Why Voluntary National Reviews (VNR) need a critical re-look?

With the High Level Political Forum (HLPF) 2018 round-the- corner, countries are preparing the Voluntary National Reviews (VNRs) to provide details of national actions to realize the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Review of the VNRs presented during 2016 and 2017 indicate that there are several challenges in the process and details presented through the VNRs. According to UNDESA, no uniform way of reporting on SDG-specific implementation in the VNRs exist and counties chose numerous different methods depending on their national circumstance.

With the option for member states of the United Nations to present their VNRs at least twice before 2030 and with in-depth discussions related to implementation of specific SDGs also slated two times before 2030, it is important for countries to prepare better VNRs, using the guidelines provided by the Secretary General.

Considering the current challenges to the VNRs, both in process and detail, such as options to nationalize the SDGs, dealing with data and statistics, coordination and ownership, finances and foresight, it is time to provide some additional guidance to countries in dealing with the VNRs.

Through this blog, I wish to provide some further options for preparing better and measurable national reviews through following key observations and suggestions.

  • While there is no clarity on the linkage between the overarching theme of annual HLPF meetings and the specific SDGs selected for in-depth review, there is also limited focus on VNRs and the specific SDGs. This needs review now.
  • The VNR Synthesis should be a global progress report on the SDGs in light on the submitted VNRs that can serve as an example to nations as an example of evaluation in reporting rather than just a summary.
  • Though many institutions, ranging from those belonging to United Nations to local level community-based organizations have significant programmes related to implementation of actions on SDGs, the VNRs are silent on their contributions that will make the VNRs incomplete both in content, detail and impact.
  • The environmental dimension is significantly missing from several of the VNRs. If one considers environment as a critical and key pillar of sustainable development, lack of focus on the environmental dimension in strategizing actions for achieving SDGs is a concern and this shortcoming should be corrected urgently.
  • Evaluations of action points under each Goal and related target should be undertaken by a related multilateral international agency, if possible, to illustrate global cooperative initiatives towards Agenda 2030.
  • A section on best practices should be created in the VNRs that could refer to programs beyond the ones reported in the submitted VNRs.
  • Countries should be encouraged to evaluate Goals and targets that they think do not apply to them as well. For example, landlocked countries should also address Goal 14. They can refer to impact of infrastructure projects on trans boundary rivers and consumption patterns in their countries that promote illegal fishing, especially of threatened/endangered species.
  • Though only a small number of countries are submitting VNRs, the discussions at HLPF can be better moderated to seek inputs from countries that have not submitted VNRs for that year.
  • Second round of VNRs for each country should address the progress on challenges faced in the first VNR report.
  • The current decision by HLPF to discuss a small and select number of Goals during each year and the possibility of such agenda providing opportunity for in-depth consideration only twice during the life time of SDGs is a concern. This will, particularly, be a challenge if there is no link between the timeline for a country deciding to submit a VNR and the agenda for in-depth discussion on specific SDGs.
  • Lastly, and importantly, it is time for HLPF and member states to review the current form and format of VNRs. Though the Secretary General’s guidelines are available, it has to be reviewed whether we are better placed to prepare the VNRs with actions grouped under the three pillars of sustainable development so that all the three pillars of sustainable development receive their due.

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