What the 2017 High Level Political Forum tells us about the implementation of the 2030 Agenda and what is needed to move it forward
It has been two years since the adoption of the 2030 Agenda, a new ambitious global sustainable development agenda that aims to address the failures of its predecessor, the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). The 2030 Agenda succeeds the MDGs in scope and ambition as a universal, indivisible, integrated, and interlinked agenda, where the cross-cutting principles of human rights, gender equality and sustainability are at the center of development. Following the High Level Political Forum that took place in New York 10th-19th July 2017, RESURJ and partners explore the progress and challenges in moving forward with the aims of the agenda so far, and ask: if the aim is to have an indivisible, interlinked and integrated agenda, does what we see so far render the transformational aims of this agenda simply aspirational?
RESURJ, alongside allies from DIVA for Equality – Fiji, Education as a Vaccine (EVA) – Nigeria, Balance Promoción para el Desarrollo y Juventud AC – Mexico, Anis Instituto de Bioética, and Vecinas Feministas por la Justicia Sexual y Reproductiva – Brazil, participated in the second HLPF, which was held under the theme of Eradicating Poverty and Promoting Prosperity in Changing World. The forum focused on assessing implementation of the goals on poverty (SDG 1), hunger (SDG 2), health (SDG 3) gender equality (SDG 5), infrastructure (SDG 9) and oceans (SDG 14), as well as the yearly review of SDG 17 on the means of implementation.
Similar to 2016, the two-week forum included reports from regional commissions and functional commissions of ECOSOC, a joint Ministerial Declaration that was negotiated in the weeks prior to and during the HLPF, as well as a thematic review, and interactive sessions related to the goals under review. This year, forty-three countries volunteered to participate in the voluntary national review (VNR) process, double the number of countries reporting at the 2016 HLPF. The forum was attended by various government representatives including at the ministerial level, UN agencies, regional commissions and over 2400 stakeholders including civil society from diverse movements.
Stuck on Repeat
Following a weak start in 2016, where the first HLPF fell short of playing an important political role in taking action to address the obstacles in achieving the SDGs, feminists were cautiously hopeful that the HLPF in 2017 would see some improvement based on the lessons learned from the 2016 forum. The drawbacks of the limited time and space given to in-depth discussion on structural issues, accountability, cross-regional sharing of challenges and strategies, and civil society participation were evident. Once again, the HLPF missed the opportunity of establishing itself as a key global and strategic mechanism for the follow up and review of the 2030 agenda. Furthermore, a number of expert panelists highlighted the weak attempt by many member states to even provide basic conceptual clarity around approaches to the agenda and its implementation, in particular, conceptual clarity on interlinkages, policy coherence, and coordination.
Also similar to the 2016 forum, this year’s HLPF continued to inadequately connect the various sessions of the program. For example, there was a disconnect between the thematic review during the first week of the HLPF, and the following week’s ministerial segment and VNRs. As was highlighted by civil society stakeholders following the 2016 HLPF, the indivisible nature of the agenda must be made evident in the structure, member states’ engagement in the process, and in how connections are made between the in-depth review of the goals and the VNRs, which remained a major gap. Despite there being more VNRs this year, the same inadequate time allotted in 2016 was given to an increased number of countries in 2017. This small but crucial detail allowed little room for discussion between countries or questions from Major Groups and other Stakeholders. This limitation ultimately served as a scapegoat for countries who then only had time to provide a snapshot of their plans and progress at the national level with no scrutiny.
The content of the government interventions shared via VNR reports stood in stark difference to what experts in thematic panels and interventions from major groups and other stakeholders concluded in discussions. The experts, including members of civil society, academia, and head of UN regional commissions, raised numerous structural issues such as inequalities, illicit financial flows, and policy coherence. However, without concrete examples from VNR countries as to how these are being addressed during the course of the agenda’s implementation, the points gained little traction or comment.
The dynamics that played in the negotiation of the ministerial declaration were similar to those that played out in the previous HLPF in 2016, and also reflected some of the tensions during the negotiations for the 2030 Agenda two years earlier. The play on issues such as foreign occupation, gender equality, and means of implementation was ever present, with North and South governments using the declaration as a battleground for issues within the 2030 agenda, and outside of the 2030 agenda. The annual ministerial declaration cannot be a space to re-negotiate the 2030 Agenda. The agenda, its goals and targets are clear, and the ministerial declaration should always reaffirm the wider focus of the agenda and its indivisibility, universality, and commitment to human rights and sustainable development.
As highlighted in the report Voluntary National Reviews: What Are Countries Prioritizing? From Together 2030 and World Vision (2017), a handful of countries did go in depth in their VNR reporting on various areas. Thailand for example, went as far as to recognize the inputs and contributions from civil society. Some countries, such as Kenya, Jordan, and Ethiopia, reported on the specific groups, including marginalized groups, that they had engaged in consultations on the review and VNR, with Jordan for example specifically pointing out the inclusion of women, young people and children.
Despite these examples of good practice in the follow-up and review of implementation, we remain concerned about the way in which many governments, and even some parts of civil society, continue to approach the 2030 Agenda and the reporting of its implementation in a very siloed way ignoring the indivisible and integrated nature of the SDGs. For example, only under a third of the VNR this year provided a balanced account of the three dimensions of development, some countries focusing only on national priority goals, and some only focusing in their VNR reports on the goals for in-depth review this year. 
Many VNR reports and presentations did little to reflect realities on the ground. Brazil is a particularly disheartening case where harsh austerity measures including a 20-year freeze on public spending, precarious labor and welfare reforms, indicate clear regressions on commitments to principles of 2030 Agenda. However, in its presentation, these retrogressive actions were portrayed as “actions that promote greater fiscal discipline.” And as “the main strategy to deal with the fiscal crisis.”
Other countries, such as Uruguay, while presenting somewhat comprehensive reports, came short of highlighting certain important elements that are essential for the attainment of the 2030 Agenda, as highlighted by feminist and civil society groups in Uruguay. The member state report included achievements obtained so far including universal health access, reduction in poverty and inequality, but the data presented in the report is not disaggregated, thereby questioning whether the most disadvantageous groups do indeed have access to health care and services. As a matter of fact, disaggregated data provided by the CSOs in ‘alternative reports’ to the official government report shows that structural inequalities remain unchanged in the country.
Civil Society Contributions and Governments’ Responsibilities
Practices that value and respect civil society’s experience and knowledge of the interlinkage nature of the agenda can generate greater accountability in addressing progress and challenges in implementation. In 2017, some governments reported having robust mechanisms for engagement with civil society and other actors in the review process, whilst others did not mention any mechanism for this at all.
In Argentina, an alliance of 41 organizations worked with the National Council of Social Policies (CNPS), the governmental body responsible for the implementation of Agenda 2030. Members of the civil society alliance worked with the CNPS on dissemination and training on the SDGs, including workshops with indigenous communities, and the development of leaflets and materials on the SDGs. Despite this joint work and partnership, the CSOs were unable to incorporate information and data gathered during the process into the final VNR. Of note is the fact that these organizations didn’t have access to the report until published on the UN website. However, Argentina’s efforts to include civil society from the beginning is an important step that must be built on going forward. Argentina was one of the few countries, if not the only country, that provided space in the official intervention for a 2-minute CSO intervention from civil society (equally 2 minutes was given to the private sector.)
CSOs involved in this process have also faced difficulties holding their governments accountable. The involvement of CSOs and the request by governments to include their work in the VNRs potentially creates a situation where they are unable to truly challenge the government. The distinction of what is the work and impact of CSOs and what is that of the government’s, becomes less clear.
It has been observed that some CSOs see the citing of their work in the VNR of their countries as a formal validation by the government, and thereby are focused on pushing for the inclusion of this work in the reports. For example, during the VNR consultation workshops at the national level in Nigeria, the focus was on collecting information for completing the reporting template, and what can be included to ensure a favorable view of the country’s implementation of the agenda. The workshop could have served as an opportunity for the government to present to its people’s actions it has taken towards the implementation of the 2030 agenda and provide a platform for CSOs and individuals to engage in a constructive conversation that questions and identifies gaps with the aim of improving implementation. While it is important for CSOs to work with governments, it is equally important for them to monitor and identify the gaps in the government’s respect for its obligations and to demand accountability. Future VNRs can include actions taken by CSOs in the implementation of the agenda, but it should be clearly separated from actions taken by the State.
Also of concern is the lack of clarity from governments on the diversity in reach, expertise, principles and resources that exists among CSO and non-governmental organizations. For example, Mexico’s representative stated at a side event at the HLPF that governments need CSOs to be involved in the implementation of the 2030 Agenda since the government cannot afford to do so on its own. At the same time however, he dismissed the expertise provided by CSOs by saying that they were unaware of the indicators process for the Agenda. It seems that governments are not clear on the value and content of the work that CSOs bring into the development world beyond being perceived as service providers.
The role of the private sector was confined to primarily financing the agenda with no accountability for the work they do across nations. This is worrisome, as the private sector, especially in the Global South, has played a damaging role in the deepening of poverty and increasing inequalities. And yet they were given ample space by governments throughout the forum, often at the expense of CSOs who were in turn given less space and undermined their contributions, especially on issues of ecological justice.
Policy Coherence and Universality
Another major disconnect lies between the process of review at national, regional and global levels, which remains unclear. At both the 2016 and 2017 forums, a lot of emphasis was placed on the VNR reporting at the global level as the only mechanism evaluating implementation, while there was hardly any effort to connect this with the review processes taking place at the national and regional levels. This is a major challenge to the participation and engagement of civil society in the review process who most of the time can engage and affect the process only at the national level. The 2030 Agenda call for member states to conduct regular and inclusive reviews of progress at the national and sub-national levels, drawing on contributions from civil society, marginalized groups and others. It is important that member states take advantage of the VNR and institute processes to review the agenda for coherence and alignment at the national level while linking them to regional and global mechanisms. Some countries at this year’s HLPF including the Czech Republic, Denmark, Jordan, Kenya, the Netherlands, and Thailand, reported plans to produce annual national reports on progress in implementation. The interconnection between local, national, regional and global levels is a key aspect of policy coherence – a concept that is overused and underutilized.
Regional differences were evident not only in the engagement of civil society in the review of implementation, and public awareness of the agenda and goals, but also through the mechanism for asking questions to participating VNR countries at the HLPF. When the floor was given to CSOs to ask governments questions on their reports, some excellent points were made reflecting both progress, but also gaps in the VNR reports. However, there was a recurring issue that played out – that of CSOs from the Global North thinking that the limited space available for questions should be given to the Global South CSOs to pose questions to their governments. This emboldens the incorrect assumption that this agenda is primarily for the Global South, and reinforces North-South and donor-recipient dynamics, which in the context of a universal agenda, is problematic. Civil society in the Global North must take this opportunity to address their own governments equally on issues of national and international policy in the implementation of the agenda. As well as this, civil society in the Global North should engage cross-regionally in the preparation of interventions and inputs to the review, with countries not only in receipt of ODA, but with countries impacted by the foreign policy of their own.
The Missing Links
Whilst interlinkages and policy coherence were often alluded to during country reporting and thematic debates in 2016, the economy and climate dimensions of the agenda were discussed in isolation from achieving social justice and realizing human rights. Climate change and ecological degradation, militarization and conflict, unjust financial, trade and investment governance, corporate capture and wealth concentration, land and resource grabbing, to name a few, are all crises that require a strong commitment and deep thinking from all of us, so that we can reach a just and safe transition to ecologically based economies. However, little mention of these were made by governments and they were not given the space for in-depth discussions within the HLPF. The HLPF should be the space where this kind of structural challenges are dissected and named as well as a place for solution driven imagining.
Feminists have consistently stated that this cannot be a goal driven agenda. People’s lives and realities do not sit within just one goal or target of this agenda. Instead, people’s realities, contexts, and needs are a complex weaving of many issues, within and outside of this expansive agenda. The VNR and thematic reviews at the HLPF have yet to take action to ensure that the approaches used reflect peoples’ experiences and realities.
During the thematic sessions some CSO actors highlighted the concern that interlinkages, even the simplest connections between goals and targets, were not being made in the VNR reports or discussions. Some interventions were pertinent in addressing the underlying conditions that allow poverty and inequalities to thrive. Alicia Bárcena, Executive Secretary of the UN Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), spoke strongly of the need to recognize and address the various contexts in which the agenda is being implemented including the fact that the 2008 financial crisis continues to fuel inequality across the world, as well as the rise of conservatism, protectionism and xenophobia, all presenting major barriers to inclusive and democratic societies. Bárcena also highlighted the important need for countries to reduce tax evasion and increase taxation, in particular in the LAC region, to mobilize public and private resources around the 2030 agenda.
In one of the strongest interventions of the HLPF, Debapriya Bhattacharya of Southern Voice, highlighted the clear confusion between policy coherence and interlinkages, calling for a strengthened conceptual clarity, harmonization of concepts, and use of language; addressing specifically the misconceptions related to interlinkages. It was clear from the country reports and discussion in the session that many concepts and approaches were continuing to be confused, in particular processes and approaches, such as interlinkages and interministerial/ interdepartmental coherence.
Bhattacharya also added that the tools that are used to embed interlinkages in the implementation of the agenda, including the nexus approach, looking at the specific relationships between goals, the scoring approach, and the network mapping approach, share similar challenges: that they fail to address the deeper problems that create the conditions for inequalities, human rights violations and barriers to sustainable development. These tools do not take into consideration national and local contexts, and are data-driven, seeking only to address the issues for which data is available, as opposed to the important ones for which data is not aggregated or available.
Bhattacharya called for a focus initially on ‘intra-linkages’ as a precondition for leveraging interlinkages for implementing SDGs at the country level. This also calls for a reflection of interlinkages in budget allocation, for the establishment of a mechanism to monitor and review inter/ intra-linkages aspects of the agenda, and for systemic concerns to be at the center of the agenda; international taxation, illicit financial flows and ODA; Means of Implementation being a way to consider interlinkages in the implementation.
In 2018 and 2019 the UN and member states have the opportunity to review VNR guidelines as well as the structure of the HLPF. From here until then, there is crucial work that needs to be done including ensuring that clear guidelines on interlinkage, its languages and best practices are developed and adopted by governments and civil society alike.
Practicing What We Preach
The Sustainable Development Goals are really a battle between commodities and the commons. As a feminist alliance, RESURJ’s approach to justice includes that we understand and address the interlinkages between women’s bodies, health, and human rights in the context of the ecological, social and economic crisis that we face.
As part of RESURJ’s ongoing advocacy within this process we have over the past two years, focused on how we leverage evidence based on people’s realities for a justice approach to the implementation of the 2030 Agenda, and other key processes. In particular, we aim to share examples of the interlinkages and experiences of people to inform policy advocacy, resource allocation, and interventions. We have also started to explore how certain interventions have the potential to impact multiple goals and targets, and are potential key tools in the realization of the agenda. One such example is how Comprehensive Sexuality Education can have a positive impact on young people and adolescent’s lives including contributing to reducing inequalities and violence, improving health and education outcomes, reducing poverty and increasing opportunities. Exploring interventions and policy that could have multiple effects on multiple goals is a learning process for us and we are taking this challenge on because we know that the interlinkage and intersectional perspective called for in moving the Agenda 2030 forward cannot come from governments alone.
We will not achieve the transformational aims of this agenda, if we silo our responses to the economic, ecological and social crises that we face. Holding the realities of people and our planet at the center, is the critical approach that we have missed before, and cannot risk missing again.
 The HLPF is the global mechanism created to follow-up and review the 2030 Agenda. The HLPF brings together, national, regional and global processes, and is mandated to address the challenges and opportunities in implementing the 2030 Agenda.