HLPF: The international community is still off track

As every year, the High-Level Political Forum saw UN member states and NGOs convene in New York to discuss the lie of the land as the international community attempts to reach the global sustainability goals. We present the key topics that emerged for the forthcoming SDG Summit in the autumn.

“Halfway through, but nowhere near – we heard that time and again in New York to sum up the international community’s progress towards the global sustainability goals”, reports Kai Niebert, member of the German Council for Sustainable Development (RNE), who was at the High-Level Political Forum (HLPF) in New York in mid-July: “One thing is for sure, it will go right down to the wire by 2030.”

We are already at the midway point in the 2030 Agenda. Eight years ago, with the Agenda and the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the global community resolved not only to enable a decent life for all, but also to permanently protect the natural resources this would require. Ambitious goals that were set by the United Nations in September 2015 aimed at bringing together the economic, ecological and social aspects of sustainable development. Since then, all 193 UN member states have been called upon to act in accordance with this pledge. Because the 17 SDGs are indivisible – in other words, they must all be met by everyone, not just some of them by a few.

As things stand, we still have seven years to go. A fitting time, then, to take stock – even though it was already clear before the HLPF started that this mid-term review would be at the very least sobering. Because on the one hand, the multiple global crises of recent years have also set the world back in terms of sustainability and development, but on the other, countries are not doing enough as a whole. Thus far, most of the SDGs have seen little progress, as was also confirmed in the latest progress report of UN Secretary-General António Guterres. As such, Germany, too, is pushing for a redoubling of national and international efforts in a bid to deliver the 2030 Agenda in the second half.

A platform for dialogue and exchange

From 10–19 July, the HLPF saw representatives of the UN member states and civil society organisations gather in New York to discuss the most pressing issues around achieving the SDGs. A whole range of events and topic reviews took place, both in person and online, while 39 states presented their voluntary national reviews (VNR). These progress reports are not just made in a vacuum; the HLPF provides an opportunity for other member states and voices from civil society to comment on them directly. VNRs are normally preceded by a comprehensive one-year social consultation process with stakeholders at local and national level.

The HLPF is the central United Nations platform for reviewing the sustainability progress of the individual states. Although this year’s attendance was more or less back to pre-pandemic levels, many of the delegations, especially those from emerging and developing economies, were smaller than before the pandemic. This meant the respective national stakeholders were not as strongly represented as would have been necessary for an adequate global exchange and learning process between the various countries.

This year’s HLPF ran under the somewhat unwieldy theme of “Accelerating the recovery from the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) and the full implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development at all levels”. In this context, measures and successful examples for overcoming the impacts of the pandemic were presented. After all, even if we seem to have largely pulled through this emergency health situation, the economic consequences and a loss of trust have now come to the fore. Another reason why the debt situation of many countries in the Global South continues to escalate dramatically.

Normally the Forum ends with a political declaration, and there is indeed an initial draft which is still in negotiation between the UN member states, but this year the declaration will not be made until after the SDG Summit in September.

Topics for the SDG Summit

Following the HLPF, it is clear that one of the main topics for the SDG Summit will be financing the sustainable transition. As such, federal development minister Svenja Schulze had already called for a reform of the World Bank at the German Conference on the 2030 Agenda in May, where the German stance for the HLPF was developed. It must become a transformation bank, one which can not only combat hunger and poverty but also drive solutions for climate and nature protection.

The RNE, too, has already published a statement on the reform of the international financial architecture and during the HLPF was represented at an event on the SDG Summit and the Summit of the Future 2024 where positions in this statement were discussed. All in all, the RNE played an active part in New York with two of its own events and many discussions, says RNE Secretary General Marc-Oliver Pahl. “My main concern there was expanding our cooperations with African partners, the African Union and the African Peer Review Mechanism.”

Taking responsibility as a continent

One thing worth noting at this year’s HLPF was that the European Union gave its first voluntary review at continental level. It was a plea for multilateralism, which referenced the successes of international cooperation and the implementation of sustainable development in Europe. However, it also pointed out the external effects of European consumption in other regions of the globe.

“This first-time, but honest and ambitious review of the EU was impressive”, says Kai Niebert. “Team Europe” promised the international community it would step up the transition and extend its hand to the Global South as equals. “We, the RNE, with our European and international partners will do everything we can to ensure that we deliver in 2030 and sustainability becomes a reality.”

Another enduring topic in New York was the Russian war of aggression in Ukraine and its impact on the global community. One of the biggest setbacks concerns the second SDG of ending hunger, as both Ukraine and Russia are major exporters of food, fertiliser and energy.

The necessary clout

The new Global Sustainable Development Report (GSDR) 2023, which is set to be published in its final version at the SDG Summit, was also the subject of debate at the numerous events. On this, the RNE held an event with application examples from Belgium, Tanzania, Finland and Germany to critically discuss how sustainable development reports can develop the necessary clout. But also how integrated action can be anchored in national governance structures. “An integrated view of the 17 SDGs allows coherent and targeted implementation. To still achieve the 2030 Agenda, we need this honest engagement to create the pathways for transition”, says Hannah Janetschek, head of sustainable development/international affairs at the RNE.

The global community has plenty of input as it looks ahead to the SDG Summit in the autumn. After all, even though there are still many unanswered questions, one thing is clear: this summit must be the launchpad for a phase of renewed urgency. Because the international community is still off track and 2030 is fast approaching.