What do Voluntary National Reviews tell us about Progress on the 2030 Agenda?

15 Jul 2019

More and more countries are volunteering to report their progress towards achievement of the 2030 Agenda and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) through Voluntary National Reviews (VNR) at the High-level Political Forum (HLPF), taking place in New York in July. From the Asia-Pacific region, 25 countries have already undergone a VNR during the past three years, 16 have volunteered to present for the first or the second time at 2019 Forum, and another eight are already on the list for 2020. But what is the role of VNRs in the Follow-Up and Review architecture?

Follow-up and review is defined as a systematic assessment of progress, which can be instrumental to guiding and accelerating achievement of the Global Goals. At the global level, the HLPF and the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) provide the main platforms for follow-up and review. This is supported by peer review mechanisms at the regional and subregional level, such as the annual Asia Pacific Forum on Sustainable Development (APFSD) and related subregional preparatory meetings.

And what about the national level? The main responsibility for follow-up and review lies with national governments, who have certain modalities to report on implementation, the main one being the VNRs. To reinforce vertical coherence and complement the VNR process, local and regional governments are increasingly engaging in Voluntary Local Reviews (VLR), which have proved useful for cities to understand where they are located in the big picture and demonstrate local governments’ capacity and commitments.

VNRs provide an opportunity to share experiences, including challenges, best practices and lessons learned. Through the VNR exercise, countries can revise national development goals and targets; assess and strengthen the adequacy of national policies and institutions; and mobilize multi-stakeholder support for the achievement of the Global Goals, enhancing awareness around the SDGs and the 2030 Agenda. The VNRs emphasize the holistic and inclusive nature of the 2030 Agenda, with a broad range of actors involved not only in the preparation of the report, but also in the overall SDG endeavours. Youth groups, academia, volunteers, the private sector, civil society organizations and local governments are all cited as contributors to effective implementation.

But what do countries follow-up or review in these VNRs? The scope of the review is expected to be broad, reflecting on national priorities and circumstances, reporting on actions taken to advance implementation and progress made.

There are several commonalities among reporting countries in the Asia-Pacific region. Even four years after the adoption of the 2030 Agenda, awareness of the 2030 Agenda and the SDGs remains relatively modest, especially at the grassroots level.

Increasingly, countries are adopting the principle of Leaving No One Behind as a lens through which to analyse achievements towards sustainable development. However, data availability and reliability remain a major constraint, often linked to the availability of funds, internal capacity and other resources to overcome data gaps. Disaggregated data by gender, age or location, for instance, will be key in reducing inequalities to ensure that the living conditions of the most vulnerable groups are improving.

Although for many countries national budgets represent the main source of financing for implementing the Goals, foreign investments and other innovative ways of financing are necessary. For instance, although the Addis Ababa Action Agenda of the Third International Conference on Financing for Development (AAAA) provides a strong foundation for supporting the SDGs, most member States are yet to find satisfactory financing mechanisms.

So, are the VNRs helping to make progress on the 2030 Agenda? Probably yes, as the preparation process for drafting the report mobilizes all parts of government and extends to the whole of society to implement the 2030 Agenda in an inclusive manner. Moreover, VNR preparations provide the opportunity to anchor sustainable development at the highest political level under the guidance of key ministries or even heads of government, ensuring ownership for the implementation of the 2030 Agenda. Finally, the VNR process often leads to the creation of institutional mechanisms at the national level that remain beyond the presentation of the Review at the HLPF and concretely help the countries accelerate progress to achieve the SDGs.

Nevertheless, the journey needs to go beyond the reporting exercise. Countries may promote concrete action on priorities contained in the VNRs by, for example, allocating appropriate budget to implement the policy measures identified through the report, involving more partners in the preparation of the draft and committing to regular VNR submission to the HLPF. But the road to 2030 is still long and there is yet time to make VNRs more effective.

Find out more through ESCAP’s SDG Helpdesk and SDG Gateway.