6 September 2016
Piloting Global Thematic Reviews of the SDGs: The Case of Natural Resources
Photo by IISD/ENB | Kiara Worth
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There is a need to explore how to best design global follow-up and review processes to ensure that all efforts at the national level contribute to achieving the SDGs.

On 29 July 2016, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution on follow-up to and review of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, by consensus. This resolution states that the High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development (HLPF) will spend the next three years focusing on a range of specific themes and Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), ranging from eradicating poverty to building resilience to empowering communities. Now that the topics have been identified, there is a need to set up these thematic reviews to ensure that they can effectively support the implementation of the Agenda.

The 22 countries submitting voluntary national reports at the recently concluded HLPF presented their current activities and plans to achieve the 2030 Agenda. The diversity of the countries presenting showed the truly universal character of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Progress reports also highlighted challenges reflecting the early stage of implementation: countries – and all other stakeholders – have yet to develop strategies to fully deal with integration and the complexity of the Agenda (including the effects of each country’s policies in other parts of the world) and at the same time implement the principle of participation and inclusion of stakeholders, including the most vulnerable populations. Global follow-up and review (FU&R) processes can support UN Member States in making best use of opportunities, and they can include the variety of viewpoints and types of knowledge necessary for a transformational 2030 Agenda. TMG and the IASS seek to support these FU&R processes by organizing a collective learning process, using the natural resource base as a test case.

This article outlines a concrete proposal and invitation to support the follow-up and review of the 2030 Agenda through thematic reviews, in a way that puts into practice the principles of universality, integration, participation and inclusion as outlined in the outcome document, ‘Transforming the World: The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.’ We have chosen natural resources, and especially soils, as a test case to start a process of joint learning in dealing with issues cutting across many of the SDGs and with a very high relevance for a successful implementation of the 2030 Agenda.

Some thoughts on the “how” of global thematic reviews

The experience of the latest HLPF is still informing governments’ and stakeholders’ insights into the “how” of global thematic reviews. So, what we are presenting here is only a first approximation that emerges from the agreements and debates so far on FU&R design. The HLPF is the apex of follow-up and review processes. As such, it draws on various sources of information: national reports, the progress report by the UN Secretary-General, and the Global Sustainable Development Report (every four years), as well as important contributions to be made by ECOSOC’s Functional Commissions, Regional Commissions and other related bodies and platforms. Progress will be reviewed according to the framework of global indicators for each SDG target, but there are requests to account for qualitative and other forms of knowledge, including traditional knowledge. To understand whether responses to unsustainable development pathways are adequate, statistical data as well as policy reviews will be needed. In a nutshell, delegates will receive a wealth of information, and must deal with it in a comparatively short period of time (five days for expert dialogues and three ministerial days).

Against this backdrop, the HLPF review process will benefit greatly if there is an opportunity for governments and stakeholders to review and synthesize information ahead of the HLPF. Given that the architecture to implement the 2030 Agenda foresees a multi-stakeholder approach, including in proceedings of the HLPF, we would argue that there can and should be contributions from outside the UN system in support of the High-level Political Forum. Throughout the year, civil society, the scientific community and different policy constituencies hold meetings that present the latest evidence and review lessons learnt. We should explore how to make the knowledge gathered through these informal processes useful for the HLPF.

An analysis of the SDGs through the lens of natural resources

There are several perspectives and themes that would serve the principles and approach outlined above. We propose to pilot such a review through the lens of natural resources. Here is why. First, achievements in poverty reduction, food security, healthy societies or sustainable industrial development will not be sustainable without protecting and sustainably managing our natural resources. Analyses by the IASS, UNEP’s International Resource Panel and the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) show that plans to achieve the SDGs following business-as-usual pathways based solely on increases in production and growth will demand more natural resources than we have available. Achieving the SDGs in their inclusivity requires awareness of possible negative implications for natural resources that might occur by striving to achieve some SDGs at the expense of others.

The second reason that a natural resource lens could be a useful pilot case for the thematic review is that access to natural resources continues to be a determining factor in whether rural households stay in poverty or become food secure and prosper. Access to essential natural resources such as land continues to be unequal and may be growing even more unequal. There is a strong gender dimension to this, also. Estimates from the FAO and OECD say that agricultural productivity will increase significantly if women have the same access to natural resources as men. Further, environmental defenders are severely threatened. According to Global Witness, 2015 was the deadliest year on record for environmental defenders.

For these reasons, a natural resources analysis of progress towards achieving the SDGs would cover the three dimensions of sustainability and various SDGs. With this approach, we can explore how to best use and maintain natural resources as the capital of the poor for implementing the 2030 Agenda in a holistic way.

So, what next?

Discussions with representatives of Member States at HLPF 2016 show that implementing and following up on the 2030 Agenda is “uncharted territory,” in the words of one representative. To put it differently, implementing the 2030 Agenda is a collective learning process. So here are two proposals for next steps:

First, we encourage a debate on these very initial considerations on global thematic reviews on natural resources, and land and soils in particular. We would appreciate receiving your comments and ideas!

Second, if implementing the 2030 Agenda is learning by doing, we need to start doing. We are therefore proposing to pilot the facilitation of stakeholder contributions to a global thematic review on land and soils. We are offering the Global Soil Week 2017 to start this learning process. The Global Soil Week is a global, multi-stakeholder platform to discuss the sustainable management of soils and responsible governance of land that has taken place in 2012, 2013 and 2015, with the 2015 edition counting 600 participants from 80 countries. The success of the Global Soil Week rests on its approach to sustainable development in its three dimensions in a cross-cutting way through the lens of soils and land. Representatives of different constituencies working on various soil and land related topics enrich the debates at Global Soil Week. Broad participation by different stakeholder groups and innovative ways of interaction have created an atmosphere that encourages the exchange of information and learning beyond the silos. The next Global Soil Week will take place in June 2017 in support of the 2018 session of the HLPF, with contributions to be presented at the HLPF in July 2017.

There is a need to explore how to best design global follow-up and review processes to ensure that all efforts at the national level contribute to achieving the SDGs. We invite you to join us in seizing this opportunity and by piloting contributions to a Global Thematic Review on Land and Soil through the Global Soil Week.

We welcome your views on this proposal and expressions of interest in joining a strategic partnership! Please send your comments and proposals to Jes.Weigelt@iass-potsdam.de

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