Voluntary National Reviews: consensus-building as a driving force

There is little measurable progress in implementing the 2030 Agenda – but more and more institutions are working to change just that. Examples from all over the world show what methods can be used to transfer the Sustainable Development Goals into domestic policymaking. Many of those involved recently came together at the High-Level Political Forum hosted by the United Nations in New York.

UN Secretary-General António Guterres is a man of clear words, and the ones he chose to open this year’s UN Sustainability Forum (HLPF) were crystal clear: The Corona pandemic has driven 124 million people into poverty, global inequality and violence against women has increased. Four billion people worldwide were without social security, atmospheric CO2 concentrations were at record highs, as was the rate of global species extinction. “This High-Level Political Forum is intended to assess progress on the 2030 Agenda. But we must face facts. Rather than progress, we are moving farther away from our goals,” Guterres said at the start of the annual eight-day meeting, where UN countries were represented by their ministers.

However, Guterres also raised hope: the situation “can and must” be turned around, he said. Despite the pandemic, 42 countries have submitted Voluntary National Reviews (VNRs) on how they are implementing the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Germany was part of this year’s countries – the German Council for Sustainable Development (RNE), however, still sees “greater need for action”. Apart from the grim global development: Institutions worldwide are working tirelessly to help the SDGs achieve a breakthrough in their countries. This was also the focus of the recent meeting in New York and its many side events. The main purpose of these events is to promote global networking and the exchange of knowledge and experience.

One of these knowledge exchange events was hosted by the RNE: In cooperation with UN DESA, the Department of Economic and Social Affairs of the United Nations, and other international partners, it organised a so-called VNR Lab. This session dealt with the question on how to link VNRs with national sustainable development policy cycles. During the discussion, examples and recent studies were presented that displayed promising concepts for institutional anchoring of the national implementation of the SDGs and how central councils, bodies or groups can be best organised and used for this implementation. The VNR Lab discussed these topics using examples from partners from Benin, Germany, Namibia, and Norway. Together with government representatives, speakers from national multi-stakeholder bodies gave insights into their work. They described, for example, how they are working constructively with their respective governments to ambitiously implement the 2030 Agenda. The VNR Lab particularly emphasised that trust between such advisory bodies and their governments is essential for the successful implementation of the SDGs. Another important finding was that while there is no one-size-fits-all approach that can be applied everywhere, while overarching success factors of such bodies can be identified.

Trustful proximity and critical independence

The authors of a recently published study by the Global Forum for National SDG Advisory Bodies, for example, have investigated what these factors are. The Global Forum is a network, co-founded by the RNE, in which sustainability councils and similar bodies share good practices and experiences worldwide. The challenge: How can countries establish an advisory body on sustainable development that is independent of changing governments and political undertones? The study summarises eight key points. These are a few of them: Representatives from all sectors of society must sit on these committees, that are able to formulate consensual and evidence-based advice, even in the case of conflicting positions and, at best, involve existing organisations from environmental to business associations. The balance between trustful proximity to the government and simultaneous critical independence is important. In Germany, for example, the Federal Chancellor appoints the members of the RNE every three years. They are eminent personalities from politics, business, science and civil society.

“Describing and deciding on pathways towards sustainable societies and economies is demanding and complex. It needs knowledge and evidence, networks, openness to innovation and acceptance – ideally by the entire government and by all sectors and members of society,” says Prof. Dr. Imme Scholz, deputy chair of the RNE and deputy director of the German Development Institute. Above all, it must be considered how the effects of political measures influence each other: A CO2 price to reduce emissions is a burden on low-income households – social compensation is therefore needed. Central to this is what is called a whole-of-society approach, an approach that involves everyone – including local actors, faith communities, youth organisations, vulnerable groups.

Different contexts worldwide: front runners yes, but no “one-size-fits-all”

Namibia, for example, is considered one of the front runners in Africa in the implementation of the 2030 Agenda. The country founded a Sustainable Development Advisory Council in 2013, consisting of representatives from ministries and NGOs, ranging from the environmental sector to the Young Women’s Association. Namibia presented a comprehensive VNR progress report at the most recent HLPF. For instance, a public campaign on the implementation of the SDGs will run from July to December 2021. It will involve women’s and youth groups as well as people with disabilities in the policymaking process and, moreover, reach the indigenous population in all languages, for example through various radio programs.

Different countries have taken different approaches to implementing the SDGs: In some, the national SDG council is located at the head of state, elsewhere in a department such as the Ministry of Economy or Environment. If, on the other hand, a council is organised more independently, institutionalised exchange with the government is important. In that case, the possibility of inviting ministers and other officials to its meetings is crucial. In some places, ministries are even legally obliged to respond to the recommendations of their sustainability council. The Global Forum’s studies highlight all of this with concrete country examples that demonstrate the contextuality of each case.

The authors of the studies emphasise, however, that trust between the sustainability councils and the government is essential. It is not a matter of simply being held accountable to yet another official body. Instead, the government and other social actors must act in consensus in order to realise the SDGs together with all of society. In another Global Forum study, four countries were examined to find out how such multi-stakeholder bodies function in practice, i.e., bodies in which various social forces must formulate consensual advice. Because of their broad composition, these bodies are highly regarded when the whole of society is struggling to find solutions. A first evaluation of the national reports on the 2030 Agenda presented at the HLPF shows: When a state makes successful sustainability policy, it succeeds through real commitment, broad participation, and access for all to the decision-making processes – and not just before decisions are made, but also after. This is another reason why national sustainability councils or similar multi-stakeholder advisory bodies must be anchored in the respective national sustainability policy architecture in the long term.