The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development is more than a global political agreement on common goals and shared priorities. One of its outstanding elements is to establish an innovative mechanism for monitoring and reviewing compliance with the commitments assumed by States. This, which seems simple, is not so simple.
The 2030 Agenda is more than the Sustainable Development Goals. By this we mean that the established monitoring mechanism applies to elements that go beyond objectives and goals. We can mention here, as an example, the respect of the principles of leaving no one behind, the promotion of sustainable development under an integrative approach that considers three dimensions: economic, social and environmental.
In this way, the review and monitoring of the 2030 Agenda is guided by a holistic nature that must respect a series of principles.
This article explores the triple territorial articulation of the examination and monitoring process.
The national level
Given the leadership recognized by the States in the process and their right to define their own priorities on the road to sustainable development, as well as being the fundamental source of data generation, the national level is considered as the basis of the system.
Within the national level, the subnational is included, and in fact, mechanisms not foreseen in the 2030 Agenda have been created for local governments to report their own efforts and achievements in advancing towards sustainable development. The most important of these is the submission of Voluntary Local Reviews (VLRs).
Since the VLRs do not constitute a document of the Agenda’s monitoring mechanism, their presentation in international forums takes place mainly in parallel events to the High-Level Political Forum. Their lack of “officiality” means that they are not published on the official United Nations site. Despite the efforts made by institutions such as the United Cities and Local Governments Organization (UCLG), we still do not have a site that gathers the VLRs. Cepei has recovered the VLRs presented by localities in Latin America and the Caribbean in Table 4 of the SDGs LAC Easy Access.
Also the practice of presenting parallel reports (sometimes called Shadow Reports), carried out by civil society, to present alternative information to reports prepared by governments. The collection of parallel reports carried out by civil society organizations in Latin America and the Caribbean has also been carried out by Cepei, and its result is reflected in Table 3 of the SDGs LAC Easy Access.
But the key piece in the follow-up and review of the 2030 Agenda is found in the reports that the States produce, on a voluntary basis, carrying out a national review of the implementation of the 2030 Agenda: The Voluntary National Reports (VNRs).
Before considering them, it is important to point out a common confusion that must be overcome, based on an idiomatic element typical of the English language: The acronym VNRs has two possible meanings, as a Voluntary National Review and as a Voluntary National Report. These should not be confused: The review is a national progress review process, while the report is the publication of the results of that process. To avoid confusion, we will talk about VNRs to refer to exams, and VNRs reports to refer to results documents.
The voluntary nature of carrying out VNRs and publishing reports is a consequence of the 2030 Agenda not being a document with binding legal force, but rather a political commitment or, at the most, soft international law. In practical terms, this means that each State is free to carry out its reviews and present its reports whenever it wishes. Five years after the adoption of the 2030 Agenda, by the end of 2020, 168 countries had submitted a total of 205 reports, including 35 second reports and two third reports. If the commitments for new submissions established for the year 2021 are met, 177 countries will have submitted a total of 249 reports (60 second reports and 12 third reports), which would imply that the number of countries that will continue without having submitted any VNR Report will be reduced to 15.
Just as the presentation is not mandatory in time, no content or reporting scheme has been defined that must be followed when preparing the reports. To counteract this lack and ensure consistency and comparability between reports, the UN Secretary General developed a series of voluntary guidelines for the submission of VNR Reports submitted in 2016, which have been updated with experts support three times since then.
An evidenced-based analysis on the VNRs reports presented by Latin America and the Caribbean countries according to the objectives analyzed in each one of them, can be found in the SDGs LAC Position Tracker of Cepei. Cepei’s analysis on each report can be consulted at the SDGs LAC Easy Access.
The regional level
The national reviews serve as an input of the regional forums for sustainable development, established within each of the five United Nations Regional Commissions.
Its fundamental mission is to build an exchange mechanism between the countries of the same region, identify common problems and work on possible solutions. It is also a space where the regional structures of the UN articulate their support to the countries that will present their VNRs each year.
Each forum produces conclusions and recommendations that then enrich the discussions at the global level during the working sessions of the United Nations High-Level Political Forum.
The main documents that have resulted from the five regional forums since their first meetings are available in the SDGs LAC Easy Access, where a series of infographics on the structure of the five United Nations Regional Commissions and the work of the 2021 Regional Forums on Sustainable Development is also available.
For Cepei, the regional level is fundamental, and we understand the need to strengthen it and increase its visibility, so we have been strongly involved in achieving it, working both with the regions and with the United Nations, through our contribution to the reform of the United Nations Development System reform at the regional level.
The global level
The High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development (HLPF) was established by the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, meeting in Rio de Janeiro in June 2012, starting its activities in 2013. However, it only reached its current level of international relevance when the 2030 Agenda identified it as the main space to monitor and review its progress at the global level.
The HLPF, a multi-stakeholder forum, meets annually at ministerial level under the auspices of the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), and holds a summit-level meeting every four years under the auspices of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA). This is the time when Heads of State and Government review the Forum’s work structure to promote its efficiency taking into account the lessons learned in previous meetings.
For each annual meeting, the HLPF establishes a theme that guides the debates, and although it addresses the 17 SDGs, each year a subgroup is defined to be analyzed in depth, an exercise known as Thematic Analysis.
Among the main tasks of the Forum is to provide a space for the countries to present their Voluntary National Reports to the international society, and to facilitate the dissemination of achievements, difficulties and lessons learned. Fundamentally, the HLPF should provide political leadership and guidance to the implementation and monitoring of the 2030 Agenda around the world.
The work of the HLPF is nourished by contributions from the States, regions, agencies, funds and programs of the United Nations System, the Annual Report on the progress towards the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals of the UN Secretary General, and every four years coinciding with its Summit meeting, by the Global Sustainable Development Report prepared by a group of independent experts appointed for this purpose by the Secretary General.
Besides the Forum’s meetings, multiple activities of parallel sessions are carried out, led by different development actors, both state and non-governmental.
At the end of each Ministerial Forum a Declaration is adopted, although in 2020 it was not possible to reach a consensus. When the HLPF meets both under the auspices of the ECOSOC and the General Assembly, only a political statement is produced at the end of the latter, as happened in 2019.