20 July 2022
Informal Debrief Unpacks HLPF Outcomes
story highlights

Speakers highlighted the need to improve the quality of voluntary national reviews by switching to procedural, integrated, and systemic reporting, and to integrate different levels of reviews.

Participants also considered ways to overcome data challenges and create monitoring tools; VLRs as a cities’ tool for “self-reflection”; the cultural dimension of sustainable development; and the Multidimensional Vulnerability Index as a metric that would recognize SIDS’ vulnerability to climate change when accessing financing.

The SDG Lab, Cepei, and the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD), in collaboration with the Institute for Global Environmental Strategies (IGES), organized a webinar to highlight the outcomes, challenges, and main messages of the 2022 session of the High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development (HLPF), and to trace a future trajectory for the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

Eleonora Bonaccorsi, SDG Lab and IISD, moderated the discussion. She highlighted Earth Negotiations Bulletin (ENB) daily and summary coverage of the HLPF, and thanked the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA) for providing the HLPF numbers for the webinar.

Lynn Wagner, Senior Director, Tracking Progress Program, and Director, ENB, said the Forum’s 2022 session met for eight days, from 5-7 and from 11-15 July, and conducted in-depth review of five Goals – SDG 4 (quality education), SDG 5 (gender equality), SDG 14 (life below water), SDG 15 (life on land), and SDG 17 (partnerships for the Goals).

She highlighted that that the HLPF brought together over 130 prime-ministers, ministers, and vice-ministers and that more than 190 speakers took part in various events that included a town hall meeting, panels, and fire side chats. She noted that to ensure everyone got a chance to speak on the “very full agenda,” for most participants mikes were cut off after three minutes.

Wagner drew attention to the 280+ side events that convened during the Forum’s July session, along with 11 exhibitions and seven special events. Nineteen VNR labs, she said, provided opportunities for a deep dive on the 44 voluntary national reviews (VNRs) countries presented at this year’s HLPF.  

Taking place mostly in person, HLPF 2022 convened amidst multiple crises, including the COVID-19 pandemic, climate change, and geopolitical conflicts, with knock-on effects for food and energy security, among others, Wagner said. She further highlighted the significant setbacks in women’s rights and the fall of three governments, which all took place during the HLPF.

Summarizing the main aspects of the HLPF review of the five Goals, Wagner framed the SDGs as a systemic approach that can enable a holistic perspective that takes into account the social, economic, and environmental dimensions of sustainable development. She indicated that during the review, governments highlighted the UN Secretary-General’s Transforming Education Summit in September 2022 as an opportunity to tackle SDG 4-related challenges, and described the in-depth review of SDG 5 as “the most sobering discussion.”

Noting some progress on SDG 14, including the conclusion of the World Trade Organization (WTO) agreement on fisheries subsidies and ongoing negotiations towards a treaty on the conservation and sustainable use of marine biodiversity of areas beyond national jurisdiction (BBNJ), Wagner said SDG 15 discussions were “waiting” for an outcome on a post-2020 global biodiversity framework. On SDG 17, she noted disagreements on what needs to be achieved in terms of global economic systems.

Wagner indicated that during the HLPF, the “architects of the SDGs” came together to discuss how the 2023 SDG Summit – an event that meets every four years at the highest level – could ensure “commitments happen,” with Paula Caballero calling for the SDGs to become a “disruptive tool.” She also noted discussions on how to ensure that the SDG Summit and the Summit of the Future, proposed by the UN Secretary-General, would best support accelerated action to implement the 2030 Agenda.

She concluded by describing the 142-paragraph-long Ministerial Declaration, which, as some governments observed, is longer than the 2030 Agenda itself. Negotiated by the permanent missions in New York over the course of several months, the Declaration, she said, was brought to the floor on the final night of the HLPF for adoption. She outlined controversies surrounding: the paragraph on the right to self-determination of peoples living under colonial and foreign occupation, with Canada, Israel, and the US opposing it; and the text on reproductive health and reproductive rights, which Canada and others supported and others objected to. Wagner said statements that followed the adoption of the Declaration by consensus were “quite telling” in revealing different approaches to sustainable development.

Reviewing this year’s VNRs’ main themes and challenges, Javier Surasky, CEPEI, said as of today, only six countries have not presented a single VNR. Recognizing this as “a huge success,” he at the same time warned that countries are still presenting their VNRs using the “first VNR logic,” without explaining the VNR preparation process, what policies were implemented and how they helped advance the SDGs, and what lessons were learned.

Surasky pointed to governments’ “persistent reluctance” to use non-official data, lamented the lack of clarity on how countries included stakeholder contributions in their VNR processes, and warned about “a reporting capability gap” that threatens to “leave whole countries behind.” He said countries should report on all 17 SDGs, not only those undergoing in-depth review, to paint a complete picture of implementation. “We are reading low-quality VNRs,” Surasky stated, comparing the reviews to a “disjointed photography exhibition of progress” and calling for a switch to procedural, integrated, and systemic reporting.

Surasky further warned that the Ministerial Declaration has become “a difficult jigsaw puzzle” that “stays away from we the people.” Looking forward, he called for improved VNRs and for the HLPF to “update its method” and deliver an outcome document that is ambitious and contains clear policy guidance.

Fernando Ortiz Moya, Policy Researcher, IGES, discussed the role of voluntary local reviews (VLRs) in enhancing SDG localization. He said VLRs provide bottom-up opportunities for cities and local and regional governments (LRGs) to share experiences, challenges, and lessons learned and to facilitate partnerships for the implementation of their local vision. He underscored that the VLR movement has expanded all over the world, resulting in more than 100 LRGs reporting on local SDG implementation progress.

Describing VLRs as a tool to translate the SDGs to the local level, Ortiz Moya said they facilitate:

  • Engagement with citizens and other stakeholders;
  • Local policy alignment with the SDGs;
  • Multi-level governance;
  • Cross-departmental work; and
  • The creation of a monitoring and evaluation framework.

Among the benefits of VLR preparation, he highlighted: kickstarting sustainable development; making sense of the SDGs; advancing horizontal integration; advancing vertical cooperation; and communicating with internal and external actors on the SDGs. He said VLRs help LRGs align policies to the SDGs, choose a desired future, engage with society, monitor progress, set baselines, and tell a compelling story. Ortiz Moya highlighted the example of Shimokawa, Hokkaido, Japan, which used its VLR to launch a town-wide consultation process to shape its vision towards 2030.

Going forward, Ortiz Moya called for: integrating different levels of reviews – VNRs, voluntary subnational reviews, and VLRs; translating the “soft legacy” of VLRs into tangible outcomes; and partnerships and peer-to-peer learning between cities to accelerate SDG localization.

During the question-and-answer session, participants considered, inter alia: ways to overcome data challenges and create monitoring tools; efforts by cities to ensure inclusiveness of VLR processes; VLRs as a cities’ tool for “self-reflection”; the cultural dimension of sustainable development; and the Multidimensional Vulnerability Index (MVI) as a metric that would recognize small island developing States’ (SIDS) vulnerability to climate change when accessing financing.

In conclusion, Bonaccorsi highlighted forthcoming major SDG-related events, including: the 77th session of the UN General Assembly (UNGA); the Group of 20 (G20) Leaders’ Summit; the UN Climate Change Conference (UNFCCC COP 27); the UN Biodiversity Conference (CBD COP 15); the UN 2023 Water Conference; and the 2023 SDG Summit.

Read about a webinar previewing HLPF 2022 here. [SDG Knowledge Hub Sources]

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