What's next for the sustainable development goals?

31 August 2017

Two years ago the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were agreed in New York. In January 2016 they came into effect, and in 2017 the second High Level Political Forum (HLPF) on the SDGs took place in New York. So what’s next for the goals? Here are my reflections on what I saw in a busy, hot New York.

The United Nations General Assembly is the largest gathering at the UN, and politically the most important. World leaders from around the world attend the UN and decisions concerning our humanity are decided. Yet the HLPF is gaining momentum and is quickly becoming something of a political force.

Countries from around the world report back on their progress towards implementing the SDGs. These are called the Voluntary National Review (VNRs).

This year, the theme of the HLPF was “Eradicating poverty and promoting prosperity in a changing world.” The forum reviewed Goal 1: End Poverty, Goal 2: End Hunger, Goal 3: Good Health and Well-being, Goal 5: Gender Equality, Goal 9: Industry Innovation and Infrastructure, Goal 14: Life Below Water and Goal 17: Partnerships for the Goals.

Some reflections on this year’s HLPF

  • In 2016 22 countries applied to voluntarily review their progress. In 2017 67 countries applied but there was only time for 44.
  • The number of VNRs has increased quite dramatically; it is good to see more accountability and a record of progress. However, more countries wanted to get involved and there was not enough time to fit everyone in. How can we continue this collaborative space and allow more countries to feedback?
  • Countries were limited by which goals they could address and how much time they had to report. The Together 2030 official statement on the SDGs called for countries to “commit to review all the SDGs and their interlinkages every year”.
  • A4SD called for members to integrate their approaches to the Paris Climate Agreement into the VNRs. You can read the full statement here.
  • A few of the VNRs were open and honest, recognising where they were doing well but not hiding the areas where they were behind.  Many saw this as a brave and important step forward for accountability. Let’s hope countries continue this approach.
  • A few included extra engagement such as panels with youth engagement or a civil society annex. Many recognised the importance of multi-stakeholder engagement in implementing the SDGs.
  • A study by Together 2030 and Newcastle University found that civil society awareness and engagement in the VNRs was low and that high expectations didn’t materialise into genuine spaces for engagement.
  • The ODI index found that of the 44 countries presenting national reviews, 25 were “ready” to meet “leave no one behind” commitments, while 18 were “partially ready”.
  • You can read our 2016 analysis here.

On balance, the spirit in New York was high. There was a real buzz around the forum and lots of fringe events to attend and learn from. Organisations and countries were working in partnership to champion the SDGs. UN staff and delegations were excited about Antonio Guterres and his leadership for the UN. The weight of expectation will be heavy on his shoulders but people are confident that he will deliver.

What about the UK?

Closer to home, people are wondering what role the UK government will play. The UK did not send a minister or report to the HLPF this year. There is speculation that the UK Government will choose to submit a VNR to the 2019 HLPF given that its focus that year will be on Goal 16 (peace and justice), which is an area of particular interest for the UK government. An extra incentive is that the forum will be held during UNGA itself, so heads of state will attend.

We hope that the UK government will choose to report to the HLPF soon, and do so in the spirit of some of the open and transparent VNRs from this year. We’d like to see multi-stakeholder engagement running up to the HLPF, meaningful engagement from civil society working in the international and domestic sphere and authentic voices such as the young, elderly or people with disabilities.

Civil society is committed to achieving the SDGs but the clock is ticking for us to deliver the SDGs at home and abroad.

For more information on the Sustainable Development Goals, check out our SDGs hub. 

About the author

Ali Louis headshot
Bond

Bond's public affairs and government relations manager, Ali has previously worked for Unicef UK and in parliament. She has an MA in International Politics and Development from Newcastle University.