10 January 2024
Translating SDGs into Public Policies: A Case for Permanent VNRs
story highlights

The 2030 Agenda’s follow-up and review framework – with Voluntary National Reviews as its cornerstone – could be the key means for each country to make sure that urgent translation of the Global Goals into national policies happens.

With less than half of the 2030 Agenda implementation period left, and with enormous challenges ahead, it would seem reasonable to promote a permanent national follow-up and review process for each country – rather than discrete, sporadic processes culminating in national reports that are tailored for the attention of international actors.

By Gonzalo Alcalde, Professor of Political Science, Pontificia Universidad Católica del Perú – PUCP

Last September, 193 UN Member States reaffirmed their commitment to the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development as a shared roadmap, as well as to accelerate progress towards the SDGs. At the same time, countries gathered at the UN General Assembly’s (UNGA) SDG Summit acknowledged that achieving the Global Goals on time is “in peril” due to major setbacks related to multiple global crises.

Thus, a renewed sense of urgency was reflected in the Summit’s Political Declaration. Perhaps the most distinctive feature of its call to action is how it explicitly focuses on the need to effectively translate the Global Goals into concrete policies in each country: in just 12 pages, the Declaration uses “policy” or “policies” a total of 16 times. The document concludes with countries’ commitment to “advance concrete, integrated and targeted policies and actions to fulfill the vision of the 2030 Agenda and achieve the Sustainable Development Goals.”

In line with this, an independent mid-term review of the 2030 Agenda found that the “added value of the SDGs in most policy areas remains unclear and we see a significant gap between talk and action,” suggesting that “[w]e will not see transformative change unless we encourage governments to review and revise their existing implementation strategies.”

VNRs’ role in linking Global Goals to national policymaking

The 2030 Agenda’s follow-up and review framework – with Voluntary National Reviews (VNRs) as its cornerstone – could be the key means for each country to make sure that this urgent translation of the Global Goals into national policies happens. Although reviews are voluntary, formal VNR presentation has been one of the more successful aspects of the 2030 Agenda, as 188 countries have presented their VNRs at the UN High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development (HLPF) at least once.

However, reporting for an international audience is only one part of the intended national follow-up and review process. While official UN documents suggest to countries that these processes should help to engage stakeholders and share experiences internationally, fostering cooperation, they also suggest that VNRs should inform concrete action that drives SDG implementation at the country level. This second purpose, though more carefully conveyed by UN documents, has been present since the beginning. According to the 2030 Agenda’s foundational document (2015), VNRs should “maintain a longer-term orientation, identify achievements, challenges, gaps and critical success factors and support countries in making informed policy choices.” They should also “help to mobilize the necessary means of implementation and partnerships, support the identification of solutions and best practices and promote the coordination and effectiveness of the international development system.” 

Beyond discrete reporting processes

VNRs are, of course, voluntary and country-led, so it is politically difficult for the UN or other official actors to draw specific guidelines for designing national institutions and processes that produce good reports for the HLPFs and are relevant for national politicians and decision makers.

However, voluntary common reporting guidelines from the Secretary General – while focused on report structure, preparation steps, and presentation formats – highlight the need to link reviews to discussions on institutional frameworks, means of implementation and policy instruments, and next steps in order to orientate implementation. The UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs’ (DESA) latest edition of the Handbook for the Preparation of VNRs also combines specific advice on reporting and presentation formats with recommendations on broader aspects such as incorporating the SDGs into national frameworks.

In this sense, it is significant that the 2023 Political Declaration recognizes that VNRs have “generated valuable lessons learned and have helped countries monitor progress and integrate the Sustainable Development Goals into national plans and policies.” In other words, countries now recognize that VNRs as processes can and should be linked substantially to policymaking and planning.

Continuous review, occasional reporting to HLPF

Most would agree that sustainable development policymaking (including monitoring and evaluation) is a continuous process. So, why shouldn’t national follow-up and review processes on the SDGs also be continuous? With less than half of the 2030 Agenda implementation period left, and with enormous challenges ahead, it would seem reasonable to promote a permanent national follow-up and review process for each country – rather than discrete, sporadic processes culminating in national reports that are tailored for the attention of international actors.

Decisions on institutional features are, of course, up to each Member State. But, for the purpose of promoting political and policy relevance of the SDGs at country level, the UN could formally encourage its Member States to maintain permanent, participatory follow-up and review processes, instead of embarking on one or two more reviews before 2030. Countries could notify the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) when they wish to present national reports that provide updates on these permanent processes. At the same time, it is important for UN official documents to make clearer distinctions between ‘reviews’ and ‘reports.’ For example, the 2024 DESA Handbook seems to use them interchangeably when it refers to “submitting VNRs.” Follow-up and review can and does occur even when no official report is submitted to the HLPF, as evidenced by annual reports for domestic use. For example, Peru prepared a national sustainable development report in 2018, in line with the previous year’s report to the HLPF.

Reporting on permanent VNRs

How could new VNR reports better reflect progress in translating the SDGs to policies? In addition to valuable criteria already developed by official and independent actors that analyze VNRs (for example, those used by CEPEI in Latin America), there could be four new areas to be considered in VNRs:

  • Informing on evolving capacities of national 2030 Agenda institutions for permanent monitoring and assessment of SDG achievement through relevant policies;
  • Showing how reports and results of national consultations are formally communicated to high-level public authorities and officials, and any ensuing, relevant policy dialogue;
  • Explaining how reports to the HLPF are connected to regular SDG reporting for domestic use, aimed at decision makers beyond government and at general public; and
  • Including available information on SDG orientation of public budgeting and its relation to stated policy priorities.

Addressing these four areas would illustrate the extent to which reviews are not just one-off report preparation activities, but substantially linked to development policymaking. Official actors would need to be careful in stating these as quality criteria, but other stakeholders could be more forceful.


related events


related posts