From 5 to 15 July, the High-Level Political Forum, the culmination of the review process of the Sustainable Development Goals of the UN 2030 Agenda, took place in New York. The results revealed the current political immobility on key issues such as climate, environment, development and rights.

The advancement of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is monitored through a mechanism of regional consultations (Regional Forums) and National Voluntary Reviews (VNRs) coordinated and presented at the ECOSOC High Level Political Forum, the main UN platform dedicated to sustainable development at the global level, which meets in plenary every July.  The forum ensures the review of all SDGs, but at the same time has an overarching theme to which specific Goals are linked; this year the focuses were post-COVID recovery in the context of the continued implementation of the 2030 Agenda, and Goals 4 (education)5 (gender equality)14 (life under water)15 (life on earth) and 17 (cooperation).

Voluntary National Reviews and SDG

The presentation of the VNRs took place against the backdrop of a moment of generalised instability, which includes the climate crisis, the pandemic that has not yet been completely eradicated, and the domino effect of the war in Ukraine, which, in addition to being a humanitarian crisis, is creating food and energy security problems with significant repercussions for the economy at the international level. Adding to the sources of concern were heat waves and related fires, along with political instability following the fall of as many as two national governments in Europe (Italy and the United Kingdom), and social and political unrest over the recent restriction of women’s rights in the United States.

This international scenario made it even more evident that the SDGs framework represents the direction that needs to be taken with increasing urgency to address and resolve the current international crises. A total of 44 countries presented the results of their national work in implementing the 2030 Agenda. Overall, it emerged that the pandemic has had a negative impact on the achievement of the commitments made by these nations to date, but, on the other hand, the failure to advance the SDGs was mainly related to pre-existing systemic/structural issues for which the political will to solve them was lacking. 

The discussion on education (SDG 4) revealed that more than 20 million students were affected by school closures and that limited access to digital tools significantly increased already existing inequalities among students that were never structurally addressed.

On gender equality (SDG 5) the scenario that was presented is alarming. A significant worsening of the socio-economic situation of women has emerged from several countries, as well as an increase in gender-based violence, early marriages and teenage pregnancies, too often confined with their aggressors and isolated from help services. The pandemic has undoubtedly created borderline situations, but there has also been a lack of accountability on the part of states towards the structural protection of women’s rights, the result of decades in which the problem has never been placed at the forefront of national political agendas. Dystopian, moreover, to point out that the discussion was taking place precisely in the United States where women’s sexual and reproductive rights have been criminalised for less than two weeks.

Some positive signs came from the presentation of new commitments for marine protection (SDG 14). Several countries presented actions they are taking at the national lvel to expand marine protected areas, limit fishing subsidies and tackle plastic pollution in the oceans. This last point reflected the influence of the resolution for the creation of a binding international treaty to combat plastic pollution adopted by the United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA-5). It was surprising how little attention was paid by the delegation’s present (as well as in the concluding ministerial declaration of the forum) to the need to transform human-animal-environment systems (SDG15). Indeed, the information on zoonotic origin in COVID-19, as well as the UNEA-5 resolution adopted this year on the nexus between animal welfare, environment and sustainable development, should have prompted a more urgent addressing of the issue.

Civil society

Despite the difficulties of participation due to the initial limits imposed on in-person attendance and the general difficulties of receiving travel visas now, several civil society representatives managed to attend the HLPF. All opportunities to speak were taken advantage of and priority areas related to the 2030 Agenda were indicated to the delegates. These included: 

– investing in equitable access to vaccines, including through sharing licenses to enable countries to produce these and other medically important products;

– addressing the food, energy and fertiliser crises that emerged from the war in Ukraine;

– increasing investment in social and health protection, especially for women;

– increase the meaningful participation of young people in decision-making;

– investing in people, including through the Transforming Education Summit;

– “Keep the 1.5°C target alive”, including by ending dependence on fossil fuels and investing in renewable energy; 

– reviewing access and eligibility to concessional finance for developing countries.

In general, the themes of rights, climate and the need for concrete action in line with the Paris Agreement and the COP26 commitments were recurrent; a clear attempt on the part of civil society to call to action those political decision-makers who do not seem to perceive the urgency and dramatic nature of the current crises.

There was also no lack of moments of reflection on the contradictions of the current system of international relations, in which nations come together to promote multilateral actions and at the same time create impossible conditions for their realisation. In this case, the economic debt of the world’s richest countries, towards many ‘developing’ countries, hinders the achievement of the SDGs, which are also closely linked to climate resilience and adaptation. A paralysis that harms everyone, created by ‘developed’ countries that in overcoming institutionalised colonialism have maintained forms of economic domination towards countries they had already despoiled. As economist Jeffrey Sachs commented: if the ultimate goal is to ‘leave no one behind’, current ‘loans’ to developing nations will not achieve the goals of the 2030 Agenda.

The problems of the HLPF

The VNRs are a voluntary process and the fact that in 2022 there are only 7 countries that have never interacted with the HLPF’s SDGs review process can be seen as a success. However, there continues to be a problem related to the ‘quality’ of the reports that is undermining the effectiveness of the HLPF mechanism. 

Although several countries have already participated in other HLPFs, most of the reports submitted are still only focused on presenting the current level of implementation of the 2030 Agenda. There is a lack of detail on the actions taken over the years, such as, for example, details of the policies that have been created and implemented and how they have contributed to the advancement of the SDGs at the national level or data, from official sources, that can demonstrate the advancement they boast in the reports. The SDGs review process also requires that civil society be consulted, but very few countries make explicit whether and how this process is carried out and how its input is incorporated into the reports for the VNRs. Finally, many countries still seem not to have understood that the report must include a review of all SDGs and not only those under thematic review. All this negatively affects the quality of the reports and what should be a process of promoting action for sustainable development at every level.

The urgency to transform the VNR process from a mere procedural exercise with fragmented contributions of little use, to a comprehensive process on which to base international action for sustainable development, and consequently also for climate action, has never been higher and, unfortunately once again, this depends on the political will of current governments.

Chiara Soletti

Published online for Italian Climate Network on the website of the organisation.