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Building Momentum: Reflections on the 2017 High Level Political Forum

24 Jul 2017

Building Momentum: Reflections on the 2017 High Level Political Forum
This blog post is published as part of a Series by UNRISD Director Paul Ladd, called Through the Social Lens. In the Series, Paul shares his reflections on current issues in development and how UNRISD's work on social development ties in to these concerns. We would love to hear from you if you have any thoughts while reading the piece. Put your comments in the box at the end and we will do our best to get back to you.

I’ve just returned from the High Level Political Forum (HLPF) in New York. This is the annual UN platform to review the implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

Even more so than last year it was a huge jamboree. The stats on the HLPF website tell us that there were almost 2500 registered participants, attending nearly 50 formal meetings and 150 side events, and listening to 44 governments report on their plans and progress. It struck me that a considerable part of the discussions that usually take place on development at the September General Assembly have now migrated to this new space.

There was a lot of talk, and this wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. Taken at face value there was indeed quite a lot of good talk. Governments set out what they are doing to implement the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in an integrated way, and in particular in a way that will ‘leave no one behind’—the rallying call of the new agenda. But after 10 or so meetings it did get a little repetitive and platitudinal, and the early whisper of cynical voices was not too far beneath the surface.

Building momentum and ownership

What was clear from the scale of participation in the HLPF was the huge amount of momentum and ownership that has been built up. Communities working on particular issues or on behalf of disadvantaged groups have been broadened and deepened. There were excellent side events on gender, disabilities and aging for example. Young people in particular are keen to play their role in making it real.

Yet, as the old proverb says, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. Within a few short years we will start to have a clearer indication of whether governments and the private sector (in particular) are living up to their promises and charting trajectories towards fairer and more sustainable societies.

It would be a huge disappointment—not to say a terrible shame—if the promises were betrayed.

Because the SDGs—like the MDGs before them—cover income poverty, health, education, water and sanitation, and housing, they are very important for countries where a lot of people live in poverty, and where resources and capacity are more stretched.

Critical shifts in thinking about development

At the same time, Agenda 2030 has been able to emphasize some critical shifts in how we think about development. One of the most important for me has been the much-needed understanding that development is a universal endeavour, and that all countries are still developing—albeit in different ways and with different priorities.

While it is true that richer countries can play an important role in supporting others to develop, this doesn’t mean that it’s only about aid and development cooperation for them. It is also about adapting their own domestic policies, for their own citizens. We heard less about this at the HLPF, although it is encouraging to see movement in some European countries such as Switzerland, Sweden and Germany.

Agenda 2030 is also about the myriad policies in richer countries that enhance or reduce the space for poorer countries to develop, such as pollution, over-consumption, trade, migration, and international tax policy. The bundle of issues that we label as relating to ‘policy coherence’.

There was still too much silence on this latter set of commitments by richer countries. It is still easier for them to talk about their investments and influence in other places.

As efforts to implement the Agenda mature over the next few years, I’ll be watching to see if we can collectively make the shift from rhetoric to action, and from an aid-heavy agenda to one where we realize that it’s about all our behaviours. If we can do that, we will have achieved something special. If not, the cynics—and the ordinary people around the world who expected much more—will be right to raise their whispers to shouts.


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This article reflects the views of the author(s) and does not necessarily represent those of the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development.