I have just returned from the whirlwind that is the High-Level Political Forum on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), or HLPF in short, at the United Nations in New York.
The HLPF happens every year in July, but this year was significant as it marked the end of the first four-year cycle of its mandate to review the 17 SDGs and assess successes and challenges in achieving the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.
Save the Children was there in full force, with colleagues attending from around the world – from Denmark to the UK to Indonesia. Our message was clear: we cannot achieve the SDGs without realising the rights of every last child, and vice versa. Children’s rights are not only instrumental, but they are a means to an end to ensure that no child is left behind.
This year’s forum reviewed six SDGs:
- SDG 4 – Quality education
- SDG 8 – Decent work and economic growth
- SDG 10 – Reduced inequalities
- SDG 13 – Climate action
- SDG 16 – Peace, justice, and strong institutions
- SDG 17 – Partnerships for the goals.
During the Ministerial Segment of the Forum, we heard from 47 countries who presented their Voluntary National Reviews (VNRs), including the UK. The VNRs provided a timely opportunity for countries to share experiences and lessons learned in implementing the SDGs.
Five key points to take away
Being in the thick of it all was an amazing experience. I met some brilliant minds who are involved in shaping, funding and monitoring policies to implement the SDGs all over the world.
It’s easy to get lost in the bubble that is created by these big global advocacy moments. For me, given how I started my career as a grassroots activist, it was important for me to step back and ask myself: what can I really take home about this experience?
Here are my five takeaway points from this year’s HLPF.
1. We must drastically change our ‘business as usual’ approach
With just over a decade to go to the 2030 deadline, the world is not on track to meet many of the SDGs, with serious deficits in the global response. In some areas, progress has stalled – or worse, is being reversed.
While extreme poverty has fallen since 2015, progress is slowing. As highlighted in the UN Secretary-General’s annual SDG report, based on current trends, extreme poverty is projected to be at 6% at 2030, far short of the 3% target set for SDG 1 (End poverty).
Children remain over-represented among poor people, with one child in five living in extreme poverty, compared with 9% of adults.
What this means is that a renewed commitment and concerted, accelerated action is now needed to deliver the SDGs. For organisations such as Save the Children that provide critical life-saving interventions, this will require us working faster, working better, and working where progress is needed the most. At the same time, we must continue our efforts to reach those that are falling furthest behind.
2. Let us not forget what a victory the 2030 Agenda was for the whole world
The HLPF brought to light visible tensions within the international system. At a time where all actors need to come together, the global system has become less, rather than more favourable to multilateral commitments and partnerships.
Perhaps the biggest concern among all actors at the forum was the threat posed by rising inequalities across the world, both within and among countries. This is set against a backdrop of climate change, increased vulnerabilities and sluggish economic growth, with the real challenge of a further decline in the global economy.
Four years into the SDGs, people are noticeably worried. It did strike me, however, that we need to remember what an achievement Agenda 2030 was for the global community. In 2015, world leaders from developing and developed countries were able to band together to agree on a vision for a more inclusive, prosperous, sustainable and peaceful world for all.
Even as debates become uncomfortable, it is worth remembering and re-emphasising the true transformative potential of Agenda 2030.
3. The role of civil society remains central to Agenda 2030
One of the key things I enjoyed was learning about the many innovations that were being led by civil society actors, from generating data in situations where there are huge data gaps, to participatory approaches, to monitoring SDG progress at the local level.
Save the Children’s free, online inequality tracker – GRID – is just one such example. It shows socioeconomic disparities in child development outcomes between different groups, and how these are changing over time.
The task now is to bring these innovations to scale so that they make the most impact for the furthest left behind.
4. The Voluntary National Reviews are important, but just a stepping stone
Despite their limitations, the VNRs represent an important shift towards greater accountability by national governments to their citizens. However, it is important to remember that in many cases, they are often a stepping stone towards a more inclusive, transparent path of implementation and monitoring of the SDGs.
It is often in the process of preparing these reports that governments begin to take steps to include the voices of the most marginalised and deprived people in national policy debates. What we have seen is that where VNR processes have genuinely been inclusive and transparent, these national reports have been more robust and substantive, reflecting both trade-offs and synergies between the different SDGs.
More must be done to raise awareness on the VNRs as a whole, so that citizens and civil society can better monitor and hold decision-makers to account following the HLPF.
5. Young people are increasingly demanding and defining the change they want to see in the world
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, I was impressed by the recognition and visibility granted to children and youth at this year’s HLPF. I am inspired by the youthful energy and groundswell that is shaping up across the world, with children and youth increasingly calling for change and demanding a greater say in decisions that affect their future.
As Yolanda Joab Mori, a One Young World Ambassador from Micronesia, said at the opening of the HLPF:
“Today I look out to this room and I see power. I see people in a position to either make or influence the decisions and actions we need. But the world doesn’t need any more power. What we need, if we’re ever going to come close to reaching our 2030 Goals, isn’t power, what we need now is action, and to get there we need some courage.
“Young people are starving to see some courage reflected in our leaders. Leadership that has the guts to take action. Leadership that is fearless enough to put people and planet above profit. Leadership that is inclusive, uplifts equality and empowers everyone, even a small island girl like me.”