Hope and despair at the HLPF 2019

Reflections on the High-level Political Forum (HLPF) 2019, which this year reviewed some of the most challenging and transformative goals on education, work and economy, inequalities, climate, peace and justice.

As I left the UN headquarters on the last night of my time at the HLPF 2019, monsoon-like rain fell from the New York sky. At least the weather communicated the urgency of the issues at hand, I thought to myself. For the past eight days, Member State delegates, experts and activists from civil society, academia, business and other sectors across the globe had met for the annual stock-taking of progress towards achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). As a first-time participant, I’ve been equally inspired and disappointed, and I leave with many questions on my mind.

Celebration of attempts or emergency alerts?

United Nations headquarters in New York where the HLPF took place for two weeks in July.

Some of the most challenging and transformative goals were in the spotlight this year and it completed the first four-year cycle which sees the review of all 17 goals at annual HLPFs. The formal sessions were filled with reaffirmations of the importance and interconnectedness of the SDGs and countries’ strong commitments to them, and to the principle to ‘leave no one behind’. Arguably, such reiterations are important in these times when multilateral frameworks and global norms are increasingly under threat.

Nevertheless, the words weren’t spoken with the strongest of confidence, as there is no denying that we are not on track to reach the goals. No significant progress has been made toward SDG 10 on reduced inequalities, SDG 13 on climate action or SDG 16 on inclusive and peaceful societies. On the contrary, according to UN statistics, ‘Income inequality continues to rise in many parts of the world’, ‘climate change is occurring much faster than anticipated’, and ‘no substantial advances have been made towards ending violence, promoting the rule of law, strengthening institutions at all levels, or increasing access to justice’.

Briefing by the President of the ECOSOC on the HLPF on sustainable development 16-19 July 2019. Photo by: UN Photo/Loey Felipe

Despite this, the Voluntary National Review (VNR) presentations given by Member States generally focused on the country’s achievements and were followed by congratulatory remarks from delegates of other countries. Only questions from the Major Groups and other Stakeholders (MGoS) rose criticism and pushed on the sore spots. Should the HLPF primarily be about showing good will and celebrating good examples, or is this the space where we all come together to critically address the major challenges facing humanity and the earth? Many Member States seem to be content with the first option, while MGoS argue strongly for the latter.

What can be done about the session formats?

The format of the formal sessions also does not easily lend itself to any deeper kind of dialogue or learning. Long sessions of expert presentations followed by prepared statements from delegates and MGoS can lack energy and passion. Admittedly I found my mind wandering more than once, even in sessions dealing with my special interests. Still, I was told this year’s sessions were more dynamic than previous years, that countries presenting their VNRs put in more effort and enthusiasm and that there was more space for comments from MGoS. While some moderators seemed to only focus on the timekeeping, others used interactive online survey tools and even encouraged interventions from the floor to avoid the reading-out of statements and rather stimulate responses to the questions at hand.

Delegates meet during the HLPF 2019.

Although a well-intended attempt, it is of course impossible for anyone representing a constituency or country to drift away from a carefully negotiated two-minute statement.

Luckily, the side events offered a variety of formats, and generally allowed for questions, discussions, strategising and once in a while a true creativity.

Useful initiatives and inspiring voices

Shortcomings aside, with all the side events, learning labs and conversations in between sessions, the Forum provided plenty of opportunities to get inspired. To name a few:

  • The Grand Challenge on Inequality and Inclusion. Despite sometimes called an SDG orphan for not being housed by a responsible UN entity, this year’s forum showed that SDG 10 is far from forgotten goal. For example, there is an interesting Pathfinders’ Initiative that seeks to identify ‘practical and politically viable solutions’ to meet SDG targets on equality and inclusion. Its preliminary Challenges paper was presented in a very rich conversation at the Mission of the Republic of Korea, with examples from Indonesia, Timor-Leste, Sweden and Tunisia – some of the countries that have formed an advisory board to further cooperate on advancing SDG 10.

Creative live reporting during a roundtable event on the Voices of SDG16+ initiative.

  • Youth voices. As oftentimes, youth voices come out the strongest in conversations about our common future. In the very first opening session, One Young World Ambassador Yolanda Joab from Micronesia gave youth perspectives and priorities related to the SDGs in review based on the April Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) Youth Forum. In a strong speech well-worth watching (see below), she let everyone know that whatever we think we are doing to achieve the SDGs simply is not good enough and called for courageous and inclusive leadership that takes action.

Yolanda Joab at the opening session of 2019 ECOSOC Youth Forum, April 2019. Photo by: UN Photo

  • Efforts of the Major Groups and other Stakeholders. MGoS and the broad civil society alliances continue to claim and expand the civil society space in the HLPF process, knowing such space will never be guaranteed despite their active part in developing the Agenda in the first place. They were tirelessly coming together in mornings and evenings and weekends, for pre-meetings, prep-meetings, coordination meetings, climate actions, a ground peoples forum, and delivering bold statements in plenary, negotiated with relevant constituencies. The MGoS refuse to give up the aspiration for transformative change through the Agenda which requires more effective HLPFs, and have pro-actively started to consolidate principles for thorough forum reform, in preparation of the official HLPF review process to take place in 2019-2020.
  • LGBTI a new ‘Other stakeholder’ group. Advocacy of the LGBTI community, including RFSL, the Swedish Federation for LGBTQ Rights, recently managed to land the constituency a spot as a formally recognised ‘Other Stakeholder’ group in the 2030 Agenda process – an important victory in the quest of guaranteeing a diverse and intersectional analysis of who is left behind in the Agenda implementation. According to an analysis of the 2018 VNRs done by the Committee for Development Policy and presented at a side event, only 8 VNRs out of 46 mentioned LGBTIQ communities as a group being left behind, as compared to 45 highlighting women and girls, 43 children and youth, and 41 disabled people.
Can we ‘walk the talk’ during the HLPF itself?

Lastly, while the structural and transformational changes needed to achieve the SDGs demand bold policy decisions, the global SDG community’s commitment to such changes would come across stronger if we tried to ‘walk our talk’ also in the conference spaces. Serving vegetarian food at events and avoiding disposable bottles, glasses and plates would be a tiny step.

Activists call for climate action on the day when SDG 13 was formally reviewed.

A larger attempt to reduce the HLPF carbon footprint could involve putting stronger emphasis on the regional forums and increase the use of video-link, with the aim to send smaller delegations to the global meetings. With the UN’s SDG report 2019 singling out climate change as ‘the defining issue of our time and the greatest challenge to sustainable development’, much more effort should be put into finding more sustainable working methods for international cooperation itself.  Surely there is a strength in all coming together in one place, but a common effort to show-case responsibility would be even stronger.

To end with the words of Yolanda Joab:

We are making up for lost time, so if you think you are doing enough, do more. If you think you are moving fast, move faster. If you think you are doing good, do better. And if you are thinking of which decision to take next, take the one that requires more courage.

Yolanda Joab speaks at the opening session on 9 July, Source: UN WebTV

Matilda Hald By Matilda Hald

Matilda Hald is a Programme Manager for the Agenda 2030 thematic area and was previously responsible for the Foundation’s ‘Another Development for Burma’ project. Matilda is the Chairperson of the Swedish Burma Committee and has also worked with sustainable development issues as course coordinator and Director of Studies at the Center for Environment and Development Studies, Uppsala University.