Source: United Nations - Photo: 2024

Are Voluntary National Reviews Helping Achieve UN’s Development Goals?

By Simone Galimberti*

KATHMANDU, Nepal | 7 April 2024 (IDN) — What do jargons like “whole of government” or “whole of the society” approach or really mean when we talk about implementing the SDGs?

What about “multi stakeholders’ engagement”?

These are some key questions that UN policymakers should ask when they encourage member states to step up their preparations for Voluntary National Reports (VNRs).

These are the only reporting tools for nations to explain their progress and, in theory, their challenges in bringing the SDGs to life.

Ideally, they should be a platform for real and meaningful people’s involvement, but in reality, at least in most cases, they are just formal procedures.

It is not that consultations with civil society and other stakeholders are not happening, but even in the best scenarios, where governments genuinely attempt to build spaces for discussion with society, these exercises lack ambition.

The recent launch of Progressing National SDG Implementation Report 2023, an annual joint collaboration among some key NGOs, offers what, at best, could be described as a gloomy picture.

Independently analysing the 39 VNRs submitted last year, including the first one prepared by the EU as a supranational institution, it critically but objectively identifies gaps in the preparation of these reports.

Improvements have been made, but they are not nearly enough to encourage nations to step up their efforts in implementing Agenda 2030.

Some of the key aspects that are indispensable if the international community wants to meet the ambition of Agenda 2030 are weak, with scarce prospects of improvement.

We talk about governance and institutional arrangements that are, in many ways, complex, and for many nations, they can also be seen as inconvenient and unnecessarily burdensome.

Unless governments are genuinely interested in these dimensions, any attempt at developing innovative policy solutions is likely to fail.

The report itself offers a stark analysis.

“While many countries are presenting their second Voluntary National Reviews (VNRs), only a few reports mention actions taken to address governance shortcomings identified in the previous review. This indicates a lack of continuity and tangible progress in the reporting process”.

As we can see, governments are not very likely to invest time, energy, and resources in changing the way that decision-making unfolds.

Does anyone remember Secretary-General Guterres’s call to create a new social contract?

He launched his proposal for rethinking the relationships between governments and people in a lecture in 2020. Fast-forward: When was the last time that we heard Mr. Guterres talk about his proposal?

Unfortunately, the member states did not welcome his call but the issue of multistakeholder governance remains central in ensuring that the Agenda 2030 will be realized. Reports after report, admonishment after admonishment, it’s now crystal clear that we are nowhere close to doing that.

When we review the ways that nations are implementing the SDGs, it is noticeable that most of them miss the key fact that the institutional mechanisms currently in place are not fit for the purpose.

That’s why the Agenda 2030 is a missed opportunity in two different though interlinked aspects.

On the one hand, it offers a blueprint for governments to focus on what matters, not the goals per se’ but their attached indicators and targets.

On the other hand, it provides a space for developing stronger, more effective bottom-up governance that is capable of involving and including people in decision-making. This, though still vastly underestimated, is paramount because Agenda 2030 is so vast and daunting that it requires a whole-society mobilization.

So far, the SDGs and the VNRs, in particular, are merely seen as technical requirements that governments reluctantly agreed on when they signed up to the Agenda 2030 in 2015.

Having newly created SDGs coordinating institutions in place, where there have been some improvements, is simply not enough.

In this light, knowing that “approximately 72% of Voluntary National Reviews (VNRs) reported that they have newly created SDG coordinating institutions, to enhance a “whole-of-government” is certainly not that “game-changing” development even though many pretend to look at it in this way.

Also in this case, even the best practices appear faulty.

The report “suggests limited political will in many countries to implement institutional improvements that could enhance governance arrangements and ensure their sustainability over time – which perhaps stems from a lack of a solid consensus around sustainable development in many countries”.

Belgium and the Maldives, considered trailblazers in central-level inter-ministerial coordination, are two clamorous cases. Their mechanisms are inactive and not operational.

Chile came up with the best practice of creating subnational chapters of the National SDG Council, but on the ground, “no concrete initiative” has been taken.

It is now common for governments to consult about preparing the VNRs, but this evolution, while positive, does not meet the challenge.

Thanks to the report, we learn that in Zambia, the main NGOs platform laments that the “involvement of NGOs in such processes should not be limited to organizations based in the capital or other urban areas but should ensure inclusion of groups from all provinces and districts in order not to leave anyone behind.”

This is hardly surprising.

The quality of collaborations

The mechanisms to engage civil society might be in place in most cases, but what’s the quality of these collaborations? The report underlines the vagueness of many VNRs in this respect, so it is hard to extrapolate or understand how effective such interactions are.

Then, are consultations synonymous with meaningful engagement and actual participation?

The answer is no. The VNRs should be essential for making decisions about how to pursue the SDGs rather than only reporting whether they were or were not achieved.

Implementing the SDGs, mainly if it meaningfully engages members of the wider society, could be the propeller for broad and bold governance reform.

Another area of great disappointment is the issue of localizing the SDGs. This aspect is closely related to the design of new “institutional” mechanisms.

“Voluntary local reviews only 33% of countries (13 out of 39) report that VLRs have been conducted in parallel with the VNR”, the report explains.

On the other hand, how should we take the information that “approximately 75% of countries provided some level of information on their efforts to localize the SDGs (77% in 2022)”?

There are indeed more cities and local governments conducting the VLRs but the ways the VNRs are structured do not give justice to these promising initiatives.

Moreover, there is a risk of local reviews following the same “traditional” approach and methodology as the national ones. Because they are not official, developing standards and best benchmarks is hard despite some efforts in this direction.

Rather than embracing these exercises as genuine opportunities to enhance real participation, the VLRs risk missing their unique mission: becoming a reflection of local bottom-up and genuine participatory planning.

Yet, given these local tools’ limitations, what is really important is to upgrade their officiality and institutionality and include them in the formal review process of the High-Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development.

After all, how controversial or politically sensitive is the issue of localizing the SDGs?

Why can’t a consensus on mandatory VLRs be reached?

“A good VNR is a ‘country’ document meaningful to the people, not only a ‘government’ or ‘state’ report.”

This was one insight generated during the First Global Workshop for 2024 VNR Countries, which was held last December in Adis Ababa.

Are there ways to overcome the challenges not only in reporting the SDGs, nationally and locally, but also in the planning and deliberative processes centred around them, turning the VNR into a good “country” document?

The Secretary-General should use his office’s convening powers to assemble a coalition of former and current heads of state to re-discuss how the SDGs are being implemented and reported.

The report taught us that, at least in most cases, the SDGs are now integrated into national development plans. This development could start a global conversation that, with some hindsight, could have commenced last year at the SDG Summit.

This proposed coalition can help convince other leaders of the imperative of creating new governance mechanisms based on and driven by the SDGs.

Perhaps a small, impoverished, vulnerable island nation in the Indian Ocean could offer some answers.

Comoros, a country almost forgotten and far from the headlines, has some interesting practices. They have created discussion forums at the local level on the SDGs, and this could become a best practice, a world model if adequately supported, technically and financially.

But are the United Nations and the international community ready to do their part and help a

small nation experiment with how to achieve the SDGs by revolutionizing decision-making?

*Simone Galimberti is co-founder of Engage a local NGO promoting partnership and cooperation for youth living in disability and of The Good Leadership, a new initiative promoting character leadership and expertise among youth. [IDN-InDepthNews]

Photo: United Nations.

IDN is the flagship agency of the Non-profit International Press Syndicate.

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