One month after governments began discussing improvements to the UN High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development (HLPF), the process was slowed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Nonetheless, ideas and inputs have emerged from the discussions, particularly with regard to how the Voluntary National Reviews (VNRs) should be prepared and presented during the HLPF, how the HLPF should structure its review of the SDGs and cross-cutting themes, and how the HLPF ministerial declaration should be prepared.

The mandate for the intergovernmental review process is set out in a series of UNGA resolutions. In 2013, the UNGA agreed to review the format and organizational aspects of the HLPF as outlined in resolution 67/290. In 2016, a resolution provided details on how the HLPF would work, and the Assembly decided to review progress in implementing these two agreements at its 74th session, following the HLPF’s “first cycle.” 

The co-facilitators for intergovernmental negotiations on the HLPF review process, the Permanent Representatives of Benin and Georgia, convened the first informal meeting on 10 February 2020, and summarized the views expressed in a non-paper. In early March, further consultations took place in person. However, subsequent meetings have been cancelled due to restrictions on in-person meetings during the COVID-19 pandemic, and the co-facilitators have requested UN Member States to submit input in writing. The co-facilitators held a virtual meeting on 8 April 2020 to discuss the way forward for the consultations in the context of COVID-19.

This brief reviews the summaries from the co-facilitators as well as specific proposals advanced by state and non-state actors for three key topics under discussion: VNRs, HLPF agenda, and the ministerial declaration. 

Proposals on Voluntary National Reviews (VNRs)

The co-facilitators report that some countries believe the VNRs should be more comparable, and follow the guidelines provided by the UN Secretary-General more closely. While some would like the VNR to serve more strongly as an accountability mechanism, others prefer to preserve its flexibility.

An independent assessment of the VNR reports submitted to the HLPF in 2019, issued in late February 2020, finds that 75% of the VNRs reported against all elements in the guidelines, and provided more information on most aspects of the 2030 Agenda than in previous years. Nonetheless, the authors caution that while stakeholders were increasingly included at the technical working level for SDG implementation, they lost ground in participation in national and higher-level strategic councils.

policy brief from IDDRI offers ideas for how the VNR presentations could do more to reinforce accountability and drive additional national action. For example, civil society experts and other countries could be assigned a peer review role, the experts suggest.

Second and third-time VNRs should examine the impacts of efforts to address gaps identified in the previous report.

The co-facilitators’ non-paper reports that other suggestions related to the VNR include: placing more emphasis on challenges and gaps, not only success stories; making the review more evidence-based; and ensuring that second and third VNRs examine the impacts of measures that were taken to address gaps identified in the previous VNR.

Some delegations have called for allowing more time for the presentation and discussion of each country’s VNR. This could mean adding more days to the annual HLPF session. The co-facilitators report that “many have called for strengthening the engagement of stakeholders in the HLPF and its preparations, including by giving more time to discussions with stakeholders during VNR preparations and presentations.” Others, however, stressed the intergovernmental nature of the HLPF.

In early March, the delegation of Liechtenstein shared a written submission setting out several points for consideration. On the VNRs, Liechtenstein indicated that it would welcome a more evidence-based approach to the VNRs, with more of a focus on remaining challenges. To achieve this, each successive VNR would report on how the challenges were addressed. In addition, the delegation notes that civil society and private sector actors should be able to participate in a more interactive, meaningful way during the VNR process and presentation. The submission highlights that more time is needed for the VNR presentations, especially to allow for a more interactive exchange.

Proposals on Review of SDGs and Cross-Cutting Themes

According to the co-facilitators’ non-paper, views among Member States are divided on the review of the SDGs and the thematic reviews, which focus on cross-cutting themes. Some would like to continue reviewing small groups of SDGs at each annual HLPF session, but increase the focus on interlinkages. Others would rather review the entire Goal-set each year based on cross-cutting themes or transformative pathways, such as the six entry points suggested in the 2019 Global Sustainable Development Report (GSDR).

In a SDG Knowledge Hub guest article, experts Marianne Beisheim and Steven Bernstein suggest that Member States could adopt the GSDR’s logic of entry points and levers. Each annual HLPF session could be organized around two of the six entry points laid out for the six transformative pathways that the GSDR discusses. The HLPF panels could be tasked with discussing the four levers identified in the GSDR – governance, economy and finance, individual and collective action, and science and technology – attributing concrete tasks and responsibilities to the change agents needed across sectors. This would allow greater coherence in the selection of themes and SDGs reviewed, cover all SDGs and their interlinkages each year, and still mobilize the relevant communities of practice.

The IDDRI authors – Elizabeth Hege, Lucien Chabason, and Damien Barchiche – similarly propose that thematic discussions should focus on navigating cross-SDG trade-offs and synergies. They suggest that “cross-sectoral dialogues” could focus on the transformations identified by the GSDR, or take place at the request of international organizations on a topic that affects their work but lies outside their mandate. The dialogue would engage the organizations that have a mandate in the respective topic.

The co-facilitators note other views from Member States on the thematic reviews, including that they could:

  • Better highlight country-specific progress and identify countries at risk of being left behind;
  • Focus more on hindrances to progress, as well as policy successes; and
  • Provide incentives and guidance to ensure SDG implementation addresses interlinkages among Goals.

Liechtenstein’s submission makes an additional proposal: just as SDG 17 (partnership for the Goals) has been reviewed at each annual HLPF session, SDG 16 (peace, justice, and strong institutions) also could be treated in the same way. The delegation writes that, like SDG 17, Goal 16 is “of a different nature than the other SDGs,” because strong institutions are an enabler for implementing all of the other Goals.

Another suggestions address the preparatory process for the thematic reviews. The co-facilitators report that governments have stressed the need to build better on science and evidence, and to ensure that panel discussions at the annual session build better on the preparatory process. Countries have proposed that the HLPF be a year-long process culminating in thematic panels at the annual session.

On the preparatory process for the thematic reviews, Beisheim and Bernstein note the need for more analysis and evaluation of the reports prepared by UN bodies, experts, and stakeholders ahead of each session, as well as the data resulting from the VNRs. They suggest adjusting the ECOSOC calendar to hold an HLPF ‘Spring Meeting’ and split the total number of HLPF meeting days. They propose, “the Spring Meeting could be used to evaluate the main messages of the Secretary-General’s yearly SDG report, the VNRs and reports from the UN system, including its regional bodies. The results could feed into the negotiations of the Ministerial Declaration in June, which would then be well placed to include substantial recommendations for discussion at the HLPF session in July.”

The co-facilitators also report that discussions have placed “a major emphasis” on the need for the HLPF to give greater attention to the regional dimensions, such as by building on the annual regional forums for sustainable development convened by each UN regional commission, and better using them to discuss issues ahead of the HLPF.

Proposals on Ministerial Declaration

The co-facilitators write that many governments would like to strengthen the political guidance and recommendations provided by the HLPF through its yearly ministerial declaration. But some question whether there should be a negotiated ministerial declaration every year, or if instead the process should be guided by the political declarations resulting from the HLPF sessions held at the level of Heads of State and Government under UNGA auspices every four years.

Liechtenstein’s submission suggests that the report prepared each year by the ECOSOC President could be used as the session’s outcome document, instead of negotiating a ministerial declaration each year.

Regarding the continuation of consultations during the COVID-19 pandemic, the co-facilitators proposed on 8 April 2020 that the review should be conducted after the crisis has passed. They would therefore produce a “concise Resolution/Decision, that will address only the immediately necessary provisions (such as the themes and SDGs for the 2021 HLPF), while postponing the substantial review of both of HLPF and ECOSOC, of course in conjunction with each other, to the period when the COVID-19 crisis had passed.”

Updates on the intergovernmental consultations on the review of the HLPF can be found at the UNGA President’s webpage and this ECOSOC webpage.