Written by Gurleen Grewal
The United Nations High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development (HLPF)
In September 2015, 93 member states of the General Assembly of the United Nations adopted a resolution for a more inclusive, equitable, and prosperous world: the “Transforming our world: 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.” With this resolution member states, including Canada, committed to achieving 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that encompass issues such as climate action, education, and gender equality. The United Nations High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development (HLPF) is an annual meeting that serves as the main platform for “follow-up and review of the 2030 Agenda” and the SDGs. It allows each member state to participate in compiling a collective store of knowledge on practical challenges, innovative ideas, and strategies for success in implementing the SDGs. The annual HLPF meeting also provides an opportunity to demand committed action and accountability from governments.
This year’s High-level Political Forum will meet from Monday July 9 to Wednesday July 18, under the theme of “Transformation towards sustainable and resilient societies.” A handful of the 17 SDGs are brought under review at each year’s HLPF. SDG 17, which expresses the need to “strengthen the means of implementation and revitalize the global partnerships for sustainable development,” is considered every year. In addition to SDG 17, there are five other goals under review at the 2018 HLPF:
SDG 6: Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all
SDG 7: Ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all
SDG 11: Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable
SDG 12: Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns
SDG 15: Protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, and halt and reverse land degradation and halt biodiversity loss
Canada’s Preparedness to Implement the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals
As one of the member states that agreed to the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, Canada has signaled their commitment to the SDGs, and the hope they represent for positive social, economic, and environmental change. An independent 2018 report from the Office of the Auditor General of Canada titled, “Canada’s Preparedness to Implement the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals,” concluded that “the Government of Canada lacks a federal governance structure and a plan to implement the 2030 Agenda.” Five federal organizations were tasked with implementing the 2030 Agenda: Employment and Social Development Canada, Environment and Climate Change Canada, Global Affairs Canada, Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada, and Status of Women Canada. However, the report finds that as of November 2017, there are no “clearly articulated departmental roles and responsibilities.” While, the elements of measurement, monitoring, and reporting that are crucial to achieving the SDGs are also absent.
Echoing the concerns expressed in this report, the British Columbia Council for International Cooperation (BCCIC) also found that the Government of Canada is “woefully unprepared for the national responsibility of advancing sustainable development in Canada” as it has “no national strategy” for implementing the 2030 Agenda.
Voluntary National Reviews at the HLPF
To “facilitate the sharing of experiences, including successes, challenges and lessons learned” the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development encourages each of its 93 member states to generate a voluntary national review (VNR). Since the inception of the 2030 Agenda, 65 out of 93 countries have submitted VNRs that report on their progress in implementing the SDGs, but Canada is not of them. This year’s HLPF marks the first time that Canada will submit a voluntary national review regarding its progress in the SDGs under review. In an online report synopsis, Canada shares that it uses the VNR to take “stock of national actions, achievements and challenges” and to identify “next steps in implementing the 2030 Agenda.” At the United Nations General Assembly in 2017, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said that the SDGs are as “meaningful in Canada as they are anywhere in the world.” The synopsis of Canada’s VNR parallels this sentiment as it asserts that existing governmental “policies, programs and priorities are already well-aligned to the SDGs.” Yet, these claims do not agree with the findings presented in the 2018 report from the Office of the Auditor General of Canada.
Civil Society Organizations and the HLPF
The synopsis of Canada’s VNR further outlines plans to “launch a process … to develop a national strategy on the 2030 Agenda through collaboration with all levels of government, Indigenous peoples, civil society and the private sector.” The 17 Sustainable Development Goals outlined in the 2030 Agenda coincide with the goals of many civil society organizations (CSOs), especially those working in international development. CSOs are often uniquely placed to interact directly with communities in implementing the SDGs, so they offer valuable strategic experience at the local level, and beyond. The connections that CSOs foster with Indigenous peoples, the private sector, and various levels of government contribute to the achievement of SDG 17. They indicate existing channels of communication that can be used to advance collaboration on the 2030 Agenda. For those who do not attend the HLPF its motives and outcomes may seem distant and esoteric. However, the insights that this global forum brings together can benefit CSOs working to increase access to clean water and sanitation (SDG 6), those that hope to protect terrestrial ecosystems (SDG 15), or those involved in promoting sustainable energy (SDG 7).
BCCIC’s Participation in the HLPF
While Canada did not issue a voluntary national report at the past two HLPF meetings, BCCIC has actively participated in the HLPF. In 2016, BCCIC “put out two reports –Keeping Score and Keeping Track—which were meant to understand civil society’s view of Canada’s role in the SDGs, and how we can measure progress.” In 2017, BCCIC issued a report called Where Canada Stands and attended the HLPF, encouraging the implementation of the SDGs at a sub-national level.
One of the questions that BCCIC continually addresses through its reports and its presence and participation in the HLPF is whether “Canada [is] pulling its weight.” The report BCCIC has created for the 2018 HLPF, Where Canada Stands, Vol. 2, outlines the targets for each of the six SDGs under review, and presents Canada’s position on the SDGs relative to other countries by referring to specific SDG indicators and targets, and citing national data. It identifies cross-cutting themes such as gender, climate change, and indigenous rights that apply broadly to the SDGs under review, and shares the insights of “expert interviewees.” This report acts as an excellent resource to CSOs wondering how the SDG framework can be of use in implementing their goals. In the past two years, BCCIC’s reports for the HLPF have proved the value of civil society contributions to measuring, monitoring, and reporting on Canada’s progress with the SDGs.
For the 2018 HLPF, New York City plans to release the world’s first voluntary local review (VLR). They have modelled their VLR on the voluntary national reviews that have been submitted in past years. Using this format, New York City will report on their progress towards achieving the SDGs, and offer insights into successful strategies and challenges in implementation at the city-level. BCCIC has strongly encouraged local and community level involvement in the SDGs as a critical component of the success of the 2030 Agenda. At the time of the release of last year’s Where Canada Stands report, Michael Simpson, the Executive Director of BCCIC, commented that “Canada ranks well among other countries” as it comes in “13th out of 149 countries in the 2016 SDG Index,” but this success does not transfer “when it comes to regional differences and sub-national indicators.” This comment illustrates the importance of city-level reporting on the SDGs, a task that CSOs are well-placed to engage in.
This year, BCCIC is also bringing a large delegation of youth to the HLPF – 17 youth who are participating in an “SDG Bootcamp” through BCCIC, and several more who had a hand in helping with SDG public engagements and writing this year’s Where Canada Stands Vol. 2 Report. These young people are motivated to make change in the world, and BCCIC is glad to help provide tools and avenues to do so at the UN level.
The 2018 HLPF promises to be an eventful meeting full of new opportunities for advancing the 2030 Agenda. It marks the first year that Canada will submit a voluntary national review. This VNR might respond to the recommendations from the 2018 report released by the Office of the Auditor General of Canada. And it can also be compared to the 2018 report that BCCIC has issued with regards to Canada’s position on the SDGs. The HLPF aims to provide an inclusive and productive global forum for addressing questions, sharing strategies, and promoting the successful implementation of the SDGs. To stay involved with the dialogue at the 2018 HLPF, CSOs can follow the updates of the HLPF blog where “representative of member states, UN system, and major groups and other stakeholders” share their insights on the theme of “Transformation towards sustainable and resilient societies” and the SDGs.