A Political Forum full of doubts

July 7, 2020

Javier Surasky

July 7, 2020

From July 7 to 16, and under the theme “Accelerated action and transformative pathways: Realizing the decade of action and delivery for sustainable development”, a new HLPF meeting (United Nations High-Level Political Forum) will take place. It will be the sixth version of this meeting as the main platform for monitoring the implementation of the 2030 Agenda at the global level, and it will mark the beginning of a new four-year review cycle. 

The HLPF 2020 session will have common elements with its previous sessions, such as the VNRs presentations (National Voluntary Reviews) to inform progress in the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the adoption of a final Ministerial Declaration. However, this time the disruptions stand out over the continuities: 

🔸 The first and obvious reference is given by the current context. The COVID-19 pandemic has forced the HLPF to be performed entirely in virtual format. Reports, debates, official sessions, and side events will be brought together through virtual tools.

🔸 Some States have decided to make their report presentations through pre recorded videos. This strongly eliminates or reduces the possibility of other States and non-governmental actors to ask questions and deliver observations after the presentations, as well as the possibility for the reporting State to answer them.

🔸 An unprecedented number of the 47 countries that will present their VNRs have not released their reports until the day this text is being written (July 7, 2020), making it impossible to carry out an informed analysis of its contents. Three Latin America and the Caribbean countries are among them: Barbados, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, and Trinidad and Tobago.

🔸 Strategies to overcome the situation caused by COVID-19 will play a leading role, and countries have been asked to present how these strategies will be aligned to sustainable development.

🔸 The analysis of a group of SDGs (the so-called thematic analysis) will not take place this year. Instead, the working program will prioritized thematic groups related to entry points identified by a group of scientists on the Global Sustainable Development Report (GSDR).

There are other differences from previous editions of the Forum, but these are enough to doubt about its effectiveness in 2020.

Despite the enormous efforts made by the United Nations to hold a completely virtual meeting, the limitations of the “web diplomacy” cannot be avoided: Internet does not allow “hallway negotiations”, which have proven to be essential channels for international negotiations through history, as in each of the previous HLPF sessions. How can agreements and dialogue be promoted without this working channel that has always been fundamental?

The lack of face-to-face meetings is an impediment to identify synergies between actors in the same country, or even between actors from different countries working on related issues. Those “bridges” were one of the most outstanding informal results of the previous meetings of the Forum. Can the virtual world generate approaches and synergies typical of real encounters? How much will be lost along the way?

The Regional Sustainable Development Forums, which should fuel the discussions of the Global Forum, were suspended in four of the five regions of the world: Only Africa came to hold its meeting before COVID-19. How will the HLPF approach the regional scenario when the political input generation process has been suddenly interrupted?

The lack of prior dissemination of various reports and the pre-recorded presentation of others interfere with the possibility of holding exchange sessions, in which stakeholders can dialogue and obtain responses from the reporting States. To what extent can the joint learning objective of VNR presentations be accomplished without these spaces? 

The overall proposed strategy to align post-COVID-19 efforts with sustainable development is incorporated under the label of Build Back Better, but it is not clear what that implies in practical terms or what strategies or tools can be promoted in that direction. Achieving practical action-oriented results will be complex. Will a meeting held in the current conditions be able to produce concrete results?

Along with these doubts, is the uncertainty around how debates that will consider the contributions of the Global Sustainable Development Report will work, especially considering the complexity of this report, which reading has ended up being, in a certain way, exclusive: The report has never been officially translated into any language different than English, so non English speakers will reach the HLPF without having been able to access its contents directly (There are official summaries, but they are far from the minimum required to sustain exchanges based on their proposals).

In addition, international negotiations for the adoption of the Ministerial Declaration which will bring a close to the event, have shown strong pressure from a group of States to facilitators of the process who have been especially weak to promote it. Although previous Ministerial Declarations have not been politically relevant, a reduction of the ambition level would indicate a lack of political will to advance decisively just when this seems to be more necessary than ever. 

There is no doubt that this HLPF session will go down in history, although not for the reasons that we would like.


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