15 March 2018
Advancing National SDG Implementation: Assessing VNR Reports to Learn from SDG Experiences
Photo by IISD | Lynn Wagner
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The Canadian Council for International Co-operation has issued an independent assessment of the VNR reports submitted to the HLPF in 2017.

The report, guided by a Steering Committee comprising representatives from CCIC, A4SD, Bond, CAFOD, IFP-FIP, Together 2030, and WWF-UK, analyzes VNR reports based on a common framework comprising 10 pillars of implementation and against the 2016 proposal by the UN Secretary-General for voluntary common reporting guidelines.

The report highlights recommendations and best practices inherent to the various phases of implementation of the 2030 Agenda that range from preparing to implement the SDGs (such as assessing SDG gaps) to assessing progress based on data and reporting.

Learning from experience is essential to improve SDG implementation, and is a key component of the follow-up and review process for the 2030 Agenda. A collaborative report issued by the Canadian Council for International Co-operation (CCIC) seeks to contribute to the global learning endeavor by assessing Voluntary National Review (VNR) reports submitted by countries at the 2017 session of the UN High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development (HLPF).

The report indicates that “the majority of countries reporting in 2017 appear to have established foundational elements for implementation” but “much can be learnt and applied from emerging standard practice and best practice to date by different countries.” It finds that reporting governments have carried out awareness-raising activities, consulted local stakeholders, identified national priorities, and have either integrated or have begun integrating the SDGs into national plans and policies.

However, the report also notes that the VNR reports remain “patchy” and that the level of engagement by governments on implementing different pillars of the 2030 Agenda is not uniform either within or across countries. In order to advance implementation, the report highlights a series of recommendations and best practices inherent to the various phases of implementation that range from preparing to implement the SDGs (e.g. assessing SDG gaps) to assessing progress based on data and reporting.

The report adds to a growing number of publications prepared to help countries’ advance SDGs and assess progress on SDG implementation. For example, in January 2018, the UN Division for Sustainable Development (DSD) in the Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA) issued a handbook for preparing VNRs. The handbook provides “basic, practical information” on the steps that countries may take when preparing a VNR, and is intended to be used in conjunction with the UN Secretary-General’s proposal for VNRs voluntary common reporting guidelines that have been updated in December 2017. In addition, DESA issued synthesis reports of the 2016 and 2017 VNRs, and the UN Development Group (UNDG) released Guidelines to Support Country Reporting on the SDGs. The report thus needs to be considered as one tool within a toolbox that seeks to support countries in their SDG implementation efforts.

What Does the Report Assess?

The report titled, ‘Progressing National SDG Implementation: An Independent Assessment of the Voluntary National Review Reports Submitted to the UN High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development in 2017,’ examines SDG implementation through a review of 42 VNR reports (comprising 45 countries) that were released in English, Spanish and French prior to the 2017 HLPF. It also considers a sample of reports produced by civil society organizations (CSOs) for the 2017 HLPF that assess SDG implementation by their governments.

The report’s assessment is structured in two parts and is complemented, in an annex, by a series of country profiles that present a summary of key findings of the review for each country analyzed.

A first part of the report analyzes VNR reports based on a common framework comprising 10 pillars of implementation. The framework assesses the extent to which VNR reports:

  • refer to incorporating the SDGs into national frameworks and policies, to a human-rights based approach, to the universality of the 2030 Agenda, and to leaving no one behind (LNOB);
  • outline leadership, governance and institutional arrangements put in place to implement the SDGs;
  • provide evidence that the country conducted a gap analysis or baseline study to assess existing policies in relation to the SDGs, and identifies areas where additional progress is needed;
  • reflect the integrated nature of the agenda, refer to policy coherence for sustainable development, and link to other international agreements;
  • consider LNOB, including groups targeted and efforts specifically geared towards reducing domestic inequalities;
  • discuss initiatives to raise awareness and create SDG ownership, such as the identification of national SDG priorities, targets and indicators, and local level action;
  • document whether non-state actors were engaged in the VNR process and involved in defining national priorities under the SDGs;
  • outline SDG implementation lessons learned and challenges, and refer to means of implementation, including financing, technology, capacity and trade;
  • consider non-state actor engagement in SDG implementation (e.g. civil society, academia, private sector, parliamentarians); and
  • discuss data, including disaggregated data, and their availability and quality for measurement and reporting.

The second part of the assessment examines VNRs against the UN Secretary-General’s proposal issued in 2016 for voluntary common reporting guidelines for VNRs, as included in an annex of the report titled, ‘Critical milestones towards coherent, efficient and inclusive follow-up and review at the global level’ (A/70/684). To carry out this part of the assessment, reviewers looked at the extent to which countries are following the guidelines’ proposals regarding VNR content and format.

What are the Key Observations and Recommendations from the Report?

The following section provides an overview of the report’s observations on each of the components analyzed.

Incorporation of the 2030 Agenda into national frameworks and policies: 40 countries reporting in 2017 have in some way incorporated the SDGs into their national development plans and related policies and frameworks and are able to demonstrate concrete actions in their move towards implementing the 2030 Agenda. However, countries tend to focus on SDGs specifically rather than the transformational principles of the 2030 Agenda, such as universality and human rights. The report therefore recommends to: fully integrate the 2030 Agenda and the SDGs into national plans and strategies based on an evaluation of existing policies, approaches and progress; and operationalize the principles of the 2030 Agenda in implementation approaches that recognize the universal, rights based and interlinked nature of the 2030 Agenda.

Leadership governance and institutional mechanisms: Countries are taking a range of approaches with respect to leadership for implementation. Most countries (36) appear to be making use of councils or committees to govern 2030 Agenda implementation, with leadership residing with cabinet ministers (14) or an implementation council or committee outside parliament (11). Some countries (18) have formally included non-state actors in governance arrangements, while most countries simply note their commitment to engage non-state actors. Based on these observations, the report outlines the need to: clearly establish leadership and governance structures to support 2030 Agenda implementation and lay out lines of accountability between various national stakeholders; and formalize non-state actor engagement in governance structures.

Baseline or gap analysis: Countries used various approaches to assess SDG gaps and review existing policies in relation to the goals, including, mapping of country policies against the SDGs, assessing data availability and/or establishing baselines. However, most countries did not provide consolidated findings from these assessments. The report thus recommends clearly articulating how the assessment was conducted and providing a summary of the gaps identified for each goal.

Integration and policy coherence: While countries tended to cover all dimensions of sustainable development in their reports, a majority of countries (34) did not report on the full set of SDGs, and fewer than half made limited references to linkages between the Goals. In addition, countries did not consistently refer to two other key agreements from 2015: the Paris Agreement on climate change or the Addis Ababa Action Agenda (AAAA) on financing for development. All countries referenced climate change, but ten did not provide information on ways through which they would tackle this issue. Hence, the report stresses the importance of: assessing all 17 SDGs in the VNR reports by respecting the indivisible nature of the 2030 Agenda and the SDGs; ensuring that linkages and synergies between the sustainable development dimensions are clearly stated in policies and included in reporting; and linking implementation of the 2030 Agenda to both the Paris Agreement and the AAAA.

Leaving no one behind (LNOB): VNR reports that comprised a dedicated chapter on LNOB tended to do a better job at describing who is being left behind and what efforts are being made to reach the furthest behind. Women, children and youth, persons with disabilities and elderly people were generally identified as having the greatest risk of being left behind. Also, 14 countries provided an indication of the availability of LNOB related data, among which 11 countries noted the need for additional disaggregated data by sex, region, ability, age, social status, and/or particular groups. To improve the practice, the report calls on countries to: include a specific chapter on LNOB in VNR reporting; highlight how policies and programmes are being adapted to reach the people who are furthest behind first; and provide information on the status of data collection or plans to improve data availability.

Raising awareness and creating ownership of the 2030 Agenda: 41 governments reported that they have carried out initiatives to raise awareness of the 2030 Agenda. Moreover, a majority of countries (33) provided information on the status of efforts to localize the 2030 Agenda, although VNR reports show wide variance in regard to where countries and their local governments are in terms of localizing the SDGs. The report notes the need to: adopt innovative ways to raise awareness of the SDGs among the general public; and provide support and develop capacities for local level implementation, including translating the SDGs into local plans, programmes, and monitoring efforts.

Stakeholder engagement: In their VNR reports, most countries state that they consulted with stakeholders in the selection of national priorities and preparation of VNRs. However, they provide varying degrees of details in terms of the actual consultation processes. The report recommends to: identify national sustainable development priorities, and develop associated national targets through an inclusive and participatory process; publicize consultation opportunities widely and with appropriate lead time; and ensure that information is available in local languages. It also suggests that countries solicit verbal and written inputs from all stakeholders in the preparation of VNR reports, and use varied and inclusive approaches to consultation such as online and offline methods.

Implementing the 2030 Agenda: Countries tend to provide a significant amount of detail on efforts relating to SDG implementation, but information on best practice, lessons learned, gaps, priorities going forward, and areas where they would like to learn from others is lacking. In addition, data availability and monitoring progress are the most commonly cited challenges in implementation across VNR reports, with developing countries often highlighting the need for support from development partners. On financing the SDGs, most countries have not costed implementation but have identified public and private, domestic and international sources of finance to support it. The report states that countries should: clearly report on best practices, lessons learned in accelerating implementation, challenges going forward and “where opportunities exist” to learn from peers; and bolster donor country efforts to support development partners’ capacity, including strengthening statistical systems and the capacities of local stakeholders to implement the 2030 Agenda. The report also calls on countries to start integrating the SDGs into national and local budgets to ensure that resources are allocated for implementation, and to scale up efforts to address systemic issues that impact SDG implementation, in particular international peace and security, illicit capital flight, tax avoidance and tax evasion, among other things.

Partnership to realize the 2030 Agenda: Most VNR reports stress the critical importance of multi-stakeholder partnership for 2030 Agenda implementation, but do not consistently provide real examples of specific stakeholder contributions. The review notes “some reference” to the activities of local government and non-state actors, and limited examples of the specific roles and initiatives supported by the private sector and academia. It also indicates that parliamentarians seem to primarily contribute to the 2030 Agenda through committee work, although reporting on their role is limited. Among other recommendations, the report outlines the need to integrate the 2030 Agenda into parliamentary committee work, and to support and develop partnerships with a variety of non-state actors, including academia and the private sector.

Measurement and reporting: A majority of countries provided information on monitoring and evaluation at the national level, but information on data availability for overall SDG monitoring is limited. Also, a minority of countries outlined plans to report to parliament, although none referenced regional SDG accountability mechanisms or peer learning and approximately one-third promised regular reporting, for the most part on an annual basis. The report thus suggests to: report on data availability, including disaggregated data, and on efforts to improve data availability; link reviews of progress for 2030 Agenda implementation to parliamentary oversight mechanisms; spell out plans to review progress at the national level and be accountable; and articulate plans for future HLPF reporting.

Use of the Secretary-General reporting guidelines: A majority of countries included most elements of the 2016 common reporting guidelines in their VNR reports, but many of the reports were not structured according to the guidelines’ outline. Also, VNR reports still tend to be very long, repetitive, and unnecessarily detailed, which could be attributed to the fact that some sections of the 2016 guidelines ask for repetition of the same information. According to the report, UN Member States should, inter alia, follow, as much as possible, the guidelines proposed by the UN Secretary-General to facilitate the identification of shared challenges, good practices and lessons learned.

As mentioned earlier, the UN Secretary-General’s guidelines were updated in December 2017 to reflect lessons learned in the first two years of implementation of the 2030 Agenda. These guidelines incorporate some of the recommendations outlined in the report, such as the need to have a clear section on LNOB. Along with its accompanying handbook for preparing VNRs, these guidelines should be help countries frame and articulate their VNRs.

About the Report

The report is a collaborative project guided by a Steering Committee comprising representatives from: the CCIC (lead); Action for Sustainable Development (A4SD); Bond; the Catholic Agency for Overseas Development (CAFOD); the International Forum of National NGO Platforms (IFP-FIP); Together 2030; and WWF-UK. It reviews VNR reports from Afghanistan, Argentina, Azerbaijan, Bangladesh, Belgium, Belize, Benin, Botswana, Brazil, Chile, Costa Rica, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, El Salvador, Ethiopia, Guatemala, Honduras, India, Indonesia, Italy, Japan, Jordan, Kenya, Luxembourg, Malaysia, Maldives, Monaco, Nepal, Nigeria, Panama, Peru, Portugal, Qatar, Slovenia, Sweden, Tajikistan, Thailand, The Netherlands including Aruba, Curaçao and Sint Maarten, Togo, Uruguay, and Zimbabwe. Belarus also presented its VNR in 2017, but its report is available in Russian only and was therefore not examined in the report.

The report was written by Shannon Kindornay, Independent Consultant and Adjunct Research Professor at Carleton University, with inputs from Javier Surasky, Centro de Pensamiento Estratégico Internacional (CEPEI), and Nathalie Risse, International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD). It also received support from the CSO Partnership for Development Effectiveness, Sightsavers and UKSSD. It follows a report published by Bond in 2016 that focused on the assessment of the 2016 VNR reports.

Report: Progressing National SDGs Implementation: An Independent Assessment of the Voluntary National Review Reports Submitted to the UN High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development in 2017

Summary: English; Portuguese; French; Spanish


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