HLPF: A washed-out reform

July 6, 2021

By Javier Surasky
Program Officer Governance and Finance for Sustainable Development



According to the 2030 Agenda, the High-Level Political Forum (HLPF) should play the core role in overseeing its implementation globally, facilitating experience-sharing and lessons learned, and providing political leadership, guidance, and follow-up recommendations. In addition, it will promote system-wide coordination of sustainable development policies, ensuring that the Agenda remains relevant and ambitious.

However, the HLPF’s working methods do not facilitate dialogue among States nor between governments and stakeholders. Thus, experience and lessons learned-sharing become impossible. The Forum is not promoting collaboration on sustainable development policy fields, and no political guidance arises from its sessions. The HLPF is not contributing to maintaining the 2030 Agenda’s ambitions. 

Some may think that the Forum has not ceased to be relevant because the HLPF is the stage where countries present their Voluntary National Reviews (VNRs) to the international community. Doesn’t this make it relevant? The answer is a resounding yes, but to be relevant does not mean to fulfill responsibilities as expected. Given its relevance, it must fulfill its functions with greater commitment.

The Forum brings together the international development community every year, but it misses the mark: 

  • The dialogue between reporting countries and stakeholders occurs during National Reports presentations. A civil society representative has the chance to take the floor for two or three minutes. Reporting countries’ representatives do not always respond. Moreover, civil society’s concerns are introduced after a tedious round of third countries’ friendly comments and questions, usually preceded by congratulations for well-done work.
  • The regions’ contributions (One of the regions’ roles is to provide inputs to the HLPF!) are relegated to one formal session, and the richness of the regional work fades away. 
  • Some presenting countries are still confusing the HLPF with a tourism convention. Instead of using its presentations to highlight SDGs progress and challenges or ask for international cooperation to bridge sustainable development gaps, instead they present videos showcasing the beauty of their country. Yes, countries are beautiful, especially when we see the best part of a more complex reality.
  • The primary tool through which the HLPF provides political guidance is the final Ministerial Declaration; a document that must be adopted by consensus. However, consensus does not always occur. Year after year, when the deadline to finalize the document comes, the Ministerial Declaration is adopted in a voting procedure. However, during 2020, differences among countries impeded the adoption of a Declaration, and it was the first time the HLPF did not have an adopted political document.

The good news is that countries had the opportunity to change all this in 2021. An HLPF review process was conducted to fix the flaws. The results were published in June 2021 (A/75/L.102). Yet, we must point out that the new HLPF “working guide” is disappointing. 

H.E. Mr. Jean-Claude do Rego, Permanent Representative of Benin and H.E. Mr. Kaha Imnadze, Permanent Representative of Georgia to the United Nations, co-facilitators of the process, introduced its Zero Draft in February 2021. Since then, revised versions came to light in March, April, May, and June. Checking them out is like watching a loop game, in which States turn a blind eye to handling issues like the following: 

  • Human rights: The inclusion of a new HLPF mandate to ensure that national human rights institutions are able to participate under the same modalities as other stakeholders were quickly erased from the text.
  • Peace, justice, and strong institutions: The idea of reviewing SDG 16 every year, just as it happened with SDG 17 on partnerships, was dropped in May.

“Improvements” wording followed the same path:

  • Fear to words: The draft from May stated that the HLPF should strengthen its analysis of the interlinkages across the SDGs “while also addressing cross-cutting issues, including, but not limited to poverty eradication, gender equality, human rights, the effective rule of law and good governance, social protection, climate change and environmental protection, and the principle of Leaving No One Behind.” The adopted text was cut, stating that the HLPF will review the SDGs “while also addressing issues cutting across the 2030 Agenda and the Goals as well as the principle of leaving no one behind”.
  • Intergovernmental: The last version of paragraph 15 includes, for the first time in the process, the word “intergovernmentally” about the nature of the documents to be reviewed in a future session of the HLPF. 
  • Who? Where? When?: Between the versions of May and June, the following text fade away in the negotiations: “countries are encouraged to involve all relevant parts of governments at all levels and relevant institutions as well as major groups and other stakeholders in the various steps and phases of the VNRs in accordance with paragraphs 74, 78 and 79 of the 2030 Agenda” (former paragraph 21).
  • Accountability? No, awareness-raising!: The May version: “Countries may use the voluntary national reviews as a voluntary, effective and integrated follow up and review framework to inform their citizens on their progress in the implementation of the 2030 Agenda.” The June version: “Countries may use the voluntary national reviews as a voluntary, effective and integrated follow-up and review framework to raise awareness about the Sustainable Development Goals and their efforts and progress in the implementation of the 2030 Agenda.”
  • Nuances: On the May draft, countries were “invited to consider including major groups and other stakeholders in the preparations and follow up of their VNRs as well as to consider including them in their delegations at the HLPF.” A minor tweak was introduced in June, and now “Countries could consider including major groups and other relevant stakeholders in their delegations at the forum.”

No game-changer decisions arose from a washed-out reform process that failed in advancing a more effective, strong, and conducive HLPF. The way towards an ambitious HLPF providing political guidance and opening dialogues is still to be paved.

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