Lagging statistics raise questions ahead of annual UN SDGs review

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The U.N. High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development’s virtual format presents new opportunities for inclusivity, but countries' reports might not include a full picture of COVID-19 impacts. Photo by: Loey Felipe / U.N.

NEW YORK — The upcoming annual High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development at the United Nations will be a virtual affair. The format will present new opportunities for inclusivity, but also heightened challenges of accurately assessing countries’ development progress, civil society observers say.

Forty-seven countries will present updates on their work — known as voluntary national reviews — toward achieving the 17 Sustainable Development Goals during the meetings, which run from June 7-16. The impact of COVID-19 is expected to feature in some country reports, but is unlikely to prompt a recalibration of their SDGs advancement, as many governments began their voluntary national review process before the pandemic hit in early 2020.

“Because it is virtual, it is tough to know what to expect, because we are in uncharted territory,” said John Romano, coordinator of the Transparency, Accountability, and Participation Network. “The main thing that hopefully should improve is just overall accessibility to the HLPF, including access to the side events.”

Civil society observers have long criticized the HLPF — among other major U.N. events — for not being inclusive enough to U.N. observers, civil society, and the general public. Securing visas to travel to the U.S. is routinely challenging for many civil society organizations, and the costs can also be prohibitive.

‘A genuine conversation’

Another common concern is member states’ presentations of their SDG progress, which they conduct on their own and without any independent verification. One civil society representative will have two to three minutes to respond to each presentation, but there is no formal opportunity to present parallel civil society reports on the SDGs.

 “We expect short-term, negative impacts, but we are saying, ‘Let’s use the SDGs as a road map to continue this work and keep it alive because they can help us build back better.’”

— Guillaume Lafortune, manager of the SDG index team, U.N. Sustainable Development Solutions Network

The virtual format could make direct engagement on government reports more challenging, according to Peter van Sluijs, senior strategist at Cordaid and coordinator of the global civil society network Civil Society Platform for Peacebuilding and Statebuilding. 

“I do not know what the format is, what the platform is, and you have a lot of different challenges related to coordinating all of that together when you are not in a room. We are always concerned about how thorough and honest the VNR reports are in some cases, not all cases,” said van Sluijs.

“It doesn’t provide a forum for a genuine conversation around VNR reports,” van Sluijs continued.

Ministerial meetings during the forum will be live-streamed, as they have in previous years. But this year, all side events — many of which will focus on COVID-19 — will also be virtual.

“It means anyone can attend. We have heard that anyone can register to attend and can join virtually, which is great. We will see how that plays out, because there will be a lot of competition for the early morning time slots so that it maximizes the reach of time zones,” Romano explained. “Hopefully this should be a step in the positive direction for the HLPF.”

But tuning in to the side events requires stable internet connection, which some people do not have as they continue to work from home during the pandemic, according to van Sluijs. And people with child care responsibilities at home, for example, might also find it difficult to follow the hours-long events.

“There are serious concerns about that. If I have a Zoom call with members of the network in Libya, or Nigeria, there might be disruptions in electricity. That might be solved by a generator close to an office compound, but people often don’t have access to a generator at home,” van Sluijs said.

Some governments have pledged to take action following civil society concerns regarding inclusivity. Fifteen governments, including the United States, South Africa, and Uruguay, have signed a voluntary pledge backing a CIVICUS open letter that calls for “effective participation” of civil society during the meetings.

“This is definitely the first time we have seen written commitment among such a diverse and numerous group saying that this is a problem to some degree, but it isn't clear to what extent there will be political will to adopt an effective solution,” said Tor Hodenfield, U.N. adviser to the civil society alliance CIVICUS. “It’s a good opportunity for the U.N. to challenge itself.”

Tracking SDG progress

Before the pandemic, no single country was on track to meet the SDGs, according to Guillaume Lafortune, manager of the SDG index team at the U.N. Sustainable Development Solutions Network.

“COVID will probably make it even worse,” Lafortune explained. “We expect short-term, negative impacts, but we are saying, ‘Let’s use the SDGs as a road map to continue this work and keep it alive because they can help us build back better.’”

Côte d’Ivoire, Burkina Faso, and Cambodia have progressed the most on achieving the development goals since their adoption in 2015, according to SDSN’s “Sustainable Development Report 2020,” released last week. Venezuela, Zimbabwe, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo have regressed the most over the last several years, in part because of conflict.

While COVID-19 is likely to have a severe, short-term negative impact on most SDGs, available data does not show the full extent of the pandemic’s effect, according to Lafortune.

“This is the reality of the time lag that exists with international statistics — it represents the situation before we went into the pandemic. There was progress happening, but not enough on certain goals,” Lafortune explained.

Government check-ins during the high-level political forum are also unlikely to offer a clear, comprehensive idea of COVID-19’s impact on development progress.

Nepal is an example of one country that adapted its SDG review process to consider COVID-19 during civil society consultations. A small group of ministers, U.N. resident coordinators, and civil society organizations from Burundi, Côte d'Ivoire, and the Central African Republic also met in Kinshasa, DRC, during the lockdown to discuss regional progress, with COVID-19 in mind, according to van Sluijs. But these have been the exceptions, not the standard for proceedings.

“It makes it difficult to say what is the value of the VNR process this year, when you see the secondary impact of the COVID crisis being enormous and being a setback on the entire agenda. It makes it more difficult for these countries, also, if what they have potentially written in the VNR report might not be valid. The reality outside their offices has changed,” van Sluijs explained.

About the author

  • Amy Lieberman

    Amy Lieberman is the U.N. Correspondent for Devex. She covers the United Nations and reports on global development and politics. Amy previously worked as a freelance reporter, covering the environment, human rights, immigration, and health across the U.S. and in more than 10 countries, including Colombia, Mexico, Nepal, and Cambodia. Her coverage has appeared in the Guardian, the Atlantic, Slate, and the Los Angeles Times. A native New Yorker, Amy received her master’s degree in politics and government from Columbia’s School of Journalism.