Blogpost by Rudy De Meyer (11.11.11, CONCORD Belgium), Vendula Menšíková (Ženatá) (Glopolis, FoRS), Bjarke Vestergaard (Globalt Fokus), Véronique Faber (Cercle de coopération), Gerjan Agterhof (Woord & Daad, Partos), Pedro Cruz (Plataforma OGND), Albin Kuec and Adriana Aralica (SLOGA), Sofia Svarfvar (CONCORD Sweden), Sami Asali (Coordination Sud), Sonja Grigat (VENRO), Jussi Kanner (Kehys) and Agne Tamm (AKÜ)
Representatives from governments and other stakeholders such as civil society from around the world gather again in New York this July to review progress made to deliver on the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development in the first 22 months. Ten EU Member States – Belgium, Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Italy, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Portugal, Slovenia and Sweden – are among the 44 countries to report on their national implementation of the 2030 Agenda. National platforms of CONCORD have engaged in the process of drafting these national reviews, analysed the respective reports of their countries and pointed out their pros and cons. To ensure a longer-term approach to this important part of the global follow-up and review framework, we also monitor the follow-up in the countries that reported last year to the High-level Political Forum.
The global monitoring process
If we want to achieve the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, we need to work together, monitor progress, hold all actors involved to account and review our strategies and policies when needed. We take stock of global level progress at the UN High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development (HLPF), which is informed by an annual SDG progress report, Voluntary National Reviews, a quadrennial Global Sustainable Development Report, and other relevant inputs.
Every year countries can volunteer to review their national progress at this global level. Such voluntary national reviews or VNRs aim to accelerate the implementation of the 2030 Agenda by facilitating the sharing of experiences, including successes, challenges and lessons learnt. They seek to strengthen policies and institutions of governments as well as to mobilize multi-stakeholder support and partnerships for the implementation of the Sustainable Development Agenda. The 2030 Agenda stipulates that VNRs should be open, inclusive, participatory and transparent for all people, gender-sensitive, people-centred, respect human rights, and focus on the poorest, most vulnerable and those furthest behind. The national reviews should also be country-led and maintain a longer-term orientation. Finally, they should address achievements, challenges, gaps and success factors, and track progress in implementing the whole universal Agenda including the Goals and targets, and the means of implementation.
The question at hand is whether this has actually been the case for the EU Member States who will report voluntarily to this year’s High-level Political Forum. And was any follow-up given to those countries that reported in 2016?
The Voluntary National Reviews can bring great added value to the work at national level yet five elements require more efforts overall
This year, from our experience in the different EU Member States reporting to this year’s HLPF, we believe the following points show the important added-value the VNRs can bring to work at national level:
- Great stimulus to move the agenda forward: The VNR can raise a lot of momentum at national level, which helps move the 2030 Agenda forward in a positive, collective spirit, motivating all actors involved to believe that change is possible.
- Cross-sectoral multi-stakeholder network building: The preparatory process allows for all the actors working on sustainable development, whether in various government ministries or departments at different levels, or in different CSOs, to get to know one another better. It also allows for new actors to be taken on board which previously were not involved in the work on sustainable development.
However, we also learnt that much more attention should be given to the following points to be able to make the most of this exercise:
- In-depth critical analysis: in most countries, a recurrent point of critique is the fact that the VNRs mainly list the many initiatives already ongoing, sugarcoating the limited amount of ambition to drive the Agenda forward or failing to properly assess in-depth where progress is lacking, incoherencies persist and more efforts are urgently needed.
- Meaningful stakeholder engagement: stakeholder engagement differs very much from one country to another. In the countries where stakeholders have been engaged very actively in both the drafting of the report and the delegation travelling to New York, this has seriously strengthened the VNR and the collaboration between all the actors involved. Yet in other countries the engagement of civil society and other stakeholders remained ad hoc, superficial and rushed. Many CSOs had great difficulty in accessing the necessary information about the process and the content of the VNR.
- Political leadership and inter-ministerial coordination: the level of ambition and progress often depends on the political leader in charge of this process, his political commitment and will to achieve sustainable development as well as his capacity to ensure coordination across all relevant ministries.
- National Strategy: without a clear national strategy to implement the 2030 Agenda, it remains unclear what the ambition of the government is to deliver on the Sustainable Development Agenda, which makes it also difficult to monitor and review progress towards that ambition.
As the Voluntary National Reviews cannot be a one-off exercise, we also assessed to what extent follow-up was given to the 2016 VNRs. From this assessment, we learn that some countries genuinely lived up to the commitments they made in New York. They continued to develop the governance architecture and/or national sustainable development strategy, ensured active civil society engagement and tried to strengthen policy coherence for sustainable development. Other countries however seem to have not kept their promises and even seem to have forgotten key Agenda 2030 principles such as inclusiveness and participation. The challenges raised in the run up to the 2016 HLPF, such as real political commitment and will to turn principles into policies and to address trade-offs between for example dominant economic and other policies also seemed to persist thereafter. This makes it very clear that a more formal follow-up process to the VNRs could help ensure that governments’ presentations don’t stay empty promises, but that they actually live up to them and deliver the transformation we urgently need all around the world.
Where do we stand in Belgium, Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Italy, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Portugal, Slovenia and Sweden?
- Preparation and network building. The fact that the VNR had to be produced, has been an excellent stimulus in itself. The Preparation phase has been very useful in terms of strengthening the official and the CSO network of people, departments and organizations working on the 2030 Agenda. Several departments that previously were not involved in SDG work at all, have undertaken huge exercises to compare the SDGs with strategic goals and specific targets agreed at different levels (Belgium/Flanders/EU). The people concretely in charge of writing the VNR draft were excellent civil servants and open to CSO input. And they have been quite strategic and instrumental in mobilising data and comments from all sides. Three official advisory councils ‘CCFD/ FRDO: federal council on sustainable development, the advisory council on gender and development and the specific advisory council on policy coherence for development delivered advice to the VNR.
- As the VNR text is mainly an overview and a collection of all kinds of initiatives related to the SDGs (and spread over chapters per specific SDG), it gives a quite encouraging image of ‘a lot is happening’ on Agenda 2030 in Belgium on all levels. The heading of each of these SDG specific chapters give a quite nuanced analysis of the Belgian efforts (a pity that this kind of evaluative assessment has not been applied to the long list of initiatives).
- More an inventory than an evaluative report. Building mainly on the list of existing initiatives the NVR is in fact a kind of snapshot that gives a rather superficial image of all things happening on SDG at a certain point in time. As CSO we would certainly have liked more ‘lessons learnt’ and working points for further implementation, monitoring and adaptation. And there is certainly a lot of room for improvement in terms of translating the SDG to Belgian level and in terms of implementation. For instance: how to make policy coherence for sustainable development work in terms of linking and streamlining issues and (very important for Belgium with its multitude of) decision levels. Most of what is mentioned in the VNR as external efforts is mostly limited to ODA related activities
A rather rosy ‘good news’ type of reporting. A lot of CSOs were quite critical on some of the assessments in the report and about the quality and impact of some of the SDG related initiatives listed in the report. For instance calling Belgium a front runner in terms of climate financing (in the initial draft) seems very inappropriate given the actual performance.
- The Office of the Government organized an official hearing on the VNR, to which various stakeholders were invited to provide feedback.
- The report is closely connected to the preparation of the monitoring and implementation plan for the National Strategic Framework “Czech Republic 2030.” In this process wide participation of different stakeholders is well institutionalised through the Government Council for Sustainable Development.
- Due to significant time pressure in preparing the VNR, complex feedback from different stakeholders could not be obtained.
- The Danish Ministry of Finance, who is responsible for the Danish voluntary report, has invited Danish CSOs and four other civil sectors (private sector, youth, municipalities and academia) to each make a five pages contribution to the Danish report. Civil society is also part of the official delegation to the HLPF.
- The responsibility for the implementation of the SDGs has been moved from the Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs to the Danish MInistry of Finance, which has resulted in a greater national focus on the SDGs and a higher degree of coordination across all ministries.
- In the national action plan the Danish Government most of all emphasises how Denmark is a global frontrunner, when it comes to achieving the SDGs. This emphasis unfortunately means a lack of focus on the areas and goals that Denmark is far from achieving.
- The monitoring of the Danish follow up rests on a set of national indicators that are not aligned with UN global indicators. Instead there are only 49 indicators created on the basis of data, which was already created and some of it has little relevance to the SDGs.
- The report was coordinated by the Ministry of Sustainable Development and Infrastructure and is available at https://sustainabledevelopment.un.org/memberstates/luxembourg
- The results were shared and discussed with CSOs. The process was transparent.
- The process was not participative. A workshop was organised with different stakeholders but CSOs working in development were not well represented.
- As the process coincided with the national sustainable development plan, global and development issues are not discussed in the report.
- The report is a first inventory of activities but does not present a strategic approach for the coming years. The planned gap anaylsis (end of 2017) might provide more guidance here.
- The process of writing the national SDG-report, which led to the VNR, was very participatory. The Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs invited civil society, youth, private sector, knowledge institutions and local governments to write the report together with the Dutch government. This led to a report with a common welcome to the SDGs but also dissenting views on certain topics, which makes this very interesting.
- The Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs invited the different stakeholders to be part of the Dutch delegation to the High Level Political Forum, once again showing the participative nature of this process.
- There is no Dutch Sustainable Development Strategy in place, which makes it unclear what the ambitions of the Dutch Government are concerning the SDGs.
- Coordination of SDGs is still done under the responsibility of the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and it is not yet decided who will coordinate in the future. It is clear that coordination of the SDGs, which concerns national and international aspects, cannot be adequately covered within the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
- Throughout 2016, Civil Society Organisations, were able to put in place a consultation process with citizens and civil society actors about the implementation process and the priorities of the SDGs in Portugal, under a network of umbrella organisations (from different sectors of society) created specifically for this purpose. In January 2017 a recommendations letter was sent to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which has the official mandate to coordinate the SDG governmental process. In April 2017, the official report was launched to the public, in the Portuguese Parliament and in presence of almost all political parties. This process was mentioned in the Voluntary National Review report.
- A multi-stakeholder meeting was organised by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to inform the interested parties about what was being done in terms of governmental articulation to present the VNR.
- Lack of a consistent and sustainable dialogue between the government and civil society, where the contribution of CSOs is taken into account and influences positively the final outcome of the Portuguese process and governmental reflections on the SDGs.
- Lack of a Governmental National Plan or a concrete Strategy for the Implementation of the SDGs.
- Lack of an invitation from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to Civil Society Organizations, in particular to the Portuguese Platform of NGDO, although other Ministries shared invitations to their CSO peers.
- Slovenia announced the implementation of the 17 SDGs at national level by embedding them into its own National Development Strategy 2030, instead of designing a separate process in parallel.
- The government is building momentum on some past achievements on sustainability indicators (children, environment, sustainable tourism) and acknowledging the future path towards sustainable, inclusive and responsible development.
- There was no comprehensive public participation process to prepare the VNR, including lack of participation of (some) major groups in drafting the VNR.
- The process of developing the National Development Strategy 2030 has still not been finalized (although announced already in 2016), hence it is a challenge to assess coherence and complementarity of the implementation mechanism and instruments.
- Although the preparatory process for Vision 2050 was well structured and relatively open and inclusive, unfortunately those features have been lacking in development of the National Development Strategy 2030.
- There are many concerns regarding the future National Development Strategy 2030 embeddedness in the political theatre and existing institutional setup, and its implementation, monitoring, impact assessment and evaluation.
- High involvement of CSOs in the process of conducting the voluntary report within the external referents group with participation from different sectors of society, including civil society, local communities and the private sector. Civil society is part of the official delegation to the HLPF.
- Sweden is reporting on all 17 goals.
- Sweden’s Policy for Global Development (PGU) and the Swedish Feminist Foreign Policy as key tools for reaching Agenda 2030.
- The government has appointed an independent national committee which has been working through a consultative process to develop a gap analysis and a first action plan for the implementation of the 2030 Agenda in Sweden. The report has been handed over to the government.
- Sweden has developed a report on the implementation of the Addis Ababa Action Agenda on financing for development with examples from the private and public sector.
- The government has developed new measurements of wealth as a complement to the GDP to highlight the sustainability of the economy and people’s quality of life.
- Sensitive issues are not dealt with in a sufficient way in the report. For example, the fact that Sweden continues to sell arms to non-democratic countries. In 2016 and 2017 Sweden has also continued to sell arms to both Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
- No official plan for follow-up and review or concrete roadmap towards 2030.
- No ambitions for the informal high level group that Sweden took initiative to in 2015 and that should be champions for the implementation of Agenda 2030
Was there any follow-up to the 4 EU MS VNRs from 2016?
Coordination SUD, the national platform of French NGOs working on international solidarity, criticised the first French review for being a catalogue of measures already implemented with no strategic vision to reach the SDGs.
3 announcements were however made in New York : the development of an interministerial roadmap, the acknowledgement of the need to create new ways of collaborating with civil society actors, and the willingness to report regularly on the SDGs’ implementation.
The first two have had no response so far : since last year, no overarching strategy has been developed nationally and no new multi-stakeholder body or dialogue has been set up. France has decided to unofficially report on the SDGs during the 2017 HLPF. However, CSOs were hardly consulted on the content of the draft report and on the way the government intends to report at the UN remains unknown (France not being part of the volunteering countries).
In January 2017, the German government presented a new sustainability strategy (German Sustainability Strategy) which is structured along the 17 SDGs of the Agenda 2030. It details the goals and measures to be taken in, with and through Germany. It also lists indicators for measuring the implementation of the strategy.
Policy coherence is a major challenge when it comes to implementing the strategy and reaching sustainable development. The build-in trade-offs between, for example, economic growth and climate protection, which have to be addressed and overcome, need systematic and continuous coordination between ministries. Therefore, the government appointed a so-called department representative for sustainable development. The government also announced to have annual coherence reports from all departments. Participation of civil society has improved with the new sustainability strategy. The German government established the Sustainability Forum in which more than 70 organizations and networks from civil society are represented. It is of interest to civil society that it becomes a relevant platform for dialogue and exchange on sustainable development.
While the strategy is to be assessed positively with regard to the integration of central principles of the 2030-Agenda, policy coherence for sustainable development and civil society participation, the goals and measures are often far too vague or non-binding and thus cannot affect substantive change.
After reporting in 2016, Finland has continued to develop its governance architecture for the 2030 Agenda. This has been done building on the positive and applauded elements of the 2016 VNR – participatory approach involving stakeholders and recognising the need for strong policy coherence for sustainable development. However, the aspects we were not happy about last year have shadowed the progress after the VNR as well.
In February 2017, Finland adopted a national 2030 Agenda implementation plan “Sustainable Development in Finland – Long-term, Coherent and Inclusive Action“, which introduced fine principles and governance mechanisms, but did little to steer the austerity policies and “growth and jobs” agenda towards a more sustainable path. Finland also set up a monitoring, accountability and review framework including an annual stocktaking moment, and external and independent evaluations every four years. The indicator monitoring will start rolling from September 2017.
So all in all, while Finland has continued with the good principles, we are still missing real political commitment and will to turn the principles into policies.
Since Estonia holds the presidency of the Council of the European Union in the second half of 2017, implementation of Agenda 2030 is not high enough on the list of priorities of the government’s presidency programme during the period. Our goal is to work harder in the direction of letting the field be seen as an opportunity – and not an obligation – for policy makers. The Estonian Roundtable for Development Cooperation (AKÜ) has received a grant from the European Commission to increase the level of advocacy work among Estonian policy makers, for them to take more coherent steps related to Agenda 2030 implementation and PCD in Estonia. AKÜ is also focusing on network building among local level CSOs and other stakeholders and on developing a long-term communication strategy for Agenda 2030.