22 March 2023
UN Regional Forums Must Become a Launchpad for Localizing SDG Actions
Photo Credit: Febiyan / Unsplash
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UN Regional Forums on Sustainable Development in 2023 have been sending a clear message: time is short; progress is less than expected; and SDG implementation needs to speed up.

The UN Regional Forums should bridge local-to-global action and focus on practical experience and peer learning.

We propose three issues on which the Regional Forums can and should focus when deciding on ways to push SDG implementation forward: support review of synergies and trade-offs at a local scale; offer more spaces for scientific actors; and support further access to finance.

By Ivonne Lobos Alva, SEI

Regional and local actors are taking a leading role in implementing the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development in their jurisdictions. However, they continue to face significant difficulties when it comes to accessing information, evidence to support decision making, and funding.

The UN Regional Forums on Sustainable Development (RFSDs), and other regional fora, could provide a vital bridge between global frameworks and local development agendas. Review of progress and sharing experiences at the regional level should feed into national and global processes. These Forums are an opportunity for peer learning and setting the way forward based on common challenges, best practices, and identification of regional and sub-regional trends.

Regional-level cooperation should provide a space for deepening regional integration efforts and for elaborating effective public policies among countries of similar circumstances and beyond. However, the Regional Forums are supporting a narrative of urgency for the SDGs without sufficient recognition of the need to look at evidence and data for decision making. This becomes evident when reviewing the programming for the Forums, which tend to focus on broader peer learning and high-level policy discussions, with few or no sessions dedicated to the latest evidence or scientific reviews of SDG impact.

Messages speak of “so little time left” and the need for an “unprecedented level of collective action” (the UN Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC)), “[a]ccelerating … the integrated and full implementation of the 2030 Agenda” (the theme of this year’s Africa RFSD and the Asia-Pacific Forum), and “Solutions and Action” (the 2023 Arab Forum’s theme). But based on their programme descriptions and on the discussions held at previous meetings, these Forums offered few solutions in an integrated localized manner.

More concrete examples could be presented at these Forums. What has worked well? And what issues are still posing challenges?

What do local actors have to say?

Our research with six Swedish municipalities (available only in Swedish), together with the Swedish National Coordinator for the 2030 Agenda, highlights the difficulties in translating the 2030 Agenda’s ethos of indivisibility of the SDGs to the local level. The municipalities stressed that they needed more assistance or capacity on understanding SDG interactions, creating or strengthening policy coherence, and exchanging knowledge from different relevant sources and between each other.

This experience is not isolated. We conducted research in 2021 to develop a global baseline on SDG localization. Almost all interviewed local governments reported a lack of sufficient funding and information – though not necessarily a lack of data – for implementing the SDGs. Information is needed, for instance, on potential synergies and trade-offs of selected policies and plans, or on what types of funding are available to support local implementation, beyond national budgets. At the same time, we found very few examples of integrated implementation at this level, by which we mean concerted actions that are informed by and seeks to manage synergies and potential trade-offs between the Goals.

The global baseline provides useful insights into the particular needs of local actors that could be highlighted more prominently in the regional fora for sustainable development. For instance, the regional and local levels are including policy coherence in their narrative for SDG implementation. However, our research shows that there is not a deep understanding of the concept of SDG interactions in the context of policy integration, and there are even fewer examples of mechanisms for systematically reviewing synergies and trade-offs.

At the same time, positives examples exist. The city of Bonn, Germany, made a localized assessment of the 17 Goals and translated them into 12 municipal fields of action, connecting the individual SDGs. The results were included in the municipality’s latest Voluntary Local Review (VLR). Another example is Seoul, Republic of Korea, which set various targets under its policy ‘Seoul-SDGs’ that are intentionally devised to overlap. In Medellín, Colombia, an analysis of SDG Synergies was conducted at the regional level in the Antioquia Department.

In our baseline survey, we found a need to strengthen and increase the participation of local actors in regional and international forums. Local actors advocate for cities and localities to be included as relevant actors to implement the SDGs. We also observed a lack of training and exchange within the framework of different regional and global summits for local-level actors. When local participants are missing, this can lead to the perception that only national, or state achievements are valid. Sharing positive experiences in localizing the SDGs can promote a significant change in this perception.

What can Regional Forums do differently?

The UN Regional Forums on Sustainable Development can and should focus on three issues when deciding on ways to push SDG implementation forward:

  • Supporting reviews of progress and impact;
  • Sharing targeted information on available financing; and
  • Making sure the right actors are at the table.

In supporting reviews of regional progress and SDG impact, the Forums should make space to discuss integrated approaches to implementation, including possible synergies and potential trade-offs. This process should be sensitive to local opportunities, priorities, and ideas and invite local participants and stakeholders.

Relevant stakeholders include researchers and other academic actors. The Forums could provide space for them to participate in the “main” programme discussions, not just in special dedicated events for other stakeholders, so they can share the most updated and relevant research on SDG implementation in support of decision making. Beyond this, the UN Regional Forums could take a hard look at the role they expect the scientific community to play in the second half of this decade of SDG implementation. The Forums could act to facilitate the delivery of the best available science to decision makers.

In terms of financing, territorial approaches to public investment can strengthen local and regional governments and their capacity to localize the SDGs. The Addis Ababa Action Agenda (AAAA) for financing for development (FfD) calls on national governments to provide adequate resources for effective investments in infrastructure, and access to basic services. One example of a successful UN Regional Forum’s work in this arena is the 2023 Africa Regional Forum on Sustainable Development, which resulted in a declaration asking for Innovative Finance for SDGs.

Momentum exists for localizing the SDGs and strengthening the role of local actors as drivers of change. The leading role local actors played to face the COVID-19 pandemic brought them to the forefront and demonstrated their crucial contribution to SDG implementation. The UN Regional Forums can take advantage of this momentum. They can facilitate more progress and quicken the pace at the local level, by bridging the local-to-global actions for achieving the SDGs. And most importantly, they can ensure the acceleration of SDG implementation takes place in an evidence-based manner, to avoid falling back on old siloes and cherry-picking Goals. This approach will be in line with the original spirit of the 2030 Agenda of integration, universality, and leaving no one behind (LNOB).

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Ivonne Lobos Alva is Senior Expert at the Stockholm Environment Institute. She is based at SEI Latin America.

This perspective piece is part of a series authored by researchers from the Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI), published in partnership with IISD. In the series, SEI researchers examine ways to implement the 2030 Agenda without abandoning principles, diluting aims, or leaving people behind.

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