Transforming the politics of the HLPF: an urgent need to move beyond reviews

As we reflect on the ambitious and inspirational commitments set through the adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development in 2015, there is a clear and urgent need to assess the platforms responsible for the follow-up and review of the SDGs. In 2019, the first cycle of the United Nations High Level Political Forum (HLPF) will come to an end, and this will be an opportunity for Member States and various other stakeholders to  meaningfully assess and transform the ways in which the HLPF has not responded to the myriad of social, economic and environmental crisis that hinders the achievement of the 2030 agenda.

The HLPF is the central platform for follow-up and review of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the Sustainable Development Goals adopted in 2015. This year the HLPF took place from 9-18 July 2018 at the United Nations Headquarters in New York under the theme “transformation towards sustainable and resilient societies.” As with previous forums, the 2018 HLPF aimed to review the progress made by Member States towards the implementation of the 2030 Agenda, with specific focus on six goals [1]. In the first week, the program focused on thematic reviews with various panels, roundtables, side events, reports from ECOSOC functional committees and regional commissions. The second week included ministerial segments with the adoption of the annual ministerial declaration, and the voluntary national reviews of 47 countries [2].

Once again, RESURJ members attended the HLPF to position, as well as monitor, how the intersections between gender, economic and environmental justice impact Sexual and Reproductive Justice (SRJ); and how these perspectives are taken up by diverse stakeholder and Member States in the implementation of the 2030 Agenda. Of note is the fact that the goals under review (except for one target under goal 6), specifically reference the gender dimensions. Our advocacy was focused on and responded to, whether and how states were making interlinkages[3] between the goals, if and how states were considering the gender dimensions of the goals as cross-cutting, and whether issues related to sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) emerged as part of the broader interlinkages discussions.

RESURJ also began to engage in conversations of the review of HLPF modalities/methods of work, in particular emphasizing the need for a Global South feminist perspective within this process that is further grounded in national realities. This included issues raised by RESURJ member Sachini Perera of International Women’s Rights Action Watch Asia Pacific (IWRAW AP) during a panel discussion organized by Major Groups and other Stakeholders (MGoS) on “Review of GA Resolution 67/290: Interlinkages, Coherence, Accountability and Lessons Learned from the First Cycle of the HLPF.” [4]

There is increasing concern and urgency from RESURJ and like-minded allies, on the serious need to evaluate the composition and functionality of the HLPF.  Some of our key concerns are around the review of the HLPF’s ways of working, include whether and how the Voluntary National Reviews (VNRs) can reach beyond a cursory attempt at assessing the implementation of the SDGs; whether and how the outcomes and good practices of the regional sustainable development forum mechanisms are integrated to the HLPF; the political engagement of South younger feminists with the HLPF and the MGoS as a process of accountability; and the HLPF’s strengthening capacity to take a pulse of emerging structural issues, while reflecting and addressing the pressing political realities of our time.

Our Lived Realities: Did interlinkages emerge?

“Women’s stories and realities, in particular young women’s realities, are almost always missing from negotiations and decision-making in the hallways of power, their experiences often reduced to wordsmithing in resolutions and agreements. And their challenges, successes and survival entangled in reports and numbers.”[5]

The  transformative aims of the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda will not be reached if we continue to 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. At this third HLPF since the adoption of the SDGs, there were more efforts from some Member States to address the interlinkages between different goals and targets. This is a welcomed shift and now there is the need to take further steps to concretely articulate what those interlinkages means in the implementation of policy and programmes at the local levels. While the UN DESA Voluntary National Review (VNR) Handbook[6] provides guidelines to Member States preparing for the VNRs, and offers sufficient guidance on how to integrate the three dimensions of sustainable development by identifying the links between goals, the section on structural issues is not well developed and remains cosmetic. It is imperative for VNR guidelines to include more specific recommendations on how governments can report on gender equality in a cross-cutting way regardless of whether the gender goal is under review or if targets make specific reference to gender. From this HLPF, there are two examples worth highlighting.

During the VNR, Vietnam mentioned that the state views gender equality as a cross-cutting issue in all political, economic, cultural, and social spheres although it did not elaborate on how this approach is operationalized in the implementation of the agenda nor with Member States or other stakeholders asking for such examples. The national report from Vietnam[7] states that “The 17 SDGs are interactive. The implementation of one SDG will have an influence on another.”, further reiterating an interlinkages approach to the agenda. Some examples of note from the report are as follows:


Links between the multidimensional poverty rate, especially among ethnic minorities, and how it affects women and girls was noted: “girls get married early, have difficulty accessing educational opportunities, have a greater burden of housework, and have fewer livelihood options.”


The way factors such as age, poverty or belonging to an ethnic minority can make it more challenging for people to access health services including SRH services was noted including gaps and recommendations.


Links between access to clean water and gender equality were identified including in the contexts of care work and climate change. While sanitation services were discussed, the link between water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) services and menstruation was not made in any of the relevant goals thus missing an important link with SRHR.

Canada addressed interlinkages between goals and targets during the VNR but also raised the intersections of gender, sexuality, race and class in the implementation of the 2030 Agenda. The state report[8] notes “the distinct challenges faced by under-represented and marginalized groups—such as women, youth, newcomers to Canada, single parents, seniors, racialized communities, Indigenous peoples, persons with disabilities and LGBTQ2 and non-binary individuals—to ensure that everyone can benefit and share in Canada’s economic and social prosperity.”

Canada’s VNR is a good example of how gender equality can be addressed as a cross-cutting issue. Chapters on each goal explore how issues relating to women, girls and other marginalized groups are addressed in the implementation of the agenda and there are clear links being made between gender equality and the social, economic and environmental pillars of the agenda. While highlighting progress made in achieving gender equality in Canada, the report also notes gaps and challenges. “Certain groups of women and girls face multiple and intersecting forms of discrimination that create disproportionate obstacles to their equality, including Indigenous women and girls, migrant and refugee women and girls, women and girls who live in rural and remote areas, and disabled women and girls. LGBTQ+ and non-binary persons also face similar discrimination and obstacles to the realization and enjoyment of their rights.” While much more can be said on Canada’s shortcomings in its treatment of marginalized communities, from a reporting perspective, the interlinkage analysis demonstrate that where there is a will, there’s a way in making concrete links between gender equality and the various dimensions of sustainable development.

While both Canada and Vietnam raised challenges relating to collection of disaggregated data to monitor progress including gender equality as cross-cutting, it was apparent that Canada, as a developed country with more resources and capacity, was better equipped and prepared to address these challenges.

Key observations and recommendations

Voluntary National Reviews (VNR) need to be a space for countries to learn from each other and have a meaningful dialogue with all stakeholders, including civil society, on how an interlinkages approach to the SDGs can be operationalized and the related challenges and good practices shared. While more countries are discussing interlinkages, the discussion remains at a very superficial, conceptual level of merely making links between the goals and not really exploring and addressing structural discrimination based on gender, race, class, etc. that intersect with all the goals. Without this approach to the implementation of the SDGs, it will not be able to deliver on the promise of ‘leaving no one behind’.

Space must be created for Member States, UN agencies, civil society and other stakeholders to unpack how structural issues, including gender, must be addressed as cross-cutting across the agenda and how this can be concretely put into action during implementation.

The VNR Labs series that were launched by UN DESA[9] this year during the ministerial segment of the HLPF, could be a good way to leverage the global space for Member States and other stakeholders to reflect together on the implementation of the SDGs, share knowledge, expertise and best practices and how to make the HLPF a more meaningful platform. This is indeed how VNRs themselves should be conducted by focusing on the actual reviews at the national level and using regional and global spaces for further reflection and collective strategizing on key structural challenges, and sharing best practice related to VNR etc. VNR Labs should be considered again as part of the HLPF, planned on in advance and made more accessible for different types of stakeholders (while there seem to have been a good mix of stakeholders, many HLPF attendees didn’t find out about the VNRs laba until after the fact or were unable to apply to participate). Furthermore, upon evaluation, it should be explored if a similar model can be extrapolated to regional sustainable development forum as well.


Even when Member States strived to present their VNR from an interlinkages approach, sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) was not raised as part of the larger focused thematic discussions on the goals under review (although some states raised SRHR in relation to SDG 3 and SDG 5). This illustrates a key challenge the 2030 Agenda face with selecting only a certain clusters of goals to be the focus of the HLPF each year. While each SDGs merit in depth discussion,  these discussions should also be an opportunity to further explore how SRHR as well as the rights of women, girls and LGBTQI+ people, should be considered and addressed in the implementation of the goals under review.

At this year’s HLPF, it was vital for SRHR activists from Poland to be present during the country’s presentation of its VNR. During its review, Poland made no mention of the re-introduced proposal of a draconian bill that would ban abortion altogether. Moreover, SRHR advocates raised the point that Poland in its VNR has reinterpreted in a reductive way, targets 3.7 and 5.6;which refer to sexual and reproductive health care, and reproductive rights respectively, to language of procreation, severely undermining hard foughts gains for the women’s rights movements in securing recognition for reproductive rights and sexual health that is beyond procreation.

SRHR activists need resources and strengthened advocacy capacity to attend as well as substantively engage with every HLPF, regardless of the thematic focus, as well as to engage in their national VNR processes. Within the broad scope of the SDGs, SRHR is easily put aside or altogether forgotten thus it is of utmost importance that advocates are present, engaged and supported to hold the line on SRHR gains and ensure that these issues remain on the agenda and that the interlinkages between SRHR and other social, economic and environmental priorities are clearly articulated at every HLPF. Activists, organizations, Member States and donors need to continue to view the SDGs as interlinked and allocate resources to keep SRHR in the agenda each year.

Reform or Revolution: HLPF modalities review

It was while HLPF was ongoing that states agreed on the review of the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC)[10]. This and the upcoming reform of the modalities or methods of work of the HLPF during the 74th session of the UN General Assembly (UNGA) are part of the many reforms the United Nations is undergoing and it is critical that our proposals for revisions to the HLPF are framed by a Global South feminist perspective that is grounded in national realities.

We must treat the modalities review as an opportunity to exercise our collective political imagination of what we want the HLPF and the Voluntary National Reviews (VNRs) to look like and respond to. This means our thinking must begin from the changes we want in the substantive discussions at the HLPF and make recommendations to reform modalities to ensure that the HLPF is representative of our issues and constituencies.

Last year we noted that the HLPF “did little to reflect realities on the ground”[11]. This remained true in 2018. For  example, the Colombia’s VNR completely ignored the increasing violence against community leaders, human rights and environmental defenders that have resulted in the murder of 313 rights defenders[12] in the country since the signing of the peace accord in 2016. While civil society statements flagged this, the state did not respond. The disconnect between what happens at the local level and what is showcased at the UN through VNRs illustrates that, unless processes are strengthened to reflect the political realities of our countries, including the role of civil society, the transformational aims of the sustainable development agenda will not be achieved, at least not for all people.

Some key concerns the modalities review must assess are as follows:

HLPF as a point of convergence

The programme of the HLPF has to be designed to ensure that states take advantage of the VNRs and institutional processes to review the agenda for coherence and alignment at the national level while linking them to regional and global mechanisms. What this entails is that review of implementation of the SDGs and progress towards achieving the goals has to happen in a more robust, sustained and cross-sectoral way at the national level. The challenges, learnings and opportunities that emerge from the national reviews can be synthesized at regional forums and the HLPF can be a peer learning and knowledge sharing space with processes to ensure there is a direct feedback loop to the national level. In other words, the national, regional and global processes have to work together as cogs in one machine with each playing a different role in taking the agenda forward.

We should be cautious of equating countries doing a VNR every year at the HLPF to political commitment towards the 2030 Agenda. As we’ve seen in the past HLPFs, VNRs provide very little time for in depth and substantive discussions on the implementation of the agenda and not all stakeholders have the resources or opportunities to have access to the review at the global level. Even Members States, sometimes, lack access as shown by the example of the Palestine state delegation being denied visa to travel to New York for the VNR at the 2018 HLPF[13]. Therefore as mentioned earlier, we need annual reviews of the implementation of the SDGs to happen at national level which would ensure that all stakeholders, including the general public and civil society, have the opportunity to engage with the review. This would also contribute towards state being able to connect the dots between reporting done on the SDGs and reporting to human rights mechanisms and ensure that implementation of the SDGs takes into account existing human rights obligations of the state.

As the discussions on the review of the HLPF take shape, there also needs to be improved and clearer connections between areas of the HLPF program such as the VNR processes, the thematic reviews, the Ministerial Declaration,etc. Moreover, a fully functional HLPF would need to meaningfully integrate input from various processes and mechanisms of the 2030 Agenda whether it is Finance for Development, the STI Forum or Sendai as well as the input from the Human Rights Council (HRC), treaty bodies and special mandate holders. Most importantly, the llinks between the regional SDGs forums and the HLPF need to be less tenuous. Outcomes of regional forums should have a bigger role in shaping the programme of the HLPF, the Ministerial Declaration and the collective political commitment. Right now, the report back from UN’s Regional Sustainable Development forums doesn’t happen within the main session, is allocated very limited time in the HLPF programme, and doesn’t give space for MGoS to report back. A reform of HLPF should take into account how to address such shortcomings.

Displays of political commitment

The outcome of the HLPF and the High Level Segment of the same is supposed to be a negotiated Ministerial Declaration which reaffirms the political commitment of Member States to the 2030 Agenda. However, this display of political commitment has become a farce at most and an exercise that takes up valuable resources including time at the HLPF at best. For one, a draft of the Ministerial Declaration is already negotiated and in place before the HLPF even begins. This means there is no space for various stakeholders, particularly those not based in New York, to influence the negotiations and no space to incorporate the outcomes of thematic and national reviews that take place during the HLPF.

The silence procedure on the negotiated draft broke down during the HLPF and what followed was a vote on gender, water, foreign occupation, extraterritorial obligations and trade related language that turned the Ministerial Declaration into the opposite of a display of political commitment to ‘leaving no one behind’. The negotiations and voting on agreed upon language makes a mockery of the energy and resources spent on the myriad of processes that led to the adoption of the SDGs.  

Reform of HLPF modalities should include a serious evaluation of the Ministerial Declaration and introduce processes that make it an exercise of political commitment to the 2030 Agenda without going back on said commitment.

Major Group and Other Stakeholders Engagement

Each HLPF has seen incremental progress in how various stakeholders engage with the forum, largely thanks to the concerted efforts of the Major Group and Other Stakeholders (MGoS). However, a reform of HLPF modalities needs to ensure a formal space for civil society participation and strengthen stakeholder engagement so that the space becomes democratized and truly reflects multi-stakeholder partnership as articulated in the 2030 Agenda and not a choreographed participation exercise.

As mentioned earlier, access to the HLPF remains a challenge for many stakeholders not only due to a lack of resources but also because US foreign policy under the Trump regime has made it even more difficult for activists and other actors from several countries, especially in the Global South, to be granted visas and to gain entry to the USA. As with the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW)[14], there are questions as to whether global processes will continue to happen in New York, cutting off access for many who can’t make into the US and/or are boycotting the country for political reasons.

The privileges that enable some actors, including ourselves, to engage with the HLPF must be closely examined and acknowledged. We must use the HLPF as a space to advocate for more stakeholders, especially those invisibilized for various reasons, to gain access. A reform of modalities can contribute towards this by opening registration for the HLPF with sufficient time for both an open and transparent selection process for funding support from UN DESA and Major Groups and for stakeholders to raise sufficient funds, go through visa application processes, etc. Furthermore, civil society should be given equal access and opportunities granted to the private sector. Entire hallways of the UN are closed down for the “Business Forum,” yet civil society are denied entrance to several meeting rooms.

While MGoS now have an opportunity to make an intervention during each VNR (a definite improvement from the  2017 HLPF when some states didn’t even want CSOs in the room), there is still a lack of autonomy in the process. MGoS are supposed to submit statements and questions to UN DESA ahead of time so that Member States are aware of the issues being raised and Member States have the option to altogether refrain from answering the questions or responding to statements. A privilege we saw being exercised by the likes of Poland and Colombia.

We welcome UN DESA’s effort to conduct a comparative analysis of the Major Groups and other stakeholders’ participation in the sessions of the HLPF in 2017 and 2018 [15]. However, an analysis that focused on numbers – number of statements made by civil society and other stakeholders during the HLPF and the number of side events organized – does not convey the perspectives and challenges inherent in participating in UN spaces. The analysis concludes that participation of MGoS remains “stable.” It is also unclear what ‘stable’ means. This only points to the visible aspect of participation. Profound and concerning questions, such as who has access, who gets to speak, how grassroots, local, and autonomous civil society groups participating in comparison to those that are well established, funded and registered (including those with ECOSOC status), what is said in statements, how much time is allocated, how the process is defined and the level of decision-makers presence and political willingness to dialogue with civil society, must be further explored.

This type of analysis does not do justice to the fact that Global South feminists and advocates from diverse fields continue to actively engage, bring expertise and best practice – from access to energy to resilient living, to harmonizing the human rights and the sustainable development framework. It also does not show that our presence in decision-making spaces still raises questions by Member States, UN agencies and international NGOs. That while our lives and work are intersectional, we are expected to fit in tiny answer boxes about where we are from, which goals we work on, and the status of our organizations.

Civil society participation: are we seeing more younger feminists?

What we witness from the moment we walk into the UN is tireless struggle to not conform nor be distracted by the myriad of processes that define civil society participation that most often lead to silencing civil society voices in decision-making spaces. For example, while Major Groups and Other stakeholders are expected to be able to raise questions with VNR countries post presentations, the process to develop such questions are labour-intensive, highly prescriptive, and infinitely challenging given the limited time and space for posing them. In the end, it is understood that this is a choreographed political exercise that we conform too because of the dwindling nature of multilateralism and the undermining of global governance spaces.

The constant analysis of whether and how to engage in the space is echoed before, during and after the HLPF. Several organizations and collectives issued a statement[16] calling for urgent action and accountability for the 2030 Agenda. Demanding political will and financing to address the slow progress in implementing the agenda, in particular (in UN adage) for those furthest left behind.

As a Global South younger feminist alliance, we were pleased to see that more younger feminists, in particular from the Global South, are politically engaging in the follow-up and review of the 2030 Agenda at the national, regional and global levels. This is quite a contrast to the often overused reference to youth participation. While we also advocate for participation in decision-making spaces, there needs to be accountability from those of us who then get to participate in given spaces. That is to say, once we do have access to participate, what do we say? How do we go beyond the rhetoric of participation that is measured by numbers and not substance? How do we continue to build on feminist accountability practices to make these spaces more inclusive of diverse voices and experiences?

While we followed and influenced the trajectory of the new sustainable development agenda from its inception, we hold firm to our belief that justice must be the ultimate outcome of the 2030 Agenda. Justice firmly grounded in the progressive realization of human rights, inclusive participation, protection of our commons, and within planetary boundaries. As civil society, we must insist on the inclusion of those most excluded and marginalized and affected by the social, economic, political and ecological crisis of our time. Structural challenges highlighted over and over again by civil society engaged in these spaces must be addressed in VNRs, through a meaningful and evidence-based manner. The HLPF is yet to realize its potential to be a relevant political body where solutions driven by diverse stakeholders can be assessed and acted upon.

[1]Goal 6. Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all

Goal 7. Ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all

Goal 11. Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable

Goal 12. Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns

Goal 15. Protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, and halt and reverse land degradation and halt biodiversity loss

Goal 17. Strengthen the means of implementation and revitalize the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development (considered each year)

[2] Albania, Andorra, Armenia, Australia, Bahamas, Bahrain, Benin, Bhutan, Cabo Verde, Canada, Colombia, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Egypt, Greece, Guinea, Hungary, Ireland, Jamaica, Kiribati, Lao People’s Democratic Republic (PDR), Latvia, Lebanon, Lithuania, Mali, Malta, Mexico, Namibia, Niger, Paraguay, Poland, Qatar, Republic of the Congo, Romania, Saudi Arabia, Senegal, Singapore, Slovakia, Spain, Sri Lanka, State of Palestine, Sudan, Switzerland, Togo, United Arab Emirates (UAE), Uruguay, and Vietnam