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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.

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How is progress being made with the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) around the world – who monitors them in the individual countries, and who advises political leaders on their implementation? It is virtually impossible to give a universal answer to this question, says Dr Hannah Janetschek, Project Manager for International Partnerships at the office of the German Council for Sustainable Development (RNE). However, sustainable development advisory councils and similar organisations which are working to implement the 2030 Agenda at national level play an important role.

For this reason, from 17 to 20 February, the Global Forum for National SDG Advisory Bodies will meet in the Colombian capital of Bogotá for the first time. The network was established last September at the United Nations (UN) Sustainable Development Summit in New York. “The actors involved are incredibly diverse,” says Janetschek. There are approximately 70 participants in all. Only about a quarter come from Europe or North America, with the remainder hailing from Africa, Asia, the Middle East and Latin America.

The network is particularly important for developing and emerging countries. While Europe has had a network of sustainability bodies – the EEAC (European Environment and Sustainable Development Advisory Councils) – for quite some time, similar organisations have only been set up in many other countries since the United Nations adopted the 2030 Agenda in 2015. Implementation of the Agenda is currently proving difficult, as the UN pointed out last year. This is primarily due to the global crisis of multilateralism. The network sets out to counter this by advocating partnerships for progress. “We cannot overload advisory councils and other sustainability actors in autocratic countries with a democratisation mandate, but they can of course still make valuable contributions towards fostering sustainable development within these societies,” says Janetschek.

With this in mind, the aim is to take concrete steps to strengthen organisations and enable projects to be implemented. “As of result of the Voluntary National Reviews introduced by the United Nations, numerous ‘SDG Units’ have been created in recent years which are either very close to or part of their respective governments. This begs the question of how these can be incorporated into the institutional sustainability architecture of the respective countries as constructive advisory bodies to support implementation of the SDGs long-term,” Janetschek explains. In other countries, she adds, the opposite applies, with political leaders barely aware of the multi-stakeholder platforms for sustainable development which have emerged from civil society. There, the question is how to establish them permanently as sustainability advisory councils.

Diversity is fruitful

The Forum describes its members as generating a wide range of knowledge stemming from their extensive experience of promoting sustainable development, which is shared and built upon between the individual countries and institutions. The actors’ diversity is precisely what makes the dialogue so fruitful. For example, Vietnam’s business council has been holding a National Conference on Sustainable Development since 2018, which is also attended by high-ranking politicians such as the deputy prime minister. Meanwhile, in South Africa, an alliance has formed between civil society and trade unions which were involved in producing the country’s first Voluntary National Review (VNR) on implementation of the SDGs. The review was differentiated. Although it cited progress in gender equality, for instance, with 41 per cent of members of parliament being female in 2016, the country remains blighted by substantial social inequality and violence against women.

One of the objectives of the inauguration meeting in Bogotá is to now reinforce a multi-stakeholder approach in other countries of the kind which is currently being established in South Africa. This means that sustainability advisory councils should comprise as many actors as possible as this is the only way to promote dialogue within the societies. The advisory councils or similar bodies should neither nod through the government’s agenda nor limit themselves to strong criticism from civil society. Instead, the objective is to foster constructive participation and measures to bring about sustainable development.

In concrete terms, the meeting in Bogotá could give rise to the first partnerships between countries, for example on projects to establish renewable energies or to examine how cities and local governments can produce sustainability plans. Another point is set to address the question of how individual countries can have their sustainability policy scrutinised independently, for instance via peer review processes. By the end of the meeting, a work programme covering the period to the end of 2021 should have been agreed.

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Berlin, 26 September 2019 – Within the framework of the SDG Summit held by the United Nations from 24 to 25 September in New York, the ‘Global Forum for National SDG Advisory Bodies’ has been founded. The kick-off for the Forum was presented by Stephan Contius, Commissioner for the 2030 Agenda in the German Federal Ministry for the Environment (BMU), Annika Lindblom, Secretary General of the Finnish Sustainability Commission, Charles Nouhan, Chair of the Stakeholder Forum for a Sustainable Future, an NGO headquartered in the Netherlands and New York City, and Cristina Gallach, High Commissioner for the 2030 Agenda in Spain.

Contius supported the founding of the Forum and highlighted the positive experiences in Germany. As he outlined, sustainability councils are agents of change. “They facilitate dialogue between numerous actors and can tap into wide-ranging experiences and successes. Transferring this knowledge to others is key to accelerating change,” he explained. In the opinion of Charles Nouhan, sustainability councils provide valuable and effective impulses. This was apparent in particular in the quality of the countries’ respective Voluntary National Reviews. The Global Forum was also initiated in order to support creation of sustainability councils in countries where they did not yet exist.

The German Council for Sustainable Development (RNE) founded the Global Forum for National SDG Advisory Bodies together with the Finnish Sustainability Commission and in cooperation with UN DESA (United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs), as well as the Stakeholder Forum. More than 40 national institutions from all over the world have already pledged their support or committed to membership and others are reviewing participation. On the new website of the Global Forum, important politicians active in the area of sustainability have additionally expressed their support.

The Global Forum will be promoting national implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals around the world and facilitating topical partnerships. The aim of the exchange is to improve national and local solution approaches and make them more effective. The Global Forum will additionally assist national governments in more swiftly obtaining the expertise they need when it comes to effective approaches and solutions and entering into partnerships with pioneers. Councils and similar bodies are to be supported in their work of bolstering the respective national sustainability structures. Interdependency and follow-on effects resulting from pursuing the various national goals are also to be discussed.

“We see many elements that the national councils and bodies have in common. The experience of exchanging information with one another directly over the past weeks has shown that there is great need amongst the members for both ad hoc discussions as well as regular talks on areas of action and successful models,” explains RNE Secretary General Günther Bachmann.

During the High-Level Political Forum (HLPF) in July 2019, Günther Bachmann and representatives from both UN DESA and the Stakeholder Forum presented their idea in a workshop. Following its positive reception, work has since continued on giving the idea more concrete shape.

The Global Forum is supported by the German Federal Government. Its administrative office will be attached to the Stakeholder Forum.

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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.

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