructure investment (Ethiopia, 2018, p. 28). A mechanism that enables peer-review would allow for different perspectives in VNRs to be expressed openly. This could also have the effect of encouraging countries to examine the broader impacts of their projects and policies.

Lastly, it would help increase accountability for the content of the VNRs. This aspect of cross-border impacts can be further integrated into the VNR process by, as a more ambitious option, engaging stakeholders that are not based in a particular VNR country to provide feedback on what international impacts the particular country is making.

The authors of this guest article are Nobue Amanuma, Hirotaka Koike, Eric Zusman, Matthew Hengesbaugh, Junichi Fujjino, and David D. Sussman, IGES

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