Global civil society platform CSO Partnership for Development Effectiveness (CPDE), together with Action for Sustainable Development (A4SD), Forus, Coalition 2030 Ireland, Zambia Council for Social Development, Accion Chile, Fundación para el Desarrollo Social Chile, Center for Human Rights and Development Mongolia, and the governments of Ireland, Zambia, Switzerland, Chile, and Mongolia, held a side-event at the United Nations High Level Political Forum (UN HLPF) in New York titled “Inclusive Partnerships for a Resilient Recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic: Leaving No One Behind in the Voluntary National Reviews”.
With the Voluntary National Reviews (VNR) as its focus, the event urged civil society and state actors to explore ways of ensuring that the VNR processes truly enable and strengthen inclusive partnerships for sustainable development at the county-level, to share research and data conducted by CSOs and make them more visible for governments and other development stakeholders; and to provide a space that fosters dialogue and exchange between government, CSOs and other actors.
CPDE, for its part, has released its 7th edition of its VNR study during the HLPF, providing civil society perspectives on SDG implementation, and CSO participation and inclusion in the VNR process by surveying the platform’s CSO members, allies and networks across the globe. Said report aimed to shed light on the critical role of CSOs in holding governments accountable, advocating for meaningful, inclusive and diverse participation in the process of implementing the 2030 Agenda, and driving transformative change towards the achievement of the SDGs.
The VNR process provides a crucial opportunity for us to evaluate and assess progress in the delivery of the SDGs and the wider 2030 agenda. However, as CPDE Policy and Membership Coordinator and event facilitator Josefina Villegas said in her opening statement, “the Covid-19 pandemic has led to massive disruption in the partial progress achieved impacting on health, education, gender equality and access to finance, leading to significant widening of pre-existing gaps of inequality and the creation of new social, economic and political asymmetries.” As development actors in their own right, CSOs organised this session to reinforce the central role of CSOs in crisis response, community engagement and grassroot-level development processes.
Representatives of the Swiss and Irish governments joined the discussions: Markus Reubi, Delegate of the Federal Council for the 2030 Agenda in Switzerland, spoke about his country’s progress in including civil society in the process thanks to the coordination done by the Swiss “Platform Agenda 2030”, with the government’s support, to launch a digital platform where they could share their inputs. However, Reubi admitted that many CSOs were not happy with the Swiss VNR report because not enough of their input was included but pointed to the value of having this online repository of information accessible to the public.
Marc Ó Cathasaigh, Member of Parliament from Ireland, highlighted how important it is for civil society to be involved in the VNR process in order to both challenge the government perspective that is not critical enough in its assessment and to advocate for leaving no one behind by shedding light on issues faced by marginalised groups who do not benefit from development policies.
In the second session, four civil society coalitions shared their experiences in developing civil society ‘spotlight’ reports to complement the VNR reports in their respective countries. Louise Finan of Coalition 2030, Ireland kicked off the discussion. She described how Coalition 2030 contributed to the VNR report and elaborated their own report which focuses on case studies of those considered to be the furthest behind in Ireland. Stressing the importance of constructive dialogue, she claimed, “we are trying to overcome complex, huge challenges nationally and globally. We can’t do that by sitting in silos. We have to come in dialogue together and find out where we disagree.”
Finan also suggested enabling community-generated data collection via Voluntary Local Reviews as a way to bring more voices in when there is no time and space to include them all in the VNR. Localisation was a recurrent topic in the meeting, when panellists talked about how to better engage civil society in the process and ensure no one is left behind.
Carlos Miranda, from Foundation for Social Development in Chile argued that information on SDGs and how to achieve them needs to become more accessible at local levels of government. Once local CSOs have access to this information, he added, “robust and long-term methodologies are essential to ensuring adherence to the SDGs.” According to Miranda, this consists of “involving all parties in constant and long-term monitoring, which will allow tactical action to be taken concisely.”
Martina Kabisama of the Southern Africa Human Rights NGO-Network Tanzania Chapter echoed this point of making sure that all voices are included in the VNR process. She asked the attendees to reflect on whose experiences are being represented in the VNR reports and to ensure grassroots communities are being consulted. She continued, “do the people within the communities really think that we are achieving SDGs?”
Dr. Indra Tumurbaatar from Mongolia’s Center for Human Rights and Development then spoke about the positive experience they had with the Mongolian government, not only during the VNR process but also in the aftermath, as some CSO recommendations and policy paper in the 2019 VNR were reflected in future government programmes. In her closing remarks, Dr. Tumurbaatar encouraged the formation of networks at the national level but especially at the international level. In her words, “we have to spark each other with knowledge, human resources, fundraising; otherwise, just one coalition or CSO alone cannot do it effectively. So it’s important for CSOs to use this challenge to spurn stronger networking.”
Oli Henman, Global Coordinator of Action for Sustainable Development and facilitator of the event along with Josefina, reflected how many of the governments now do specify engaging with civil society in the VNR process, which can start up to one year before the UN HLPF. “It’s really important for us as civil society groups working with governments to ensure we have that dialogue at home, at the national level which builds a consensus and whole of society approach.”
Henman concluded by asking,“What happens afterwards? How do we follow up and keep that pressure on?” CSOs will grapple with these challenges in the second half of the marathon to fulfil the 2030 Agenda. The first half of the agenda left much to be desired in the inclusion of civil society in state decision-making processes for SDG implementation. As CSOs make strides in demanding a seat at the table in policy spaces at all levels, their role in amplifying the voices of those who are furthest behind becomes even more salient.
The event was moderated by CPDE Co-Chair Richard Ssewakiryanga.
Watch the recording of the event here.