20 January 2021
Networked Multilateralism: ECOSOC and HLPF Reviews as Window of Opportunity
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The HLPF and ECOSOC have the potential to foster a networked and inclusive multilateralism – a need frequently highlighted by the UN Secretary-General - if processes are better linked.

Negotiations on the reviews of ECOSOC and the HLPF will resume in January 2021, and will offer a window of opportunity for such changes.

In the short-term, the UN should use existing synergies and supportive coalitions while preparing for more ambitious reforms when the political momentum is right.

By Marianne Beisheim and Felicitas Fritzsche

“Networked and inclusive multilateralism” is a term that UN Secretary-General António Guterres has used many times– recently again at the ceremony for the 75th anniversary of the UN. This kind of multilateralism is not just necessary in view of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to Guterres. It could also contribute to making multilateral action more effective and resilient, in particular for the Decade of Action proclaimed by UN Member States for the 2030 Agenda and Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

If governments want to follow-up on their own calls, they will have to get the UN in shape for networked multilateralism.

The UN needs to be put in a position where it can accomplish a networked multilateralism in the best possible way. From January 2021 onwards, the resumed reviews of the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) and the UN High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development (HLPF) will provide an opportunity in this regard.

Networked Multilateralism and the 2030 Agenda

Networked multilateralism with the UN at the center should be characterized by two qualities:

  • Firstly, complex problems should be worked on in a more integrated manner, accounting for all relevant links across sectors. This also allows for using synergies and resolving conflicts of aims in the best possible way. The Global Sustainable Development Report 2019 impressively shows how important this is if global commons are to be protected effectively and efficiently.
  • Secondly, all relevant players across all sectors should be mobilized more inclusively for this purpose. Results-oriented collaboration must improve both within the UN as well as with external supporters.

The 2030 Agenda itself is an important reference point for networked multilateralism. In the Agenda, governments affirmed their will to make multilateral action more inclusive (leave no one behind) and more integrative (integrated solutions).

Network Nodes in the UN System: HLPF & ECOSOC

The HLPF is an innovative nucleus for the follow-up and review of the 2030 Agenda and SDGs at the global level, which makes it a potential hub for networked multilateralism. Institutionally its set-up is unique, as the HLPF meets annually under the auspices of ECOSOC and also (every four years) under the auspices of the UN General Assembly. Politically, it has become a highlight on the UN calendar. Rarely does the UN buzz so much as during the annual eight-day HLPF in July, attracting delegations from Member States and numerous representatives from civil society, business, science, and local governments. Representatives from the entire UN system attend too – most notably, from the custodian agencies that are responsible for the SDGs’ targets and indicators.

At the official meetings, national delegations report on their implementation of the SDGs through a mechanism known as Voluntary National Reviews (VNRs). Thematic panel discussions are explicitly conceived to address all relevant interlinkages between the SDGs in an integrated manner. The many informal events held parallel to the Forum are used to forge coalitions of the willing or showcase results.

All of this provides ideal starting points for a networked multilateralism – nowhere else is the UN system mandated to work in such an integrated and inclusive way. However, this does not mean the HLPF is yet in a position to fully live up to its potential, as our previous reform proposals underline.

ECOSOC is another important node for networked multilateralism due to its coordinating functions. Or rather: it could be if it were not so fragmented and weak in its working methods. Since the adoption of the 2030 Agenda, ECOSOC’s work streams have been updated, especially those related to the UN development system (UNDS). The ECOSOC System provides important support and tools for the implementation of the SDGs.

ECOSOC is also responsible for cooperation with non-governmental organizations (NGOs). It is home to the Committee on NGOs where the UN Member States decide on the observer status of NGOs at the UN. The HLPF and the 2030 Agenda count on the broad involvement of stakeholders to implement the SDGs. The Committee on NGOs should not stand in the way of this.

Furthermore, ECOSOC hosts various mechanisms for multi-stakeholder partnerships. Their potential should be supported and tracked more purposefully. The Partnership Accelerator and an online platform represent first steps in this direction. In order to develop useful connections to multilateral processes, the UN infrastructure must improve considerably under the guidance of multilaterally agreed principles and rules. Neither the UN Office for Partnerships nor the annual ECOSOC Partnership Forum can achieve this in the current set-up. As the HLPF is also mandated to provide a platform for partnerships, it would be useful to link the ECOSOC-related activities in partnerships more closely to the Forum.

Getting the UN in Shape for Networked Multilateralism

Recently, in their political declaration for the 75th anniversary of the UN, heads of state and government confirmed that today’s “challenges are interconnected and can only be addressed through reinvigorated multilateralism,” that they want to boost inclusive partnerships, and that the 2030 Agenda is their “roadmap” for this. If they seriously want to follow-up on their own call, they will have to get the UN in shape for networked multilateralism. A development to watch is the upcoming release of recommendations from the UN Secretary-General on advancing this common agenda, as mandated in the political declaration.

In the short-term, the starting points that ECOSOC and the HLPF offer for networked multilateralism should be promoted to the fullest possible extent. The ECOSOC and HLPF reviews are again on the agenda for the General Assembly’s 75th session, and will be negotiated in conjunction with each other. This provides an opportunity to combine the advantages of both entities: the HLPF, which has universal participation and attracts a large number of highly motivated participants, and ECOSOC, which meets all year round and comprises representatives from 54 Member States, with its far-reaching mandate and apparatus as a principal organ of the UN.

Governments should put forward reform proposals to further improve the interaction of ECOSOC and HLPF processes. So far, ECOSOC’s Integration Segment and High-Level Segment have been connected with the HLPF. But the Integration Segment, which brings together results from the different ECOSOC processes, takes place on the day before the HLPF. Therefore, there is no way to foster an effective feedback process. A similar drawback applies to the Ministerial Declaration, the document concluding the HLPF, because it is negotiated in advance. It would be better if the discussions that take place during the Forum could be reflected in its outcome document.

In the medium term, UN Member States need to develop a vision for more radical reforms of ECOSOC. The Council’s work will likely gain importance not only as the 2030 Agenda progresses but also in the context of the UN’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, as it pursues its strategy to “Recover Better.” Bold restructuring of ECOSOC in the direction of a UN Sustainable Development Council, combined with a more efficient interaction with a revitalized UNGA, may not be possible at present. Precisely because of this, it may make sense to use existing synergies and supportive coalitions in the best possible way and get the UN in shape for networked multilateralism. This is also an ideal preparation for further reforms if the right political momentum arises.

The authors of this article are Dr. Marianne Beisheim, Senior Associate, and M.A. Felicitas Fritzsche, Research Assistant, German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP – Global Issues Division).

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