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Four lessons: what we learned at the High-Level Political Forum

Andrew Griffiths, July 2017
An empty debating chamber in the UN building in New York.

“Our efforts were focused on ensuring the agenda included the voices of people with disabilities”

Greetings from the final day of the UN’s High-Level Political Forum (HLPF) in New York.

Sightsavers has a delegation here from Bangladesh, India, Kenya and Sierra Leone, and our key priority is to see how we can learn from other countries and partners in progressing the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) at a national level. Being here has really strengthened my belief that meaningful change will only happen at a national level.

Here’s why…

During the post-2015 negotiations we focused on the inter-governmental process to come up with and agree the SDGs and the wider 2030 Agenda. This meant that our efforts were focused on engaging Member States in New York, to ensure not only that the agenda was as strong as possible, but also that it included the voices of people with disabilities, who are among the most marginalised groups in society. Now, we want to see this agenda put into action at a national level – this means that since 2015 our focus has shifted from New York to the countries in which we work.

My colleagues from Bangladesh, India, Kenya and Sierra Leone are here because they have been actively engaged with the Voluntary National Review (VNR) process, a slightly strange activity where countries present 15-minute infomercials about their work on the SDGs. Some countries have mentioned challenges, although most have clearly viewed this as a PR exercise.

But behind the presentations from 44 countries who submitted VNRs this year is the work of organisations like Sightsavers, operating at a national level where VNRs can be used to stimulate a discussion around the implementation of the 2030 Agenda in each country. This is the really exciting element of the work; and it’s where we can make huge progress towards achieving the SDGs and ensuring we leave no one behind.

Four lessons I’ve learned this week

All government ministries (beyond the SDG focal ministry) have to be involved in the VNR process. The challenge here is that VNRs are often a defined process by governments to pull a report together and present it in New York, rather than the culmination of truly national efforts to implement the 2030 Agenda. We’re not yet seeing leadership at a national level beyond ministries of planning (or equivalent) and changing this is the responsibility of civil society, as well as governments.

Where civil society is organised at a national level it can make a big difference, including for disability. Unfortunately there really aren’t enough examples of this: a lot of our work over the months before the VNRs in Bangladesh, Kenya, India, Nigeria and Zimbabwe this year has been to coordinate civil society and ensure the voices of people with disabilities are heard within it. On the plus side, we’ve capitalised on the work we did last year in Sierra Leone, and a large number of the Sierra Leone 2030 Coalition members are attending the HLPF this year, which is fantastic and demonstrative of great progress in Sierra Leone.

The role of parliaments is being seen as more and more important. We supported the chair of the Sierra Leone parliamentary SDG committee to attend this HLPF and I have heard parliamentarians from the UK, Sweden, Afghanistan and others outlining how parliaments will need to increase their role in supporting national planning and holding governments to account.

We need to focus on the specific rather than the general. Too many times, civil society at an international level misses opportunities to engage in a more constructive conversation with governments about how the SDGs are being implemented, how we are participating and what the challenges and lessons are. This is what the HLPF is for, and while there are challenges around the inclusivity, participatory and transparency of the conference, my recommendation to civil society would be for it to focus on creating constructive and specific discussions, rather than focusing on general concerns.

We co-hosted an HLPF side event that highlighted all these issues, focusing on sharing experiences from countries including Sierra Leone, India, Sweden, Switzerland and Zimbabwe.

We can’t forget that this agenda is only two years old. We’ve come a long way – and a lot of that is extremely exciting – but this year’s High-Level Political Forum is a reminder that there is clearly room for improvement.

By Andrew Griffiths, Sightsavers Head of Advocacy

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