Voluntary National Reviews: A change of scale

September 16, 2021

Javier Surasky
Program Officer, Governance and Finance for Sustainable Development 

We live in the local age. According to UN Habitat, over 55% of the global population lives in cities, a share that is expected to reach 60% by 2030, and 70% by 2050.

Land occupation for urbanization is growing faster than the population, while inequalities within are becoming more extreme, its contribution to pollution is growing, urban waste management is becoming increasingly complex, and providing sustainable infrastructure is ever more pressing.

Although the 2030 Agenda broadly suggests three-level action (global, regional, and national), consideration of cities is included in the SDGs, especially in Goal 11 on “sustainable cities and communities” and its 10 targets, including Target 11.b, which has shown progress but not enough as anticipated for 2020. 

The adoption of the New Urban Agenda by the United Nations Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development (Habitat III) in Ecuador in October 2016 could be seen as a complement to the 2030 Agenda focused on the problems of cities.

A combination of the commitments made in the 2030 Agenda, the New Urban Agenda, the vitality of cities, and the decision of some local governments to mark the differences in the positions adopted in the international scene by their countries’ central governments led to the birth of one of the most innovative elements to monitor and implement the SDGs: the Voluntary Local Reviews (VLRs).

VLRs are reports on the progress of SDGs implementation at a local level, sometimes including good practice, lessons learned, and specific challenges faced by the local reporter. Far from competing with the Voluntary National Reviews, the VLRs fortify them with new disaggregated data and showcasing the diversity that is necessarily eclipsed when considering the national scale. In this sense, Voluntary Local Reviews are a change in scale for the SDG lens.

Even though they are not included in the 2030 Agenda’s monitoring and review program, these reports have taken over the commitment to accountability and transparency established in the Agenda and project it at a local level, present specific obstacles, enhance the visibility of cities’ role and effort in promoting sustainable development, and cast light on the innovation produced within them.

Although the firsts local reports related to the 2030 Agenda date back to 2016, as in the case of the Valencian Community and the Rhine-Westphalia, the VLRs were formally born with the reports presented in 2018 by New York, Toyama, and Kitakyushu.  

Today, there are over 100 reports from cities in all continents. Only in Latin America and the Caribbean, 25 have been presented (Check them out on Cepei’s website), among them 4 second VLRs and 1 third VLR. In addition, Bogotá, Medellín, Manizales, and Bucaramanga have committed to presenting reports by 2022.

Latin America and the Caribbean VLRs presented by April 2021 and promised by 2022

Source: UCLG

The VLRs have not yet found the position they deserve, neither at the United Nations High-Level Political Forum (HLPF), where the global progress towards the SDGs is monitored, nor at the sustainable development regional forums. Even though the local reports are not published on the HLPF official site —a situation that must change and depends only on the willingness of UN Member States—, the 2021 forum devoted an official session to this topic for the first time in its history.

It is expected that the local reports will soon hold an even more relevant position in monitoring and reviewing the SDGs, given the increasing international interest and their continuous technical improvement, which has even raised the need for a conceptual distinction between VLRs, presented by cities, and Voluntary Subnational Reviews (VSRs), including scales higher than cities but lower than nations: regions, subregions, communities, provinces, districts, etc. I do not see the need for this division, on the contrary, I think that it might hide their increasing flow.

Today, VLRs have not only become useful documents for detailed monitoring of the 2030 Agenda and observing the great diversity of strategies in place but are also introducing to the debate the value of the particular in the general, cultural diversity as a facilitator for progress in the SDGs, and local contributions and lessons in the dialogue with scientific knowledge.

A window has been opened to cities for international transparency, accountability, and publicly showcasing their commitment to more just, prosperous societies that are friendlier to the environment.

There is a new opportunity to strengthen the achievement of the SDGs. We should all celebrate it and support the ongoing process. Ultimately, people’s experience in enjoying the progress of sustainable development will always be, first and foremost, a local one.

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