SDGs’ first review: what happened in New York?

The High Level Political Forum was held New York from the 11th to the 20th of July 2016. It provides a space for national governments to review their progress towards achieving the Sustainable Development Goals defined within the Agenda 2030.

By Matt Simonds (TUAC/TUDCN)

The second week and High Level Segment of the High Level Political Forum (HLPF) in New York, on 18-20 July 2016, saw presentations from 22 governments about the steps being taken to implement the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. The National Voluntary Reviews, as they are known, are a key component of the follow up and review process which underpins the 2030 Agenda. They are the mechanism for governments to report on progress and challenges to achieving the targets set out by the SDGs. Each UN member state is “encouraged” to report to the HLPF at least three times over the fifteen-year period.

For the first year of these reviews, it was to be expected that countries would have little to present by way of progress against the SDGs and targets, since the agenda was only adopted one year ago, and the indicator framework for monitoring implementation is still being fine-tuned. It is therefore hard to pre-judge this year’s HLPF, since the presentations could really only go as far as to indicate what measures are being taken to implement and achieve the 2030 Agenda. Nevertheless, the reviews felt very shallow, giving an air of simulation to the HLPF (a prepared brief/summary of each of the reviews can be found here.

Photo by IISD/ENB - Kiara Worth

Nearly all of the country presentations simply ran through the various initiatives under way and described how they would guarantee the realisation of the SDGs. Presentations were then followed by a series of planned interventions from one or two Member States and one representative from Major Groups and other Stakeholders (MGoS). The interventions of MGoS were in some way curated ahead of time and sent to the governments that were presenting reviews.

Something to note is that oddly and without much explanation some of the reviews were presented in blocks (i.e. four countries presenting in a row) with the ensuing discussion cutting across all country reviews while other countries chose to make longer, more comprehensive, individual presentations and have a focused discussion. As a result the presentations of the national reviews felt more like scripted theatre than interactive debate. An official UN summary of the presentations and ensuing discussions can be found here.

Taking into account that this was the first HLPF since the adoption of the 2030 Agenda and consequently withholding some criticism, civil society groups felt the program of the HLPF could have been much better designed to spur more interactive debate. In light of this, civil society groups prepared a letter suggesting three areas where the HLPF could be improved. The letter can be found here. In summary, the program would be improved by reversing the order of the High Level Segment and the thematic segment so that the reflections gleaned from the national reviews could inform the more policy oriented thematic debates.

Following this, the national reviews are perhaps the most important part of the HLPF and should therefore be given more time to encourage deeper debate. The thematic discussions gave a great deal of space for dialogue and inputs from MGoS while the national reviews gave very limited opportunities—the national reviews should provide the same opportunity for input. Finally, national reviews need to better incorporate views from the non-executive, which was a common criticism across contexts. Overall, there is a serious need to reconsider how the High Level Segment is designed to effectively serve the “accountability” function for the SDGs and targets for which it is meant.
Running in parallel to the national reviews and part of the High Level Segment was the General Debate where heads of Member State Delegations intervened and where Davids Etyang from the Eastern Africa Trade Union Confederation (EATUC) intervened on behalf of the Workers and Trade Unions Major Group.

As an outcome, the HLPF produced a Ministerial Declaration (soon online here) which is more a matter of form than function. While some civil society groups were unhappy with the content and ambition in the declaration, expectations for a strong negotiated outcome should have been tempered by the event’s proximity to the adoption of an ambitious agenda which took nearly three years to construct. At the very least having a negotiated and agreed declaration with some content sets a positive precedent going forward.

See here for the HLPF updates from the trade union delegation.