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Low-level performance at High-Level Political Forum

July 25, 2017


Reflections on the 2017 HLPF

By Kate Donald and Matthew Annunziato
The 2017 High-Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development (HLPF) was alternately inspiring and profoundly discouraging. Inspiring, because of the commitment, momentum and deep analysis brought by many of the participants. Discouraging, because these qualities were mostly absent from the official national reports and government presentations, and because of the obstruction and resistance that greeted civil society’s eagerness to participate. 
The HLPF is supposed to be the apex of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development’s ‘follow-up and review’ system; a global platform where progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) at national, regional and global levels can be monitored and challenges shared. It is also a useful space for civil society strategizing and solidarity-building, and for taking the ‘pulse’ of sustainable development discourse, ideas and challenges. Sadly, judging by the pulse taken last week, on the current trajectory the prognosis for achievement of the 2030 Agenda is woeful. 

The first week of the HLPF was focused on so-called thematic reviews of select goals (this year Goals 1, 2, 3, 5, 9, 14 and 17). These ‘reviews’ were in reality little more than standard UN panel discussions, although there were some interesting and challenging interventions. For example, Sakiko Fukuda-Parr of the New School used her keynote in the opening session to warn about over-reliance on data and the official SDG indicators, and also quoted CESR's analysis of the UN’s recent SDG Progress report. It was heartening to see many of the speakers refer to many of the issues that CESR and its partners and allies have emphasized over the years, including human rights, inequality and redistribution, policy coherence and illicit financial flows. 

Outside of the main HLPF session, a roster of side-events (including two co-organized by CESR) dived deeper into these issues. It was notable that many of the side-events were grappling with questions around monitoring and accountability, or means of implementation – often highlighting concern about financing issues ranging from lack of budgetary allocations for people with disabilities, to regressive domestic tax systems, the use of tax havens and corporate tax dodging. Many representatives of communities or social movements most affected by development failures were in New York to give insight into their challenges and experiences. 
Back to the future: national reviews avoid tackling lack of progress
However, this substantive engagement with the micro and macro was avoided by most of the national review presentations, which instead trod a very bland middle-ground. Most of them seemed more like previews than reviews. The tone and framing was very similar to 2016 discussions, emphasizing visions and plans, despite us being in theory almost two years into implementation. Of course, it takes time to get an ambitious agenda off the ground, and planning and consultation are essential. But in most countries, there is little sign of a real nuts-and-bolts groundwork for achieving the transformation committed to in the SDGs.  

Unfortunately, the attention to human rights principles and structural concerns that was evident in some of the thematic dialogues only applied to a few of the voluntary national reviews (VNRs). While some countries did a fair job addressing the breadth of the 2030 Agenda in a holistic manner, most fell short. Some of the better reports (e.g. Sweden, Belgium) did grapple with human rights alignment and the underlying determinants of poverty and inequality. However, some reports only addressed the goals that were the thematic focus of this HLPF, and nearly all took a siloed approach—treating each goal as separate and cherry picking the ones that are most politically palatable. Brazil's VNR was particularly jarring, with the government attempting to portray the very retrogressive austerity measures it is pursuing (including a constitutional amendment freezing public spending for 20 years) as a step towards meeting the agenda, rather than realistically "rendering [the SDGs] unattainable"

Brazil’s was an extreme example, but sadly not a total outlier. Across the VNRs, there was some evidence of fix-it, piecemeal action, but no systemic change on display; no state really seemed to present a meaningful change of approach from the previous development agenda. In most cases, it is the allocation of resources that reveals real priorities, but nowhere was there evidence of the SDG-aligned budgets and progressive tax reforms that could reverse rising inequalities and ‘leave no one behind’. 
Squandering the potential of the HLPF
Another major disappointment of the HLPF was its failure so far to systematically grapple with the cross-border challenges that present a profound obstacle to sustainable development. Although illicit financial flows, trade, pollution, climate change, the arms trade, tax havens and debt were all highlighted as pressing concerns several times, there was no space dedicated for serious analysis of these global policy issues that by definition cannot be dealt with merely at the national or even regional level, to review what countries are doing to tackle them, and to suggest potential solutions through collective action. As CESR has argued for some time, this would be a meaningful and unique contribution for the HLPF to make, as the global component of SDG monitoring efforts.
Perhaps the most outrageous shortcoming was the short shrift given to civil society participation in this process. This year hundreds of civil society representatives from all over the world travelled to New York for the HLPF. Many expressed a desire to hold their governments accountable for lack of progress and misguided policies, and several national coalitions and groups produced excellent, exhaustive ‘shadow’ or ‘spotlight’ reports. For example, CESR and others in the 2030 Reflection Group produced a global Spotlight on Sustainable Development Report analyzing structural obstacles to SDG implementation goal by goal. However, such initiatives were met with only tokenistic opportunities to participate, with the VNR sessions more akin to a PR exercise for governments than any kind of meaningful dialogue, and the ‘shadow’ reports given no official status or space. 

Given the dubious rigor of many of the official national reports and the radical course correction that is necessary in many contexts, this omission seriously undermines the credibility of the VNR process and the whole HLPF. Moreover, while space for civil society is being actively closed down by governments in many parts of the world, the HLPF should provide a counterbalance, an opportunity for engagement and a place where government action can be subjected to scrutiny. Indeed “ensuring responsive, inclusive, participatory and representative decision-making at all levels” is one of the commitments of SDG 16. 

If governments are not challenged, if they choose to remain in thrall to business-as-usual and corporate power, then failure of the 2030 Agenda is almost inevitable. The accepted rhetoric is that a monumental shift is necessary to achieve the goals. The 2017 HLPF provided sad and stark evidence of the failure of governments to reflect this shift in their policy and actions, and of the limited space civil society is granted to shine a light on the radical change in approach that is necessary.