Reaching Agenda 2030 by 2030 – The High Level Political Forum (HLPF) 2021

By Philipp Bien

Original post can be found on the Rising BRICSAM Blog.

As the annual global stocktaking on the 2030 Agenda of Sustainable Development this year’s High Level Political Forum (HLPF) was held from July 6th to July 15th under the auspices of the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC). Mandated in 2012, the HLPF is the main UN forum targeting sustainable development progress. The HLPF devises international political declarations and countries present their voluntary national reviews (VNRs) on progress in reaching the SDGs (Sustainable Development Goals). The HLPF also features a three-day ministerial segment. Apart from the 42 VNRs that states presented in 2021, the main outcome document of this year’s HLPF was a Ministerial Declaration. This Declaration had been negotiated for four months before the HLPF meeting and the Declaration was adopted by acclamation on July 15th. This most recent Declaration describes Agenda 2030 as a blueprint and plan of action to respond to and recover from the global Covid-19 pandemic.

The pandemic has had a substantial negative impact on many SDGs. In the first year of the pandemic alone:

Focussing on nine SDGs:

  • 1 – No Poverty
  • 2 – Zero Hunger
  • 3 – Good Health and Well-Being
  • 8 – Decent Work and Economic Growth
  • 10 – Reduced Inequalities
  • 12 – Responsible Consumption and Production
  • 13 – Climate Action
  • 16 – Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions, and
  • 17 – Partnerships for the Goals,

the Ministerial Declaration highlights the negative effects on these goals and negative effects on other SDGs. Nevertheless, the international community reaffirmed its commitment to the Agenda 2030 and its individual goals calling for enhanced measures and intensifying the responses to the global challenges currently pertaining to Agenda 2030. However, The Declaration stops short of concrete agreements on policy measures, or financial commitments to getting back within reach of achieving the SDGs by 2030.

Considering that the efforts to achieve Agenda 2030 were already in threatened – even before the pandemic – this failure to commit to action is disappointing. Even at the HLPF in 2019, the diagnosis there was that the global response to implementing the SDGs had not been ambitious enough and that accelerated action was needed. In 2020, marred by the early months of the pandemic, the HLPF was not even able to produce a Ministerial Declaration. At the time there was a lack of consensus among the states. Whoever was waiting for a “now-or-never” moment leading to a more ambitious Ministerial Declaration this current year would be disappointed. Despite explicit consensus that the knowledge, science, technologies and resources are readily available to make progress in the future, and despite the assessment of many of the current challenges pertaining to the SDGs, the political will and the willingness to compromise are lacking. One is struck that an opportunity to reconstruct the world and bringing Agenda 2030 closer, the goals was ‘thrown away’. As the UN General Assembly President Volkan Bozkir put it: “rarely has a society been given the opportunity for such a radical change”, but the ministers failed to capitalize on this opportunity and appeared to be paralyzed by politics and narrow national interests.

As is evident by the VNRs that were presented at this year’s HLPF, commitments have nevertheless been made by several states. While the US has not contributed a VNR so far, other G20 states have done so at various occasions, including this year. For instance, on ending poverty in all its forms everywhere (SDG1), Germany highlights in its 2021 VNR that it supported and established social security systems in partner countries through its bilateral development cooperation in both India and Malawi which has benefitted over half a billion people in these countries. Going forward, it commits to combat poverty by means of additional targeted measures and increased incentives to take up employment domestically and stepping up efforts to develop multi-stakeholder partnerships internationally. On gender equality (SDG5), Japan recognizes its need to progress as it ranks currently as 120th out of 156 countries in the Gender Gap Index. Identifying remaining challenges the government approved the Fifth Basic Plan for Gender Equality in December 2020 to address the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on the employment and overall lives of women. Of course, the VNRs are not the only place to look for government action. Regarding urgent action on climate change (SDG13), China has presented plans to be carbon-neutral by 2060 while both the European Union and the United States publicly pledged to get there ten years earlier than that.

While the VNRs show some important unilateral progress on the part of those 42 countries that presented them this year, the Ministerial Declaration failed to deliver concrete results and measurable progress. Of course, it is not the first time that global gatherings and international organizations with near universal participation have fallen short of expectations. In fact, smaller plurilateral groups appear to be a lot more effective in delivering outcomes. The latest concrete and, arguably, meaningful breakthrough in global governance came from a smaller group – the G7 and their agreement on a global minimum corporate tax rate which was subsequently also signed by the G20. This is not to say that near universal participation settings do not fulfill important roles in moving the yardsticks on global governance challenges. However, they are a lot more effective as discussion settings. These larger settings maximize the flow of information and the spread of innovation. And then it appears that policy making takes places in the smaller plurilateral settings.

How, then, in light of this realization, do we secure concrete and measurable progress on Agenda 2030 that goes beyond declarations of intent and that is ambitious enough to reach the 17 SDGs by the end of the decade? As Anne-Marie Slaughter and Gordon LaForge have suggested earlier this year, more focused forms of international cooperation will be needed to complement the large and all-encompassing fora and summits of our time. As they rightfully point to, authority that was once reserved for national governments has moved to a wider range of actors, be they international organizations, non-governmental organizations, or sub-national actors – regions, networks, or local organizations. Of course, all of these actors are already included in global governance deliberations in some manner or another, but the system would still benefit from a stronger issue-focus. Concretely, the global order would then be organized around issue-specific organizations that sit at the center of the many of the most relevant actors working on a particular problem, no matter the character of the actor. As they work towards common, concrete and measurable outcomes, they overcome the problem of too many actors in the room to reach a consensus as well as removing the obstacle of paralyzing politics and national interests.

It is not the goal to remove the states-based order but looks for a more nimble and effective global order. Time and again global negotiations on an intergovernmental level have failed to deliver, or fell well short of what was needed. It is time, we learn from this and construct a global governance system that is able to make meaningful progress on Agenda 2030 and helping promote a liveable green planet for generations to come.

Philipp Bien recently graduated with a Master’s of Global Affairs from the Munk School of Global Affairs & Public Policy, University of Toronto.

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