Civil Society Coalition Unpacks Trends in VNR Reporting

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The report examines the current status of implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, discusses trends in reporting, and highlights good practice for civil society participation.

As the HLPF itself undergoes review in 2024, the report, compiled by Action for Sustainable Development, BOND, Cooperation Canada, Forus, the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD), Save The Children, and Sightsavers, also offers specific recommendations to enhance the VNR process through:

  • Governance, institutional mechanisms, and stakeholder engagement;
  • Policy frameworks for the 2030 Agenda implementation; and
  • Partnership models for SDG delivery focusing on localization and inclusivity.

The online launch event took place on 19 March 2024. It served as a “moment for dialogue, offering insights into the synergies and discrepancies between official reports and civil society perspectives.” Oli Henman, Action for Sustainable Development, moderated the discussion.

Lauding the report’s contribution to accountability, David Donohue, former Irish Ambassador, said HLPF 2023 and the SDG Summit both recognized that the SDGs “are in trouble” while at the same time accentuating determination and positive commitments of all countries to use the remaining time until 2030 to achieve the Goals.  

Donohue noted the steady increase in the number of countries willing to come forward with VNRs. He said back in 2015, only around 100 countries would have been interested, due in part to limited resources and capacities, compared to 188 that have presented VNRs today.

Donohue highlighted the inadequate recognition of civil society’s role in HLPF arrangements and national VNR preparation processes as a weakness. He welcomed the report’s recommendations to hold counties to account for commitments made, convene a voluntary stakeholder forum, and include civil society shadow reports in the VNR process to reflect the whole-of-society approach, stressing that civil society is not an add-on but a key player, and its participation needs to be formalized.

The report’s lead author Wangu Mwangi, IISD, presented the main findings. She said the 2023 report is shorter than previous editions and, through its eight chapters, provides a sharper and more focused analysis of 38 country VNRs and one regional report by the EU. Mwangi emphasized that where possible, VNR assertions are presented alongside “fact checks” from CSO reports.

Mwangi noted that while 72% of countries have established new SDG coordinating institutions, with 15 vested at the highest state level, only 38% of countries characterize their institutional arrangements as “multi-stakeholder,” representing a “significant drop” from 2022.

Mwangi said only 20% countries indicated they had adequate access to disaggregated data but noted that more countries are also starting to use unofficial data sources.

While often reported, multi-stakeholder participation is not always sound, Mwangi stressed, and while all VNRs mention efforts to leave no one behind (LNOB), not a single report presents a full picture of who is, or is at a greater risk of being, left behind. She welcomed VNRs’ improved focus on intersectionality through vulnerability clustering.

On localization, Mwangi reported that voluntary local reviews (VLRs) are on the rise, with 33% of countries referencing local reviews in their VNRs, up from 16% in 2022. Civic space, however, was a weak point across all the reports.

As a final reflection, Mwangi stressed that civil society shadow reports produced alongside VNRs can serve as the basis for a more formalized approach to civil society engagement.

Henman presented the report’s recommendations. For Member States, he said the report calls for:

  • VNRs to include CSOs’ insights, data, and case studies that reflect the realities on the ground, to ensure a balanced and comprehensive assessment of progress towards the SDGs; and
  • Reporting on progress in collecting disaggregated data.

For the HLPF review, the report recommends that:

  • A space be created at the HLPF to present voluntary stakeholder reviews, similar to the space created for VLRs, for an independent assessment of progress; and
  • The HLPF ensure dedicated funding for the delivery of the 2030 Agenda, with a specific fund to support communities most left behind.

Next, civil society representatives from VNR countries shared their insights.

Tatu, a youth activist from Tanzania, highlighted the importance of: engaging young people in the SDGs through VNRs; holding government to account for promises made to children and youth; and her work with communities to raise awareness of climate change impacts on children’s rights.

Ian Banda, Youth in Action for Disability Inclusion, Zambia, emphasized the need to LNOB by including youth with disability in VNR and national and local planning processes.

Miguel Santibanez, Accion Chile, described how civil society in Chile engages on the SDGs through “a regionalized system of councils,” warning about the risks of segmenting civil society participation and jeopardizing dialogue with national institutions in charge of SDG implementation.

Urantsooj Gombosuren, Mongolian CSO Coalition on SDGs, welcomed Mongolian CSOs’ engagement with international and regional CSOs to build capacity through training and support to do assessments of progress on SDG implementation. She drew attention to the 2019 and 2023 civil society reports produced alongside Mongolia’s VNRs, noting that “multi-stakeholder participation is there but not quite where we want it to be.” Gombosuren called for the sharing of experiences and lessons learned on how to advance engagement between government and civil society and the private sector.

During the Q&A session, the panelists exchanged thoughts on ways to support localization and inclusivity.

Donohue recommended giving visibility to VLRs at the HLPF and improving HLPF arrangements to hear the voices of Indigenous Peoples and persons with disability. Mwangi highlighted opportunities for fostering horizontal linkages among local authorities and municipalities and suggested local reporting “could be made mandatory.”

Banda said sign language interpretation could increase inclusivity, and called for a platform to discuss challenges countries have with mainstreaming the inclusion of persons with disability. Tatu said children and young people should participate in formulating and implementing interventions. Santibanez called for participation at regional level that goes beyond regional consultations and for improved dialogue between political authorities and civil society.

Gombosuren highlighted interest among local communities in engaging on the SDGs and emphasized the need to maintain focus between VNRs.

Henman emphasized the need to explore possibilities for better civil society engagement at the HLPF.

Lilei Chow, Save the Children, underscored the importance of accountability, acceleration, and genuine partnerships among all stakeholders. Andy Ouedraogo, Cooperaiton Canada, identified the need for positive, inclusive partnerships. Lamenting that “quality of engagement is not what we hoped it should be,” she called for co-developing and co-creating VNR reports.

Noting that some of the 2023 presenters “are less open to civil society,” Henman concluded by saying that in 2024, “we have big champions presenting like Kenya, Colombia, and Brazil,” and hoped for “a step change in HLPF engagement.” [SDG Knowledge Hub Sources] [Publication: Progressing National SDGs Implementation Report 2023]

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