The urgent need for reform of the UN’s HLPF

By Deirdre de Burca – SDG Watch Europe Steering Group member

*This article reflects the personal views of the author on HLPF reform. SDG Watch Europe members will be consulted for their views on the issue in early autumn 2018.

For those SDG Watch Europe members who attended the UN’s High Level Political Forum (HLPF) in New York this year (9-18 July), there was a growing sense of urgency about the need to reform the way in which it is constituted and functions.

47 UN member states volunteered this year to present their Voluntary National Reviews (VNRs) at the HLPF. As in previous years, the CSOs who were present in New York spent much of their time meeting on the margins of the HLPF, as part of unofficial side events or in other gatherings organized by and for civil society.

Because many of the CSOs attending the HLPF this year were present on several previous occasions, it was easier to identify recurring issues and ongoing concerns linked to the current mandate and functioning of the Forum.

A common critique of the HLPF by civil society is that it is a very state-led and state-centered process. The role played by civil society and other key stakeholders in the HLPF is currently very limited, despite the clear commitment of the Agenda 2030 to a multi-stakeholder approach to monitoring and implementation.

Most national HLPF delegations do not include CSO representatives. When they do involve CSO representatives, these individuals are allowed approximately two minutes to comment publicly on the VNRs produced by governments. The growing number of high-quality CSO Shadow Reports produced in parallel to the VNRs are given no official status of any kind as part of the HLPF and cannot be uploaded to the UN website.

A major outcome of the annual HLPF is the publication of an official “Inter- Ministerial Declaration” that reflects some of the current issues and priorities identified by the Member States linked to the monitoring and implementation of the Agenda 2030 for Sustainable Development. Unfortunately, civil society and other stakeholders are not given the opportunity to provide input into this Declaration and generally react to its publication by issuing their own official response.

Fortunately, UN Member States have committed themselves to carrying out an official review of the HLPF in September 2019. Over the coming year, SDG Watch Europe members and broader civil society must engage in intensive advocacy aimed at governments and other key actors They must ensure that this planned review goes well beyond a superficial reflection process and that a range of fundamental and necessary HLPF reform proposals and policy changes are generated that will be implemented over the next few years.

When UN Member States review the HLPF in September 2018, the focus of the review should be multi-level and include the national, regional and global levels of the HLPF cycle. This will mean that Member States should review: 1) the Voluntary National Review processes, 2) the regional level peer review processes which take place through the UN’s Regional Sustainable Development Forums, and 3) the global level HLPF annual peer review system that takes place in New York every July.

Although all levels of the HLPF cycle are equally important, particular attention should be paid to the VNR process in order to ensure that it becomes a national- and locally-owned process. With this objective in mind, governments should be required to present draft VNRs for debate and approval by national parliaments and by the official multi-stakeholder Sustainable Development Forum before it is submitted at a global level to the HLPF.

At the regional level, civil society should be properly resourced to organize itself across national and sub-regional boundaries. Multi-annual funding should be provided to resource permanent secretariats for the new Regional Civil Society Engagement Mechanisms (RCEMs) being established in each region. Resources should also be provided under Goal 17 of the Agenda 2030 to engage in CSO capacity development the regional level. Regional exchanges and learning hubs should be established involving diverse stakeholders to promote more effective Agenda 2030 monitoring and implementation across each region.

At a global level, the HLPF should create a “Civil Society Forum” similar to the existing “Business Forum” where CSOs can come together to debate issues and agree on positions linked to the monitoring and implementation of the Agenda 2030. CSO Shadow Reports linked to VNRs should be given the same formal status by the UN, and a dedicated website linked directly to the UN website should be provided where these parallel reports can be uploaded.

The draft Ministerial Declaration adopted at the end of each HLPF should be much more action-oriented and it should be shared with other stakeholders in advance of its publication. These stakeholders should have the right to request that certain elements of the Declaration be amended or re-written before final adoption.

There should be a clear focus each year during the HLPF on involving all stakeholders in fulfilling its mandate to review progress by implementing Goal 17 (Means of Implementation) of the Agenda 2030. This should particularly include issues of financing for sustainable development, multi-stakeholder partnerships and the capacity development of stakeholders. Spaces should be created within the HLPF for mutual exchange and learning to take place amongst and between governments and other stakeholders including civil society, the private sector, trade unions, academia, etc.

The official review of the HLPF by UN Member States will take place during the 2019 UNGA from 23-24 September. In the meantime, civil society must be extremely proactive to carry out necessary advocacy with national governments and other key actors, including the EU. The focus of this advocacy must be to ensure that the review results in a reformed HLPF which will allow for much more meaningful and effective participation by civil society in the monitoring and implementation of the Agenda 2030 globally.

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