Crowding out accountability: The follow-up and review of the 2030 Agenda

28 July 2016 Anna Möller-Loswick

I’ve just spent a week in hot and humid New York, where the first High-Level Political Forum (HLPF) took place at the United Nations Headquarters. The 2030 Agenda – which consists of a set of 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – has two main accountability pillars. The first is a set of quantitative indicators and data that tracks progress towards the SDGs. The second is the qualitative follow-up, review and reporting processes at national, regional and global level. The HLPF sits at the apex of these accountability processes.

The 22 member states that had agreed to present national voluntary reviews this year should be credited for taking on a major undertaking only ten months into the new development framework. This was the first real opportunity for them to demonstrate a strong commitment to the transformative aspirations outlined in the 2030 Agenda, and to set a precedent for future national reviews.  However, few among them were up to the task.

The 2030 Agenda promises a systemic review process “to support accountability to our citizens”. But many member states simply showcased the work they’ve done in setting up structures and coordination mechanisms for implementing the 2030 Agenda. While these implementation processes are important, it wasn’t clear how they would help address political, development or social challenges at the national level. I didn’t get the sense that there was any urgency around this, nor did it seem that member states were willing to be honest about the challenges faced by people in their countries or to hold themselves accountable for tackling them. More effort and imagination will be needed to get beyond business as usual.

There was also a missed opportunity for member states to have meaningful conversations with civil society. I spoke to a number of civil society representatives who were frustrated and disappointed: they had limited opportunities to speak and interact with member states during the official sessions. This meant that member states’ accounts of their progress were not open to meaningful challenge by civil society.  Despite a level of accountability that would be troubling to most upstanding autocrats, I heard one UN official fretting aloud during one side event that member states risk “getting crowded out” of this process.

On a more positive note, some member states did take steps to include civil society. For example, Germany and Finland both invited national civil society actors to speak during their official presentations, which enabled them to pose some critical questions to their governments. Several civil society members from Sierra Leone were pleased about how they had been consulted by their government ahead of its review. But civil society in other countries had not been consulted at all or were only able to comment on almost-finalised drafts of official national reports. Such token consultation doesn’t count as meaningful engagement.

When member states agreed to an “ambitious” new development framework in September 2015, they put off deciding on the main accountability processes –the follow-up and review processes as well as the indicators – until after the text was signed off.  A number of member states have subsequently simply proven unwilling to establish an HLPF with strong accountability components. For example, they have refused to commit to a set number of voluntary reviews by each member state over the next 15 years. Some have even advocated against the participation of civil society at all. A draft resolution to establish the process for future global follow-up and reviews   has very weak language on accountability, transparency and participation.

In response, progressive states need to push back and lead by example, treating the low standards set out for the HLPF as the floor, not the ceiling. Meanwhile, there are rumours that member states will look to dilute the global indicators agreed by the UN Statistical Commission in March. It’s critical that this isn’t allowed to happen: the global indicators are not perfect, but politicisation certainly isn’t going to make them better.

Making member states more accountable for delivering on the promises of the 2030 Agenda requires action on several other fronts.

First, accountability matters most at the national level. If accountability actors, such as political parties, media or civil society activists, don’t know or care about the SDGs, then the impact of the 2030 Agenda will be limited. Those who wish to champion the new agenda need to win these actors over and explain how they can leverage the international framework to hold their governments to account on issues of concern to their constituents.

Second, governments should be actively consulting with their citizens, civil society and the private sector on whether national development plans are setting the right priorities and proceeding in the right way. This may already be the case in some countries as part of national development planning. Alignment with the SDGs will be the next step. Where consultation is not happening, governments should be pointed to the text they have signed up to, which states that progress reviews “should draw on contributions from indigenous peoples, civil society, the private sector and other stakeholders”. In line with the evidence that co-reporting of government and civil society can add credibility and legitimacy to international commitments, ambitious governments should go further and actually co-produce national progress reports with other stakeholders including civil society.

Third, we need to bring the two accountability pillars together. Numbers can never tell a full story of progress, but words without evidence can be equally hollow. The UN Secretary-General’s SDG Progress Report demonstrates that there are still significant data gaps at global level. These also exist at the country level, where complementary and context-relevant national indicators can play a critical role. We need to fill data gaps by investing in our National Statistical Systems but for accountability purposes we must also safeguard their independence from government. We also need to harness the capacity of non-official data producers such as civil society organisations, UN agencies and research organisations in order to create more pluralistic data ecosystems that generate more credible stories of progress drawing on a wider diversity of data points.

Finally, at the global level, the HLPF needs to become a much more dynamic forum for genuine and honest conversation between and among member states, civil society and other stakeholders about progress made, challenges ahead and ways to overcome them. We now have a genuinely universal framework from which we can learn from one another and tackle shared challenges. Let’s start using it. 

Anna also gave a speech to the High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development at the United Nations headquarters in New York on this topic. Read the transcript or watch the speech here.

“progressive states need to push back and lead by example, treating the low standards set out for the HLPF as the floor, not the ceiling”

Anna Möller-Loswick