Key Takeaways from the UN High-level Political Forum on the SDGs

StartingUpGood
StartingUpGood Magazine
5 min readAug 3, 2020

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By Brady Press

This article has been adapted from work completed by our sister initiative SDGCounting. You can view the original post here. See our additional coverage of the SDGs here.

The 2020 United Nations High-level Political Forum (HLPF) on Sustainable Development was held virtually this year from July 7th to 16th. The HLPF is the major UN platform for review of the 2030 Agenda and an opportunity for countries to report on their progress through Voluntary National Reviews (VNRs). Numerous side events, also held, highlighted specific topics related to the Global Goals — from data and measurement challenges to stakeholder focused advocacy to business action on the Goals, etc.

As expected, the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on SDG progress was a reoccurring theme. Despite setbacks, the overarching message from participants was that this global crisis requires even more focus on the 17 Goals to ensure a resilient future.

Our team attended more than 30 plenary sessions, side events, and VNR labs throughout the HLPF identifying over 40 key reports, articles or new resources. In the coming days we will release several articles outlining where you should be paying attention, but first, here’s a brief summary of the most important takeaways from the HLPF.

The SDGs Report 2020

The major report released during the HLPF is the annual progress report on the Global Goals. This report outlines success and challenges around each of the 17 Goals. This year the report includes pre-COVID analysis, but also shows some initial impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on each Goal. High quality infographics accompany explanatory narrative detail of the most essential and most recent SDG data available.

Source: Sustainable Development Goals Report 2020

A main theme of the report, which was also echoed throughout the HLPF, is that the pandemic has significantly disrupted National Statistical Offices’ (NSO) capacity to gather data affecting countries’ ability to respond to COVID-19 and to collect data for all SDGs.

During a side event, “Data for a Decade of Action,” Francesca Perucci, who oversees the work of the Statistics Division on the SDGs, shared the slide below, which summarizes how the pandemic has affected data collection:

How exactly is data collection being affected? The following implications are all examples, referenced by various speakers during HLPF, and illustrate challenges brought on by the pandemic:

  • Delays in planned activities like conducting the census;
  • Redirecting of funds and resources from data-support to COVID response;
  • Difficulty accessing data from institutions due to skeleton staff;
  • Lack of basic equipment and tools for remote work, such as laptops and internet.

These hindrances are exacerbating already under-resourced statistical offices in low-income countries. For example, in wealthier countries, NSO’s are replacing in-person data collection with phone and web-based interviews. In contrast, some countries’ offices do not have access to the internet or even electricity.

Are We Leaving No One Behind?

One mantra of the 2030 Agenda is to “leave no one behind” and this ideal was was brought up in multiple presentations during the HLPF. COVID-19 has caused us to go backward on this commitment in many ways, exposing vulnerabilities among populations already considered vulnerable through the lens of the SDGs — women and girls, refugees, persons with disabilities, children, etc.

In a session on data, Francesca Perucci brought up the issue of limited access to dis-aggregated data, which is necessary to measure specific vulnerable groups. For example, according to the SDG Report 2020, only 4 in 10 countries have gendered data allowing them to measure Gender Equality (SDG 5). Without dis-agreggated data, we cannot even measure whether or not we are leaving no one behind.

Progress on SDG Indicators

Of the 169 targets set for the SDGs, 21 were to be met by 2020. However, per the SDG Report 2020, as of June 2020 only 3 targets have been or are on track to being achieved. They are:

  • Target 8.b, Develop and operationalize a global strategy for youth employment;
  • Target 14.5, Conserve at least 10% of coastal and marine areas;
  • Target 9.c, Increase access to information and communications technology.

Will We Achieve the Global Agenda?

According to experts at the HLPF, no country was ever on track to achieve the SDGs by 2030. The pandemic has only increased barriers and put us further back. That said, experts emphasized the importance of not giving up on the Goals, and declared that if the necessary support mobilizes, we can still get on track. In one the HLPF sessions, Claire Melamed, Chief Executive Officer of Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data, stated:

“Whether or not we achieve the SDGs is entirely in our control. It’s whether or not we make the right choices to do so.”

In a separate session, Francesca Perucci echoed this sentiment, urging stakeholders to take lessons learned from the pandemic and turn them into best practices to move forward.

Jeffrey Sachs followed this theme in his remarks, urging the world not to give up on the Goals but to instead examine what needs to change in order to achieve them by 2030:

“Analytically, we could achieve the Goals by 2030, [but not by continuing the status quo].”

We must stay tuned to see how the global community mobilizes (or doesn’t) to progress the Global Agenda. For more information from the HLPF, look out for our next article, “Top 10 Reports and Resources from the 2020 HLPF on SDGs.”

Brady Press is an Associate Director at Changing Our World, where she specializes in building strategic corporate citizenship programs. She is a consultant to SDGCounting and StartingUpGood, and is currently researching how COVID-19 is affecting the Sustainable Development Goals.

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