The 2023 High-Level Political Forum: an initial debrief

July 31, 2023
Javier Surasky
Director of Research

This blog is based on the presentation made by the author in the webinar “High-Level Political Forum 2023 Debrief” organized by Cepei, IISD, and the SDG Lab on July 27, 2023. The full record of the webinar is available here.

A 2023 HLPF in-depth analysis will be published by Cepei soon as part of its publication series “Cepei Insights.”

The 2023 High Level Political Forum (HLPF), which concluded last July 19, has to be understood as an event that worked under the shadow of the SDG Summit, which will take place in September this year. This means that any decisions and possible actions were postponed to be taken by the summit.

Consequently, one more time the forum was unable to lead the acceleration of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) through concrete steps and proposals. Even the participation of UN Secretary General António Guterres and the Deputy Secretary General was almost nil in this HLPF.

Given this scenario and the experience of 2019, when HLPF meetings were also held under the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) and the UN General Assembly, it is necessary to ask whether this scheme of two forum meetings in the same year makes any sense.

A first review of the HLPF 2023 allows us to identify some remarkable moments:

  • The first-ever HLPF session on Middle-Income Countries and Science Day.
  • Every panel included at least one representative of youth.
  • The first-ever presentation of what Cepei names as a VIER (Voluntary International Entity Report) submitted by the European Union as an interesting and promising innovation.

Did the SDG discussions meet expectations?

Regarding the thematic discussions analyzed in this HLPF, which considered SDG 6 (clean water and sanitation), SDG 7 (affordable and clean energy), SDG 9 (industry, innovation and infrastructure), SDG 11 (sustainable cities and communities) and SDG 17 (partnerships for the goals), some strengths and concerns can be highlighted:

  • The SDG 17 sessions began with a discussion on financing for development, presented in preparation for this year’s High-Level Dialogue on Financing for Development in the fall, followed by a session in which two previously published reports guided the discussions: the special edition of the Secretary-General report on progress towards the SDGs and the 2023 Global Sustainable Development Report. As a result, the discussions were better informed and supported by data.
  • Similarly, the discussion on SDG 6 was introduced as a follow-up to the UN 2023 Water Conference and the Water Action Agenda. Expert inputs from the UN-Water SDG 6 Synthesis Report 2023, the second of its kind, provided concrete policy recommendations that furthered the discussions.
  • The in-depth analysis of SDG 11 helped make the local level one of the main stars of this year’s HLPF. Many sessions focused on understanding and improving the work being done in this area. In turn, the importance of local participation in the implementation of the 2030 Agenda formed a cross-cutting issue to almost every session of the forum. However, there were no presentations of Voluntary Local Reports (VLR) during the forum, marking a contradiction between words and deeds.
  • Including SDG 7 in the 2023 HLPF can be considered a mistake. It would have been more useful and less rushed to do so in the forum sessions in 2025 or 2026, as in 2021 the HLPF had already resulted in the Global Roadmap for Accelerated SDG 7 Action, where two sets of milestones to be reached by 2025 and 2030 are included.
  • On SDG 9 it is difficult to understand why the debates are not paying more attention to Artificial Intelligence. After hearing the debates, I feel we are discussing an industrialization model that is fading away instead of preparing for the future to come, and it is not an innovative or sustainable plan of action.

On the other hand, we again emphasize that the HLPF continues to leave the regions behind. Sustainable Development Regional Forums do not have enough space to present their contributions to the HLPF, which increasingly weakens the multilevel chain of SDG reporting and monitoring established in the 2030 Agenda.

The three main takeaways of the HLPF

Finally, the following are my three main takeaways from this year HLPF:

  • First, a unique opportunity to take a further step towards integrated analysis of the 2030 Agenda was missed: half of this year’s Voluntary National Reviews (VNRs) were submitted by high-income countries, so it was not possible to have a more substantial discussion on the facts of the principle of universality of the SDGs, included in the 2030 Agenda, nor to analyze policy coherence in the implementation of the 2030 Agenda.
  • Secondly, this year marks the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the first UN special mission and the first peace operation deployed by the organization. Therefore, strengthening the linkages between SDG implementation and monitoring, human rights and peace was another missed opportunity.
  • Third, and most importantly, there is an urgent need to have a more action-oriented HLPF that leads the acceleration of the SDGs through concrete steps. Moving from words to actions immediately is the only path that can lead us to successfully address the multiple crises that hit us and forge a sustainable future.
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