The global adoption of the 2030 Agenda and commitment to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in 2015 marked a new phase of ambition for sustainable development. The agenda is the culmination of over two years of intensive public consultation and engagement with civil society and other stakeholders around the world to build upon the achievements of the Millennium Development Goals and to address their unfinished business, particularly in reaching the most vulnerable people.
The implementation of the SDGs has transformational potential to support the goals of civil society organisations (CSOs) working on economic, social and environmental dimensions. The participatory framework presents an opportunity for CSOs to engage, contribute and share ideas with policy makers and inform on programme development. CSOs have a critical role to play in monitoring commitments and holding governments accountable to implementation of the 2030 Agenda – to ensure governments mobilize efforts to end all forms of poverty, fight inequalities and tackle climate change, while ensuring that no one is left behind.
As part of its follow-up and review mechanisms, the 2030 Agenda encourages member states to “conduct regular and inclusive reviews of progress at the national and subnational levels, which are country-led and country-driven” (General Assembly resolution 70/1 – Paragraph 79). These national reviews are expected to serve as a basis for the regular Voluntary National Reviews (VNRs) that countries undertake at the national level and present at the high-level political forum (HLPF), the annual global meeting for assessing progress, achievements and challenges.
These VNRs are central in overseeing follow-up and review. They report on national SDG implementation strategies and are expected to be “voluntary, stateled, undertaken by both developed and developing countries, and shall provide a platform for partnerships, including through the participation of major groups and other relevant stakeholders” (General Assembly resolution 70/1 – Paragraph 84).
The main objective of VNRs is to facilitate the sharing of experiences, including successes, challenges and lessons learned, with a view to accelerating the implementation of the 2030 Agenda. They also seek to strengthen government policies and institutions and to mobilize multistakeholder support and partnerships for the implementation of the SDGs. National consultations are often carried out to feed into the VNR process. Countries are encouraged to put regular review follow up processes into place at the national level after they are presented at the global level.
Why engage in the VNR process?
The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development is the global development framework that will guide development policy and practice at national, regional and global levels to the year 2030. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are an integrated set of goals and targets agreed by the United Nations (UN) under the 2030 Agenda.
As the world’s most comprehensive global framework on sustainable development, most, if not all, civil society actors working in economic, social and environmental sectors are already carrying out work that supports the SDGs. With governments primarily responsible for applying the goals at the national level and with the goals becoming more and more embedded in national plans and strategies, decision makers should become more and more receptive to issues that are couched within the themes and priorities of the 2030 Agenda framework.
The 2030 Agenda stipulates that implementation and review processes should be participatory and inclusive. All stakeholders, including civil society, the private sector, national human rights institutions and all levels and sectors of government including government ministers, should be involved. These principles of inclusivity are equally relevant to the VNR process, which is central to follow up and review at the global level. This means that, when carried out as intended, civil society organisations have a place in the process and the government should be receptive to engagement. Moreover, the process should provide opportunities to shape and influence decisions that will affect the realisations of civil society goals and concerns.
Civil society may choose different ways to get involved depending on their priorities, capacity and resources. Most CSOs are likely to focus on thematic areas and specific goals and targets that align to their priorities. Others may prefer to focus on coordinating civil society networks or highlighting the transformational aspects of the agenda to push for deeper change.
Furthermore, the VNR process presents CSOs with opportunities to:
- Ensure stronger CSO coordination at the national level. VNRs act as a convening mechanism bringing CSO partners together around tracking SDG implementation. CSOs can jointly advocate for a cause and build or strengthen the national CSO coalition on SDGs. Coordinated CSO engagement can lead to enhanced information flows, reinforced consistent messaging, and structured dialogues with governments.
- Push towards united implementation. SDG implementation will be contextual to the country, with each government setting its own national targets guided by the global level of ambition but taking into account national circumstances. Civil society has a key role to play in reaffirming that all 17 SDGs and their targets are integrated and indivisible and that governments are responsible to deliver on all their commitments by 2030.
- Break down silos and open doors. VNRs can open new channels for dialogue with the government and build a platform for regular exchange around the implementation of the SDGs. The exchange should be fully inclusive of all stakeholders ensuring the voices of the poorest and most vulnerable are heard.
- Participate in new institutional arrangements. It is important to ensure that new institutional structures set up to implement the SDGs are formed in collaboration and participation with all stakeholders.
- Secure funding. Civil society can help governments to secure funding for SDG implementation.
- Bring attention to CSO messages at the global level. By being part of the VNR process, CSOs can include challenges they face in the final report presented to the HLPF.
- Engage in national dialogues. The beauty of the VNRs is that, although they culminate in a report and presentation at the global level, the national dialogues between CSOs and their governments before and after the global reporting are the cornerstones of progressing the 2030 Agenda.
- Hold governments accountable. The VNR process gives CSOs the opportunity to hold governments accountable to their commitments under the 2030 Agenda. More so, this is an opportunity to present constructive solutions and inform programmatic delivery.
VNRs at the national, regional and global level
When governments adopted the 2030 Agenda, they committed to engaging in systematic follow up and review at the national, regional and global levels.
- National: Governments lead VNRs at the national level, which provides an opportunity for civil society to discuss SDG implementation and to strengthen relationships with policymakers, often through national consultations.
- Regional: UN Regional Commissions support the review process by holding annual regional workshops for VNR countries to discuss regional specificities, exchange experiences and share lessons learned. Regional outcome reports inform the global level discussions at the HLPF.
- Global: The United Nations High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development (HLPF) is the global structure responsible for assessing progress, achievements and challenges faced by developed and developing countries and ensuring that the 2030 Agenda remains relevant and ambitious. A central feature of the HLPF are Member State presentations of VNRs. These take place after thematic discussion, during the three-day ministerial segment of the HLPF.
How to engage in the VNR process?
The following table provides a brief overview of the actions that you can take to engage in the VNR process. Visit the quick guide page for full details and supportive tools.
Step Target outcome Supportive tools 1. Call for your government to conduct a voluntary national review Your country informs the UN Economic and Social Council’s President (ECOSOC) that they would like to conduct a VNR Checklist: Call on your government to conduct a voluntary national review (Tool 1) 2. Find out about opportunities for engagement Timelines, avenues for engagement and focal point identified Checklist: Understand how the government is organizing itself for the VNR process (Tool 2) 3. Plan engagement with other civil society organisations Aligned messaging and coordinated CSO approach to consultations Checklist: Understand the civil society landscape and plan engagement (Tool 3.1)
Template letter to request a meeting with government representatives (Tool 3.2)
4. Participate in national consultations CSO messages reflected in VNR process and report How to take part in national consultations (Tool 4) 5. Review the VNR report Analysis of country VNR report produced United Nations voluntary common reporting guidelines (Tool 5.1)
Questions for analysing the VNR report (Tool 5.2)
6. Engage at the HLPF CSO messages delivered during VNR presentation How to engage at the HLPF (Tool 6) 7. Follow up global discussions Gaps, challenges and achievements are evaluated and addressed 2030 Agenda follow up and review principles (Tool 7.1)
Evaluating the VNR process (Tool 7.2)