With the battle for the 2018 football World Cup ongoing, it is hard to get attention for a gathering at the United Nations. Most of my family, friends and frankly, even some UN colleagues, don’t understand my fuss about it. But I can’t wait for the kick-off at this year’s High Level Political Forum (HLPF). It is the event of the year for the Sustainable Development Goals, a.k.a. the Global Goals.
Once a year, governments, civil society and business leaders come together to account for and discuss progress on the Goals. This year we’ll hear from countries as diverse as Kiribati, Mexico and Sri Lanka. As an SDG advocate, it’s become my annual trek to New York. So, what am I so excited about?
Here are five teams to watch out for at this year’s Forum:
1. Top scorers
While there are no winners and losers, there’s definitely competition. Governments want to look good among their peers. Some bring flashy videos and glossy reports; others will get an ‘A’ for effort for the sheer number of pages devoted to reporting progress against the Goals. As with the World Cup, there are higher expectations of the bigger and wealthier countries, but surprises and dark horses are not uncommon.
This year, I am rooting for Lao People’s Democratic Republic. They have already shown great commitment by adding an SDG 18 on Unexploded Ordnances (UXO) to the list of 17 Global Goals. With an estimated 80 million unexploded “bombies” left in the country from the IndoChina War (1964–73), it is clearly an issue for sustainable development.
2. Moving the goalposts
Almost three years after the Goals were adopted, many countries have the building blocks in place for a shot at attaining the Goals. They have reviewed their plans, their data and maybe even their budgets. But now is the time to move beyond the standard repertoire and address the more difficult challenges. Shifting the development approach from one that is predominantly focused on ‘economic wellbeing’ to one that pays more attention to environmental and social problems is critical. This year, I will be looking out for any governments and actors that do attempt just that.
From a preliminary look at the Voluntary National Reviews, Bhutan shows the most promise with its development philosophy of Gross National Happiness. To encourage others to follow suit, we need to place them in the spotlight.
3. A league of its own
One of the highlights this year is the first city reporting on the SDGs. And not just any city, but my all-time favourite: New York.
This will surely draw a packed room. Like we’ve seen in the climate change arena, cities are taking the lead even as some national governments hesitate. In fact, cities can become the frontrunners for sustainable development. It is therefore exciting news that the first city is reporting, and let’s see who else might come forward.
4. No spectators
Governments do still dominate the field at the Forum. But don’t think that the rest are just spectators. On the contrary. The private sector, which gets its own special day on 17 July, is expected to take on the bulk of the financing and implementation for the Goals. Civil society funnels the voices and advocates for the interests of underrepresented groups, including by producing shadow or spotlight reports. As these Goals are so ambitious, we are all part of the team. But can we play together? The Goals provide us with a common narrative, but will we see true examples of partnership? Last year, the presentation from the Netherlands stood out for including a specific time slot for a youth delegate to speak. Who will be our star player this year? Canada and Australia are favourites. Or might a team like the Grey Panthers, from the stakeholder group on ageing, surprise us in how they collaborate?
5. Rules of the game
Can we call the Forum successful if the real trade-offs between economic, social and environmental concerns are not addressed? If it allows for the concept of “leaving no one behind” to remain a slogan rather than a directive? If the economic and financial arms of government don’t participate? If inputs from civil society can be sidelined?
While last year I wrote optimistically about the High Level Political Forum, this year I’m waving a yellow card. This Forum, and the Voluntary National Reviews that feed into it, need to become stronger, more rigorous and more accountable to stakeholders. But how do we do that? Many point to the Universal Periodic Reviews to the Human Rights Council as a good example. There, civil society organizations get to officially present their own reports and countries are asked how they have followed up on previous recommendations. Many governments though are cautious not to open another avenue for scrutiny and judgement. Still, at this year’s HLPF, I’ll be searching for any appetite to strengthen the rules of the game. My hopes are up for the “Friends of Governance for Sustainable Development”, co-chaired by the Ambassadors of the Republic of Korea, Mexico and Romania.
I’ve run out of football metaphors. But if you read this far, I hope you got a little excited about the High Level Political Forum too. It deserves all the attention it can get; it’s not just a trophy but the future of the planet we’re playing for. And we might not get any overtime.
With thanks to Mahtab Haider and Nicole Igloi
About the author
Hannie Meesters is a policy specialist with UNDP’s Regional Hub in Bangkok, focusing on Agenda 2030 and the Sustainable Development Goals. Follow her on Twitter: @Hanniemeesters