Regional forums on sustainable development: Empowering the regions

May 24, 2021

Javier Surasky / Celina Manso
Governance for Sustainable Development Unit –

The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development calls on all sustainable development actors to work on its implementation at a triple level: Global, regional and national (including the subregional). The Regional forums on sustainable development constitute an important platform for their follow-up and implementation in each of the regions, playing a similar role to the one performed by the United Nations High-Level Political Forum at the global level.

However, regional forums on sustainable development (RFDS) have not received enough attention. With enormous unrealized potential, an ongoing reform of the UN System at the regional level, the adaptation of the High-Level Political Forum to make it more efficient, and invisible subregional and interregional scenarios, strengthening regional forums is an urgent task to carry out the Decade of Action for Sustainable Development and to Build Forward Better in the post-COVID-19 era. 


Regional forums on sustainable development

These forums hold regional meetings to implement and monitor the 2030 Agenda in order to learn more about the problems that go beyond the national scale, and require regional responses. Paragraph 21 of the 2030 Agenda emphasizes that “we will all work to implement the Agenda within our own countries and at the regional and global levels”, and immediately afterwards the UN Member States recognize “the importance of sustainable development for regional and subregional dimensions, regional economic integration and interconnectivity. Regional and subregional frameworks can make it easier to effectively translate sustainable development policies into concrete action at the national level”.

To make efforts effective at a regional level, the chapter on “Examination and Follow-up” of the same document reaffirms the value of the regions, recognizes the value of establishing indicators to monitor the implementation of commitments at the regional level, and expresses the commitment to produce regional progress reviews towards the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals.

Based on these statements, the States recognize the importance of monitoring and reviewing mechanisms at the regional level and encourage Member States to determine the most appropriate regional forum for these tasks, and to the regional UN economic commissions to assist them in this matter (paragraph 81).

The result has been the establishment of five regional forums for sustainable development, one in each region where the UN regional economic commissions work. The five forums have been assigned responsibilities related to the implementation and follow-up of the 2030 Agenda, such as promoting joint learning, supporting countries that present Voluntary National Reviews, analyzing strengths and obstacles in the region’s path to achieve sustainable development.

Source: Cepei, 2021


The mandate of the regional forums on sustainable development

Since they were put into operation by each region, the RFSD have played an important role, but below their capabilities.

Its achievements include having consolidated a regional space for multi-stakeholder dialogue, since all of them include a strong participation of non-state actors; The technical support provided to the reporting countries each year and the generation of regional data and reports. Besides this it is worth mentioning the preparation of suggestions and recommendations from the regions to strengthen compliance with the commitments assumed by the countries in the 2030 Agenda: Only in 2021, the Forum of the Countries of Latin America and the Caribbean presented 94 recommendations. Among its weaknesses we can mention the scarce participation of government representatives of ministerial hierarchy or higher, the imbalance in their work programs between the three dimensions of sustainable development, and the scarce relevance assigned to them within the annual sessions of the High-Level Political Forum.


The subnational and cross-regional levels as invisible scenarios

While we can highlight that the 2030 Agenda specifically refers to the subregional level alongside the regional level, we can say that progress there has received little attention.

Despite the fact that in several regions in which the Regional Forums are organized, the subregional divisions are of such relevance that they imply the need to fine-tune priorities and agendas to their realities, as in the cases of ECLAC in Latin America and the Caribbean or ESCAP in Asia, work at the subregional level is scattered and has not received the necessary attention, even though it can be an essential and effective channel to advance the 2030 Agenda. Sometimes, and this must be defined on a case-by-case basis, the sub-national space can be more efficient than the regional one to face common problems, which the States cannot face individually due to their scale, or whose treatment is more efficient if it is carried out between groups of countries of the same sub-region.

If the subregional space has not been duly considered, the possibilities of cross-regional work get even less attention. Although there are very clear opportunities for exchanges between regions, neither the RFSD nor the sustainable development strategies pay attention to this, perhaps because it was not considered by the 2030 Agenda expressly either.

Source: own elaboration


United Nations Development System Reform at the regional level

The UN is working in a reform process that affects governance, institutions and working structures at the regional level. It is a challenge and at the same time an opportunity to reinforce the work of the regions in promoting and reviewing progress towards sustainable development.

The UN system regional reform does not specifically consider the role of the Regional Forums on Sustainable Development: As they are gubernamental spaces, it is not the responsibility of the United Nations as an institution to include them in the adaptation of its working scheme.

However, States should pay attention to the modifications that come to the UN System from the regions to take full advantage of the new possibilities that offer different tools such as thematic working coalitions (Issue-based Coalitions, or IBCs), the integrated regional data portals (Regional Gateways), the reconversion of the coordination institutions between the UN commissions, funds, agencies and programs with a presence in each region, and the creation of the Development Coordination Office (DCO) as the new UN global and regional work structure chaired by the organization’s Deputy Secretary General.

The RFSD should be reviewed while changes are being made to increase their efficiency, as it’s being done with the United Nations High-Level Political Forum, the “international home” of the 2030 Agenda and its Sustainable Development Goals.


Regional forums on sustainable development beyond the 2030 Agenda

Having stronger regional forums with effective tools, where all the action scenarios that coexist within the regional layer are made visible and their interrelationships and links are enhanced, would not only allow greater support to the countries in the implementation and better monitoring of the 2030 Agenda; Stronger forums at the regional level, which guide their work towards the achievement of global sustainable development commitments, are essential as part of the effort to make the Decade of Action and delivery a reality, contribute to the response and recovery actions of the countries in the post-COVID-19 and encourage the leading role of the regions in the process of Building Forward Better. At Cepei we work for this purpose, confident that the regional level must play a fundamental and irreplaceable role in supporting national responses to the emergency created by COVID-19, but also in building more sustainable societies in the post-pandemic world. 

In this direction, we support the regional reform process together with the Office of the UN Secretary-General: We have actively participate in the regional forum on sustainable development in the Latin American and Caribbean region, and we visited the five UN regions to understand the specific realities, strengths and weaknesses of each of them and we continue to promote the work in these regions, while seeking to increase the visibility of the subnational and cross-regional levels.

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