How Can Voluntary Local Reviews Contribute to the SDG Decade of Action? An Assessment of VLRs to Date
Yokohama, Japan / Viviane Okubo on Unsplash
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The Voluntary Local Review (VLR) process is providing a useful tool for subnational levels of government to take on the SDGs.

The Institute for Global Environmental Strategies has published two reports to support the growing number of local and regional governments conducting VLRs.

There are only ten years left to deliver the 2030 Agenda. However, as speakers and reports prepared for the 2019 SDGs Summit clearly demonstrated, we are not progressing fast enough. To increase momentum, UN Secretary-General António Guterres inaugurated the ‘Decade of Action’ in January 2020. The Decade is built on three levels of action—global action, local action, and people action—to accelerate progress on the SDGs.

Voluntary Local Reviews (VLRs) could be an important vehicle to accelerate ‘local action’. Four VLRs were launched during the July 2018 meeting of the High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development (HLPF) – by Kitakyushu, Shimokawa, and Toyama in Japan, and New York City in the US. These VLRs have ignited enthusiasm among other cities.

Building on these efforts to localize the SDGs and to further our contribution to the “Decade of Action,” the Institute for Global Environmental Strategies (IGES) has released two complementary publications to highlight and support the work of Local and Regional Governments (LRGs) in implementing the 2030 Agenda:

  • The “State of Voluntary Local Reviews 2020: Local Action for Global Impact in Achieving the SDGs” is a review of the publicly available VLRs as of February 2020.
  • “The Shimokawa Method for Voluntary Local Review: A Blueprint for Localising the SDGs” is a method on how to conduct a VLR based on Shimokawa’s experience.

We understand the VLR as a process in which LRGs voluntarily review and follow-up implementation of the SDGs. This process becomes a vehicle for sharing experiences, challenges and lessons learnt, as well as to open avenues for new partnerships to address any current shortcomings LRGs might confront. It can also enable LRGs to engage communities in the process, thereby strengthening the accountability and inclusiveness of their policymaking.

The ‘State of VLRs 2020’ report analyzes the 16 VLRs that had been identified as of February 2020. Of these “first generation” VLRs, four were launched in 2018, ten in 2019, and two in 2020 (all are available at the VLR Lab, here). After summarizing the main characteristics of the 16 VLRs, this report focuses on two crucial aspects of conducting a local review: the level to which the VLR process engages with stakeholders, and the alignment of the VLR with the Voluntary National Review (VNR) process. The report reviews the impressive number of commitments and actions that are already underway at the local level, details which are often missing in VNRs.

The comparative analysis of VLRs revealed that conducting a VLR can unlock meaningful opportunities for cities and regions. In particular, a VLR: 1) allows the local government to listen to the needs of its people and reflect them into local policymaking; 2) invites self-reflection; 3) provides for a process that is data-driven and can be used to plan for action to achieve the future we want; and 4) gives a local take on the global conversation on sustainable development. Altogether, these opportunities can lead to transformation. The report also found that the majority of the first generation of VLRs have focused chiefly on aligning the SDGs with local policies, but have not explicitly included a stakeholder engagement process, with notable exceptions being Shimokawa, Manheim, and New Taipei.  

In the conclusion of the report, we emphasized the need to envision the next generation of VLRs. The next generation should maximize the meaningful opportunities provided by the VLR process, as identified in the ‘State of VLRs 2020’ report, to capture all its benefits. We suggest that these opportunities will only be fully crystalized once the current approach is changed.

A key recommendation for maximizing these benefits is to strengthen stakeholder engagement in the VLR process, and to enable this engagement to be thorough and self-organised. In the case of Shimokawa, a community-led platform with staff from all bureaus of the town hall developed the new 2030 vision, fully embracing the SDGs. This vision then guided Shimokawa’s comprehensive plan (the highest level of planning), and contributed to fostering ownership of the town vision and plan. In addition, Shimokawa specifically tried to engage communities during the action-plan setting phase and helped establish an implementation platform that could mobilize different stakeholders for different community-led initiatives.

This planning process was built on “backcasting,” an approach that identifies a desirable outcome and then walks backwards to find measures to reach the final destination. The case of Shimokawa demonstrates that this approach enables a more robust, transformative policy process than through the use of forecasting, while also allowing for continuously revisiting the vision initially set if the circumstances change.

The report on the Shimokawa Method for VLRs builds on the mechanism used in the Shimokawa case, translating it into ten practical and straightforward steps, This report also incorporates findings from the ‘State of VLRs 2020’ report and contains a guide for “VLR format” to which cities can refer as they construct their own VLRs.

The Next Generation of VLRs

The ‘State of VLRs 2020’ report presents an assessment of the currently available VLRs, while the Shimokawa Method report provides a handbook for implementing VLRs. These two documents seek to pave the way for improving the VLR process. While many internal areas of improvements related to VLRs can be addressed by using the Shimokawa method, more must be done. In particular, when looking to increase the global and national impact of VLRs, cities must strive to integrate their VLRs with their national VNR processes, so that a country can address territorial challenges and scale up successful local solutions.

The principles that underlie the 2030 Agenda resonate strongly with the ongoing global crisis. The current COVID-19 pandemic is reminding humanity that society as a whole is as vulnerable as its most vulnerable people. It also brings into sharp focus the ramifications of inequality at many levels. These challenges cannot be suddenly alleviated during the crisis. As the UN Secretary-General has said, “The recovery from the COVID-19 crisis must lead to a different economy.” Recovery must go beyond “returning” and aim to “Build Back Better”, anchored in leaving no one and no place behind. VLRs can be instrumental to this end, building resilience and transforming our cities.

This article was authored by Hirotaka Koike, Fernando Ortiz-Moya, Junichi Fujino, and Yatsuka Kataoka, IGES. 

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