UN forum offers 'sobering' vision of SDGs progress and new virtual reality

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The recently held virtual sessions on countries’ SDG reporting came with its own set of new challenges for engagement. Photo by: Manuel Elias / U.N.

NEW YORK — The United Nations’ annual check-in on the Sustainable Development Goals wrapped up last week without the usual fanfare of thousands of visitors descending upon U.N. headquarters, darting across midtown Manhattan from one packed side event to the next.

Lagging statistics raise questions ahead of annual UN SDGs review

The U.N. High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development offers a chance to assess how countries are doing on the SDGs. The virtual format will make it easier for civil society to participate, but countries' reports might not include a full picture of COVID-19 impacts.

The virtual nature of this year’s High-level Political Forum, of HLPF, was unavoidable — U.N. headquarters remains largely closed because of the coronavirus pandemic and just transitioned to its first reopening phase this week.

The pandemic is reversing decades of uneven development progress, making achievement of the goals “even more challenging,” according to “The Sustainable Development Goals Report 2020,” released by the U.N. at the beginning of the HLPF on July 7. An estimated 71 million people are expected to be pushed back into extreme poverty in 2020.

Here are some major takeaways from the recently concluded two-week meeting — and what it might signal for the largely virtual opening of the U.N. General Assembly in September.

A new virtual reality

Back-to-back virtual sessions tracking countries’ SDGs progress — and, in many cases, their retreat away from achieving the goals — came with their own set of new challenges for engagement. The virtual events made the process more inclusive for many viewers and speakers, no longer bound by travel, cost, or other access restrictions that come with attending U.N. events in New York.

But there are trade-offs, observers say, resulting in a recalibration of how civil society engagement and diplomacy are traditionally conducted.

“There is no way to have side conversations, and you cannot negotiate — there is no back-and-forth. Now, you speak and the other person speaks. This really limits the networking that is the grease of diplomacy, so you cannot meet people in the hallway by accident, you don’t see people who come to headquarters only one time a year,” said Esther Pan Sloane, head of partnerships, policy, and communications at the UN Capital Development Fund.

“One thing we have found is you can maintain relationships you already have, but you cannot build new ones,” Sloane continued.

Unlike in previous years, U.N. member states ended the forum without formally agreeing on a ministerial declaration recommitting to the 2030 development agenda. Peter van Sluijs, a senior strategist at the Dutch nonprofit Cordaid, said the negotiation process was impacted by people “not being able to work together face-to-face.”

“You see a quite stagnant process, where ministerials are finding it quite difficult to agree on a declaration. So, it is quite concerning that the declaration that might be adopted might be weak and might not address the need for political will, especially during a decade of action to drive forward the 2030 Agenda,” van Sluijs said.

But some of the forum’s recurrent challenges — like civil society engagement and government transparency in SDG reporting during voluntary national reviews, or VNRs— are not necessarily linked to the new virtual format.

“It is not just the virtual nature of the HLPF. It is a perpetual question for the HLPF every year: How can we more effectively have brought an inclusive discussion about how individual countries, and we as a global community, are doing on the SDGs?” said John Romano, coordinator of the Transparency, Accountability, and Participation Network Secretariat.

“There is a limited amount of time during VNR presentations to have a genuine conversation and to fully unpack the nuances of how countries are doing in terms of implementation of the SDGs. It is a huge challenge — not just this year, but every year,” Romano continued.

A sobering tone

While some governments accounted for the deleterious impact that COVID-19 is having on their national development trends in their reports at the HLPF, the lag in public statistics meant many countries could not offer an entirely up-to-date picture. But several observers described the tone at various side events as sobering, reflective of the new development and financing setbacks that the pandemic is causing worldwide.

“One thing we have found is you can maintain relationships you already have, but you cannot build new ones.”

— Esther Pan Sloane, head of partnerships, policy, and communications, UN Capital Development Fund

“Last year, I won’t say the HLPF was highly optimistic, but fairly optimistic in terms of our availability to move forward on the SDGs. This time, it is a very different HLPF. It is sobering. You get the impact of noneconomic shocks that you did not foresee last year, coming on top of the climate challenge. It was very sobering,” said Navid Hanif, director of the U.N. Financing for Sustainable Development Office.

One other recurrent theme: building back better and not letting the SDGs fall to the wayside as the global response to the pandemic continues to unfold.

“Everyone is talking about building back better. I think that at the core, the SDGs were drafted to be transformative, to transform our societies to be better and more resilient. And if we are looking to build back better, it should be using the SDGs as our guide,” Romano said.

Countries’ growing debt burdens as a result of the pandemic and rising borrowing costs also factored heavily into many discussions and government speeches, according to Hanif.

The total debt service on the public and private debt of low-income countries will likely exceed $900 billion in 2020, Hanif said, pushing many of them toward a debt crisis.

“This time, it is a very different HLPF. It is sobering.”

— Navid Hanif, director, U.N. Financing for Sustainable Development Office

“Almost every country has mentioned debt. It is looming large. They are using the words ‘debt tsunami,’ ‘a mountain of debt.’ Those messages are coming from middle-income, from low-income countries,” Hanif said.

“We are getting a clear message. ... The economic contraction is not only about what happens in this year or the first half of next year. It is disrupting remittances, commodity prices, and job markets. Just don’t look at the short term; look at the medium and long term. And the picture doesn’t look very promising,” Hanif continued.

Next up: UNGA

The HLPF often serves as a preview for the opening of the U.N. General Assembly and surrounding side events each September. This year will be no different, as UNGA will also be a virtual-only affair, with some opportunity for government delegates to appear in person in the large General Assembly Hall.

“We are likely to continue dancing around the same questions — mainly, what is the value of engaging when it is going to be a virtual format again?” Romano said.

A meeting marking the 75th anniversary of the U.N. is among the billed events that will likely overlap with many others, all vying for virtual engagement.

“It will be tough to engage in the GA this year. The added value of the GA every year in New York is that it brings a lot of people together, working on a wide range of issues,” Romano continued. “We will have to see how much of a specific focus we can have on the SDGs when there are so many issues to be discussed during the GA. We will see.”

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.