Sustainable Development 2020


Sustainable Development Requires System Change: Analysis of the 2020 HLPF

20 July 2020


The High-Level Political Forum (HLPF) on sustainable development was held virtually between 7 July - 16 July, 2020 under the leadership of the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC). This meeting met under the theme of "Accelerated action and transformative pathways: realizing the decade of action and delivery for sustainable development”. WILPF followed the discussions on follow up and review of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, where much of the focus was kept on the nexus of the COVID-19 pandemic response that can keep the global community on track for the achievement of the SDGs during this Decade of Action. 

Due to ongoing disagreements about language, the HLPF and High-Level segment concluded without consensus on a Ministerial Declaration. As in other UN fora, including the UN Security Council, the fact that multilateral processes have stalled due to hyper-politicization of language is a major cause for concern, diverting attention away from implementation and preventing progress at a time where political will for global transformative change is so vital. 


Key Themes: Impacts of COVID-19, Human Wellbeing, and the Environment

An often-repeated phrase throughout the forum was “building back better” - implying the importance of preventing backsliding on the Agenda and emerging from the COVID-19 pandemic and economic crisis with a more just, sustainable, and resilient world. Most member states used the HLPF space to discuss the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on the achievement of the 2030 Agenda, in particular, on issues such as ending SDG 1 (poverty), ensuring health for all (SDG 3), and decent work (SDG 8). Speakers, particularly from civil society, also highlighted the role of the pandemic in exacerbating racial, economic, and social inequalities, and many speakers also reflected on the vital importance of multilateralism and global cooperation, particularly at this moment of global crisis. However, the discussion continued to uphold a strong focus on partnerships - primarily with the private sector - leading to renewed concerns among civil society that the COVID-19 pandemic response may mirror existing patterns of privatization and growing private sector influence, to the detriment of the public sector and human rights. 

In discussions on transformative pathways toward the 2030 Agenda, many discussants reflected on the current global COVID-19 pandemic and its role in exacerbating racial, economic, and social inequalities. The need for multilateralism, global cooperation, and continued dialogue need to be the fundamentals to addressing the current realities facing the world, and if the intention toward 2030 implementation is to remain on track. What is more is that we must remember people, planet, and peace need to drive the agenda.  In this discussion, it was particularly good to see clear language on the role of the business sector and its impact on livelihoods, the increase in the unpaid care work performed by mostly women, and the need to keep focus on gender equality when addressing COVID-19 and the SDGs. However, the repeated calls for “women’s empowerment” continues to be a problematic hallmark of conversations on development.

In the discussions on advancing human wellbeing and ending poverty many speakers highlighted the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on people’s lives, including impacts on marginalized groups including women, people with disabilities, the poor, and the elderly. Many of the speakers used this discussion as an opportunity to bring up different economic and social rights, the important role of public services and infrastructure including universal health coverage, food insecurity, and the relationship between the environment, climate change, and human wellbeing. Two strong interventions from civil society and academia focused on the rights of people with disabilities and how development approaches centered on economic growth increase carbon emissions and negatively impact the poorest communities. 

Important environmental themes at this year’s HLPF included biodiversity loss, a “green recovery” from the COVID-19 pandemic, stopping climate change, and strategies to mitigate the impacts of environmental degradation and rising sea levels. Environment-focused goals such as SDG 12, 13, 14, 15, and 17 were discussed in a cluster in the session “Protecting the planet and building resilience” on 8 July. In the discussion, several speakers brought up the importance of engaging local communities and key groups including indigenous peoples, youth, and farmers. The COVID-19 pandemic came up in numerous ways in this discussion, including in comments about the relationship between humans and the environment and about green economies. One speaker noted that biodiversity loss, the wildlife trade, and the destruction of ecosystems help create environments for deadly viruses such as COVID-19 to develop and spread. Another speaker highlighted that more than ever it will be vital to recover from the economic crisis in a “green” way, including by ending harmful fossil fuel subsidies. However, throughout the HLPF, details about what exactly a “green recovery” would entail were lacking, so this will be a theme to follow in the coming months. To be genuinely transformative, a “green recovery” must center equity, gender equality, and incorporate fundamental changes to the current economic system that exploits both people and the environment. 

Armed Conflict and Disarmament - Major Gaps in the HLPF Discussions

The impacts of armed conflict and violence on sustainable development were largely missing from the discussions that took place at this year’s HLPF, despite the fact that armed conflict has persisted during the COVID-19 pandemic and has even escalated in some countries. Although some states, including conflict-affected countries, did highlight how armed conflict has affected their achievement of the goals, this issue was not adequately addressed, and key issues such as disarmament were completely absent from the discussion.

SDG 16 on peaceful, just, and inclusive societies was one of the SDGs that was meant to be discussed in the session on “protecting and advancing human wellbeing and ending poverty”, but this SDG was only discussed in relation to strong institutions. This gap is a clear example of how silos also persist between the peace/security and development spaces, to the detriment of advancing coherent policies to promote and ensure the human rights of people in conflict-affected areas. For the most part, this session on human wellbeing also lacked a feminist perspective in terms of analysis on the impacts of the pandemic on women and girls. In the session on “protecting the planet and building resilience”, the links between climate change, the environment, and conflict were also entirely ignored, even though climate change helps exacerbate instability and armed conflict has devastating impacts on the environment. 


Voluntary National Reviews: DRC, Libya, Syria, Ukraine

It is important to note that in different countries and regions, implementation of the SDGs is facing entirely different challenges, resources, and levels of political will. In addition to this, SDG implementation globally is affected by systemic barriers, colonial legacies, neoliberal policies, and armed conflict, all of which provide a starting point in deficit for certain countries and regions. However, one gap is that these systemic and structural issues are frequently not adequately addressed in national presentations, although they are raised by civil society.

47 countries carried out voluntary national reviews (VNRs) of their implementation of the 2030 Agenda in the 2020 HLPF from Friday, 10 July to Thursday, 16 July 2020. For more details, please click here to go to the UN DESA website.

This year, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Libya, Syria, and Ukraine presented their Voluntary National Reviews (VNRs). All four countries are experiencing armed conflict, significantly affecting the lives and human rights of the people of each country as well as the prospects for sustainable development. However, the way in which armed conflict came up in each VNR presentation varied significantly by country. 


Democratic Republic of the Congo

In its VNR, the DRC noted the ongoing impacts of armed conflict on development, poverty, and the environment, particularly noting the situations in Ituri, North Kivu, and South Kivu provinces and Tanganyika, while framing the DRC as a “post-conflict” country. It noted work in 2018 to expand a ministry to address the issue of sexual violence in conflict, and claimed progress towards eradicating armed groups, despite the fact that there is an escalating security situation and an increase in displacement over the  past  year, further exacerbated  by environmental issues such as flooding. The representative of the Indigenous Peoples Major Group made an intervention following the VNR presentation which noted the impacts of conflict and environmental degradation on land rights of indigenous groups.



In its presentation, Libya stated that the country faces many challenges to sustainable development, including “instability and a fragile security situation”, internal displacement, and “illegal immigration”. One aspect which was addressed was the impact of the conflict as well as the oil embargo on the economic situation of Libya. However, although the conflict was noted on a few separate occasions, its impacts were largely not interwoven throughout the discussion of the 10 SDGs which Libya reported and presented on. Additionally, although the Libyan government claimed that there was civil society participation in the process, this claim has been disputed by a number of civil society groups who have argued that the process instead was characterized by very low transparency and inclusion. The presentation did not address the widespread human rights abuses reported in prisons and detention facilities, including the abuses perpetrated against migrants. During the session, the civil society representative was unable to speak due to technical difficulties in the virtual conferencing platform.



Some countries, including Syria, used the VNR presentation opportunity to speak on their broad plans and achievements in development while largely ignoring the ever present realities of war affecting millions of Syrians within the country and in refugee camps outside the country. The Syrian VNR presentation looked at the different dimensions of their national strategic plan, largely framing these in terms of a “post-conflict” recovery and reconciliation. Although the impacts of the 9 years of armed conflict were discussed, most emphasis was specifically placed on economic sanctions and on the activities of foreign actors. On behalf of the NGO Major Group and a number of Syrian NGOs, the civil society question to the VNR highlighted that the VNR failed to take into account the responsibility of the Syrian government for the war, and that in the presentation, there was no mention of human rights, the severe backsliding on sustainable development in Syria, social marginalization, and the abuses perpetrated by the state security apparatus including murder, kidnapping, torture, and forced disappearances and arbitrary detention. The statement highlighted that funds intended for development have instead been used to fund militarization and the institutionalization of violence. 



The Ukrainian government framed its VNR presentation and development prospects within the context of the current conflict with Russia. Russia also presented its VNR this year, and included Crimea in its reporting, a decision which Ukraine condemned in its VNR presentation. In terms of implementation of SDG 16, the Ukraine VNR presentation noted that the conflict has had harmful impacts on human rights, as well as impacts on the economy and on public service provision in Eastern Ukraine. The VNR report includes targets and indicators on institutionalizing mediation, de-mining, sexual violence, and social cohesion.


Accountability in the VNRs

One of the strengths of the SDGs in terms of accountability for implementation is the fact that many of their targets and indicators are aligned with legally binding human rights frameworks. However, the voluntary nature of the SDGs reporting mechanisms is a barrier to progress and leads to significant varieties in reporting. During this year’s HLPF, a VNR lab, which is meant to be a space for sharing best practices, convened participants from member states and civil society to discuss different ways to align the VNR process with human rights reporting requirements, including the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). Part of this discussion focused on process, including how to create strong coordination mechanisms between the government teams in different ministries responsible for the VNR, UPR, and other reporting, as well as engaging civil society. Disaggregated data was recognized by all as a key priority, and necessary particularly for the achievement of SDGs including SDGs 5 and 10 which require an understanding of intersecting forms of discrimination and marginalization. All three of these themes are key priorities for civil society, including feminist civil society groups, so it was good to see these themes reflected in the VNR lab.

One speaker discussed how in their country, they developed and looked at a wide range of indicators on sexual and gender-based violence in their VNR (related to SDGs 5 and 16), to align with CEDAW concluding observations. Additionally, their country created a national plan on gender-based violence that is linked to both CEDAW and the SDGs. Another speaker discussed how their country aligns the recommendations of the UPR with the SDGs and other conventions and consensus documents, and tracks the extent to which this alignment has been done per SDG. 

As we enter into the Decade of Action, civil society has highlighted the importance of fundamental reforms to the SDGs reporting mechanisms. Recommendations include making mechanisms for follow-up, creating a formal mechanism for civil society shadow reporting as part of the VNR process, and further strengthening the involvement of diverse civil society throughout the VNR.

HLPF Reform and Means of Implementation

As civil society has argued for the past four years, the monitoring, review, and implementation frameworks for the 2030 Agenda, including the HLPF itself, continue to perpetuate clustered, siloed approaches that actually undermine the achievement of the SDGs. This year, goals were reviewed under the Global Sustainable Development Report (GSDR) entry points, which include “protecting and advancing human wellbeing and ending poverty”, “bolstering local action”, and “protecting the planet and building resilience”.  Although these entry points do cover multiple SDGs, a more systemic approach is needed that explores all of the ways that the goals cross-cut and intersect with each other.

During this year’s HLPF, civil society held digital actions and campaigns to raise attention to this issue of HLPF and ECOSOC reform. These actions specifically highlighted the need for a systemic approach to SDGs review, as opposed to the current clustered and siloed review models, and demanded civil society inclusion every step of the way. 

The Women’s Major Group held an event on regional forums and the HLPF from a feminist perspective to highlight some of the gaps in the current review processes and identify areas of improvement. This event brought an important feminist lens into the HLPF, which was lacking in many of the official sessions. Importantly, the feminist panelists highlighted that violence, gender inequality, climate change, and a lack of realisation of human rights are rooted in systems of oppression such as colonialism, inequalities, and patriarchy. One speaker argued that strong monitoring mechanisms are crucial, and that civil society shadow reports should be encouraged and part of the official review processes. She also highlighted that in order to ensure accountability for the achievement of the SDGs, it is necessary to align SDGs implementation with human rights frameworks such as the CEDAW, Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, and the Universal Periodic Review. 

The ongoing emphasis on private sector partnerships, as in previous years, undermines the achievement of the SDGs by weakening the ability of the public sector to deliver on its core mandates and ensure human rights, particularly in the global context of debt and the capitalist, market-based economic system. As our recent guide on Leveraging the SDGs for Feminist Peace points out, numerous studies and experiences of diverse communities have shown that privatisation and public-private partnerships can exacerbate inequalities, decrease equitable access to essential services, jeopardise the fulfilment of human rights, and involve disproportionate risks and costs for the public sector.



System changes are vital as we move into the Decade of Action on the SDGs at a time of multiple and intersecting crises. The follow-up and review processes on sustainable development must acknowledge and take action on the root causes of a lack of progress, including global inequalities, international economic, trade, monetary and financial frameworks, militarism and conflict, as well as patriarchy, racism and other systems that create oppression. Member states must also recognize the gaps in the SDGs framework, including the continued focus on economic growth and the issues with financing strategies that increase private sector power. In order to make progress on critical human rights issues including poverty, inequalities, health, climate change, and peace, we need a more ambitious HLPF that realistically takes stock of the challenges we face. That includes systemic approaches, accountable review processes, and full and meaningful civil society participation at every stage.


WILPF is in the second year of its term as a Global Organising Partner of the Women's Major Group. We are actively engaged in the WMG's feminist advocacy in the lead-up and during the 2020 HLPF, including co-convening the outreach task group.​ 

The Women's Major Group 2020 High Level Political Forum Position Paper “Accelerated action and transformative pathways: realizing the decade of action and delivery for sustainable development” is available here.