The UN has declared this to be a ‘decade of action’ to achieve the ambition we have set ourselves with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
Since the SDGs were agreed in 2015, governments present voluntary national reviews (VNRs) at the annual UN High-Level Political Forum, to highlight the action they are taking to meet their SDG targets. And every year, as we examine progress, it is clear to see that setting ambition is easier than achieving it.
I was delighted to be able to moderate a side event last week at the High-Level Political Forum, to discuss the growing body of work related to VNR review, analysis and identification of best practice. I was particularly pleased with the focus on best practice. I’ve heard enough about the gaps and challenges countries face – I want to know more about the successes and ideas, and ways we can encourage governments and the wider development community to do things differently to make progress towards the SDGs.
I was struck by a few of these ideas and want to share them (with the disclaimer that the event was so full of good stuff that this could only ever be a very subjective view!). Here are three things we need to make sure all countries are doing to keep us moving in the right direction.
1. Get the right structures in place
First up is the importance of ensuring the right institutions. This can seem pretty dull – no one ever won an election by promising more institutions. But it is incredibly important to have structures in place, so that the right people can contribute to policy decisions. For example, we heard about how the government in Slovenia has set up a Human Rights Centre, to promote human rights and ensure that they are at the centre of sustainable development.
Linked to this is the need for strong accountability – this relates to government, businesses, local authorities, and anyone who is implementing the SDGs. When this is in place, better decisions are made; and just as importantly the people these decisions affect are listened to. This includes strong parliamentary oversight, because parliaments should be representative of the people, and governments adopted the SDGs “on behalf of the peoples we serve”.
2. Listen to people who have been marginalised
There needs to be a concerted effort to ensure no one is left behind. For example, the Progressing National SDGs Implementation report, produced by a coalition of which Sightsavers is a member, highlights how Wada Na Todo Abhiyan (a campaign to hold the Indian government accountable for its national and international commitments) had organised a series of national consultations with marginalised people to ensure their voices were heard in India’s VNR. Sightsavers was pleased to have been part of this good practice when we helped organise consultations with people with disabilities. Addressing the promise to leave no one behind in the VNR gives those in power the opportunity to really listen to the requirements of people who have been marginalised.
3. Make partnership a priority
There was a lot of discussion about the importance of cross-border partnerships. Many of the issues identified in countries’ VNRs are not ones they can solve on their own – for example, water management follows rivers, seas and glaciers, not borders. There are also challenges that affect many countries – as we have seen with the COVID-19 pandemic. This is where we need governments to recognise that working together is critical to addressing shared issues. A good example of this came from the UN Asia-Pacific region, where governments have been ‘twinned’ with one another to address their shared problems.
The 2021 HLPF has now come to a close. Without significant action, there is a real risk that the ambition of the SDGs will not be achieved; and the COVID-19 pandemic has certainly made things a whole lot tougher. Yet there are some good ideas, some rays of light, which we need to shout about – these are the things that are important to focus on, and that will bring about real change in people’s lives. I’m grateful we had the chance to share them with one another.