At the global level, the UN High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development (HLPF) is the central space for follow-up and review of UN Member States’ SDG implementation. A founding resolution of the HLPF mandated governments to review the overall functioning of the HLPF every four years. This official review is due to take place for the first time during the UN General Assembly’s 74th session (2019-2020). This is an important moment and opportunity for the international community, which has now had four years’ experience of HLPF “follow up and review activities” to reflect upon, learn from, and significantly improve upon.

Civil society has developed a range of proposals linked to the HLPF review. These proposals include individual and joint recommendations by a number of leading global civil society networks, based on consultations with their members. Among these is my organization Forus (, as well as Action for Sustainable Development (, Together 2030 (, the Transparency Accountability & Participation (TAP) Network (, and regional CSO alliances such as SDG Watch Europe ( Messages from these CSO networks highlight the following.

The HLPF review process must be ambitious. Decision-makers and influencers who will be involved in the HLPF review process must avoid a superficial tweaking of the process, and instead introduce ambitious reforms that will increase the effectiveness of this critically important international follow-up and review mechanism.

The HLPF review must avoid focusing exclusively on the global level and be multi-level. This will mean including reforms to the follow-up and review processes at the regional and national levels, which are integral to the overall HLPF cycle. A multi-level approach should include the Voluntary National Reviews (VNRs), which showcase countries’ individual approaches to implementing and reviewing the 2030 Agenda. It also should include the UN Regional Sustainable Development Fora, which promote regional reflection on SDG implementation.

No official status is given to consolidated CSO Alternative Reports within the HLPF cycle; this needs to change.

The HLPF review must greatly strengthen the multi-stakeholder dimension, particularly with regard to the involvement of civil society as a key stakeholder. This component is important because, despite positive official rhetoric about the centrality of multi-stakeholder engagement to the success of SDG implementation, the HLPF remains largely a state-centered and state-driven process. Civil society and other key stakeholders remain quite marginal in terms of their involvement in the HLPF. For example, no official status is given to consolidated CSO Alternative Reports within the overall HLPF cycle. This needs to change.

The presentation of VNRs during the HLPF must be allocated more time. VNRs are at the heart of the HLPF and play a critical role in encouraging SDG implementation in the countries that undertake them. They are an opportunity for national assessments of progress and for effective stakeholder engagement. They result in detailed and reflective reports on national progress, so that that they can identify lessons learned. However, the current approach to the presentation of VNRs during the HLPF is clearly flawed and insufficient. Only three ministerial days during the HLPF are available for the presentation of between 40-50 VNRs. The result is that the presentation of each VNR is allocated 15 minutes, which leaves little opportunity for constructive dialogue.

In order to make VNRs more effective, there must be better presentations, including more time, more learning, more openness and more involvement of civil society and other stakeholders. Civil society has a number of ideas about how these objectives could be achieved, including scheduling a corresponding side event for each VNR, to allow more dialogue between stakeholders. Alternatively, the full eight days of the HLPF could be devoted to VNR presentations. Civil society believes that all ideas must be explored in order to make this critical part of the HLPF more effective.

There should be better alignment and integration of the SDGs with other frameworks. Sustainable development recognizes and aligns with the work of environmental, climate, human rights and other sectors. It is therefore important that the HLPF provides more space for input from other relevant sectoral mechanisms and agencies. This should include:

  • Better links with key international processes and agreements (e.g. the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC),Universal Periodic Review mechanisms (UPR), etc.);
  • Better synergies with the Financing for Development (FfD) process; and
  • The meaningful involvement of all relevant UN bodies with the HLPF (including those with an economic mandate (e.g. IMF, WTO, UNIDO, etc.). This would serve to promote greater policy coherence in the implementation of the SDGs.

The HLPF must become more policy-oriented. The activities of the HLPF should go beyond review and create space for more in-depth policy discussions. UN Member States should be supported in accessing clear policy guidance and support in target-setting to achieve greater sustainability across different policy areas at national and regional levels.

A specific multi-stakeholder mechanism for the annual review of Goal 17 implementation. The mandate of the HLPF includes considering Goal 17 of the SDGs each year. This Goal is an extremely important one and its regular review should ensure that its focus areas on Capacity Building, Finance, Multi-Stakeholder Partnerships, Science, Technology and Trade receive the political attention they deserve. However, no specific mechanism has been agreed within the framework of the HLPF to ensure the effective annual review of this SDG by governments and the Major Groups and other Stakeholders (MGoS). Civil society is calling for a specific Goal 17 review mechanism to be established by the HLPF as a matter of urgency, and for the MGoS to be fully involved in this mechanism.

A better staffed and more experienced Secretariat should be provided for the HLPF. This proposal includes the call for a Bureau for HLPF. The result would aim to ensure that Member States are assisted in preparing the HLPF agenda, and seek to ensure that the process better engages and supports them.

The HLPF review process should be inclusive and transparent. Given the importance of this official review of the HLPF, civil society must be fully informed in advance of how it can best engage with and influence it. Civil society proposes basing the HLPF review on the principles and structure of the Open Working Group – a successful and collaborative member-state led, multi-stakeholder process that produced the SDG agenda itself.


For CSOs who attended the recent HLPF session (SDG Summit) convened under the auspices of the UNGA and other UN summits in New York this September, it was disappointing that so little clarity emerged about the substance or process of the upcoming HLPF review. The Political Declaration adopted by UN Member States at this second HLPF of 2019 contains the following reference to the review:

We pledge to carry out an ambitious and effective review of the format and organizational aspects of the high-level political forum and follow-up and review of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development at the global level during the seventy-fourth session of the General Assembly with a view to better addressing gaps in implementation and linking identified challenges with appropriate responses, including on financing, to further strengthen the effective and participatory character of this intergovernmental forum and encourage the peer-learning character of the voluntary national reviews. We also pledge to advance our efforts in communicating the 2030 Agenda to the global public to raise awareness and inspire accelerated action.

Based on intelligence available to civil society at present, it would appear that the UNGA President is asking the Second Committee to approve a resolution on the modalities for HLPF 2020 so that the President of the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) can start preparing the session. Subsequently, we understand that the UNGA President will ask the ECOSOC President to facilitate the preparation of the resolution on HLPF 2020. It appears that this proposal is subject to consultation with the G-77 and the EU at present.

CSOs everywhere must remain focused and pay attention to what emerges in relation to the HLPF review process over the coming months. Given that this process is an extremely important one, and its outcomes are so significant, civil society must bring all of its influence to bear on it, to ensure that the next four-year cycle of the HLPF will be much more effective, inclusive and impactful.

The author of this guest article, Deirdre de Burca, is the Advocacy Coordinator at Forus.