2 November 2020
Partners for Review Network Identifies Lessons to Make 2021 VNRs Robust and Resilient
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The Partners for Review network held a five-day virtual meeting on monitoring achievement of the SDGs.

Participants identified lessons from the 2020 voluntary national reviews and ways for the private sector, universities, and local governments to contribute to monitoring.

They also focused on ensuring the 2021 VNR process is both robust and resilient.

The Partners for Review (P4R) network held a five-day virtual meeting on monitoring achievement of the SDGs. Participants identified lessons from the 2020 voluntary national reviews, which were conducted amid the COVID-19 pandemic, and ways for the private sector, universities, and local governments to contribute to monitoring. They also focused on ensuring the 2021 VNR process is both robust and resilient.

The second P4R Virtual Networking Days took place from 12-16 October 2020, with participants joining the online sessions from approximately 50 countries and representing the national governments, UN entities, civil society, and international organizations. 

On trends in the evolution of the VNRs, one speaker identified the following:

  • More countries are following the UN Secretary-General’s voluntary guidelines, making the reports more comparable;
  • Implementation is increasing at the sub-national level;
  • Most VNR reports include a section on leaving no one behind;
  • More countries are reviewing all 17 SDGs in their VNRs, not just the SDGs under in-depth review at the HLPF in the same year;
  • More VNRs provide data to illustrate progress and impacts on development; and
  • More governments engage stakeholders in producing the VNRs and include civil society evaluations in their reports.

On leaving no one behind, and incorporating the principle into planning and decision making, participants discussed the use of both a forward- and backward-looking metric: preparedness to implement the LNOB principle (forward-looking); and outcomes in health, finance, and infrastructure (backward-looking). The results indicate that 16% of countries are not ready to implement leaving no one behind, or lack data, and only 45% are on track.  The findings also show:

  • High-Income Countries (HICs) and Low-Income Countries (LICs) vary greatly on preparedness; 70% of HICs are ready while 20% of LICs are not ready, highlighting that fiscal capacity is a determinant of preparedness to deliver on LNOB; and
  • On the dimension of outcomes, no HIC is “off track” whereas not a single LICs is “on track.”

In a session on sustainable development councils and similar multi-stakeholder advisory bodies, participants highlighted the importance of a legal framework – whether legislation or other forms of official legitimacy – to succeed long-term. Such protection would prevent multi-stakeholder councils from being dismantled when governments change, and to protect them when they issue opinions that may not be favorable to the government. Speakers also said linking monitoring with indicators would strengthen councils’ position to influence official policies.

Another session provided first-hand experiences and lessons learned from countries that recently completed VNRs. On preparing a second VNR, a best practice example highlighted the value of incorporating a civil society shadow report directly into the VNR, in addition to a multi-stakeholder approach to drafting the assessment of each SDG, and incorporating a peer review, with an option being to involve two countries and an independent, external review. 

Other examples of actions and best practices related to VNRs included:

  • Preparing a handbook on the preparation of the VNR process including good practices;
  • Including non-state actors in technical working groups to draft the VNR;
  • Collecting civil society’s proposals on formally involving them in the process;
  • Developing an SDG local governance index to boost accountability and transparency in regions;
  • Conducting cost analyses of local action plans;
  • Establishing a permanent mechanism to monitor and review SDG implementation to ensure continuation of multi-stakeholder dialogue and coordination;
  • Creating a digital platform for follow-up and review that facilitates collection of disaggregated data;
  • Spatially prioritizing SDG targets according to sub-national jurisdictions;
  • Aligning VNR reporting with other national processes, strategies and reporting obligations; and
  • Translating the VNR into Braille and local languages.

On ‘Private sector (data) contributions for SDG review and VNRs,’ participants heard that companies’ financial performance positively correlates with incorporating ESG factors in decision-making, and ESG actions make companies more resilient and better prepared to face market disruptions. In addition, reporting on non-financial matters builds trust and demonstrates companies’ contributions to broader societal goals. Speakers said the UN Global Compact and partners have promoted specific SDG indicators that businesses can use, and the EU is pursuing regulation that could spark more corporate sustainability reporting.

Representatives from four universities discussed SDG initiatives and offered lessons for other academic institutions. In one country, a network of eight universities has established an expert working group on the SDGs. Working closely with the government’s ministry responsible for the VNRs, the expert group has contributed content to VNR reports and reviewed content. It also leverages its networks of various stakeholders, and for the government’s recent VNR the working group mobilized its networks to submit over 60 case studies from civil society, NGOs, and businesses.

In another country, a university initiative has adapted its national version of the 2030 Agenda to for its state, localizing the targets for each of the 62 municipalities. A technology institute is reviewing national legislation in its country at the request of the government, proposing ways to align it with the SDGs, and advising the country’s senate commissions on how to align their work with the SDGs. 

On ensuring the 2021 VNRs are robust and resilient, one speaker cautioned that governments may prioritize COVID-19 recovery at all costs, leading to “cherry picking” of Goals 1 (no poverty), 2 (zero hunger), and 3 (good health and wellbeing) over the others and instead of an integrated approach to implementation.

Another expert suggested that the VNRs should be used to understand the longer-term pathways that we need. She called for a focus on areas where we are backsliding and backtracking, particularly with regard to human capacity, which can result in irreversible damage. This expert reminded participants that no matter how bad the COVID-19 pandemic is, climate change is even worse, and said the SDGs and climate should be addressed as one agenda, with VNRs and the Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) for climate action treated as one and the same process.

Another participant observed transformations underway in several areas, including awareness of the “irreversibility of climate change,” biodiversity, and deforestation, and private sector awareness of the SDGs. Additional suggestions for action included: use VNR processes to identify difficult tradeoffs and exchange good practices on navigating them; and have governments focus on a small set of targets with transformational potential.

Participants looked to the upcoming intergovernmental review of the HLPF as an opportunity to make the reporting process even stronger, and to incorporate lessons learned from the use of digital platforms. [P4R meeting webpage]

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