Paper 2.5 SDGs and sustainable development governance as we are today

Paper 5

SDGs and sustainable development governance as we are today

Nikhil Seth

Governance and the new development agenda

This chapter is meant as a basis of discussion and does not represent views of any organization or entity.

In Rio+20 outcome document the international community has decided to define a set of sustainable development goals (SDGs) that will be coherent with and integrated into the post-2015 development agenda contributing to the achievement of sustainable development and serving as a driver for implementation and mainstreaming of sustainable development in all its three dimensions in the United Nations system. The outcome document gave guidance about the general characteristics of the SDGs and outlined the intergovernmental process to define them.

After 16 months of very open and inclusive deliberations under the General Assembly, the report of the Open Working Group on Sustainable Development Goals (OWG-SDGs) was welcomed by the General Assembly on 10 September 2014. It was decided that its proposal contained in the report will provide the main basis for integrating sustainable development goals into the post-­‐2015 development agenda (UNGA, 2014).

The report of the Open Working Group contains 17 goals and 169 targets. They aspire to make post- 2015 development agenda transformational and universal. They provide new level of ambition and renewed commitment to poverty eradication and sustainable development, while at the same time they incorporate unfinished business of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

Sustainable Development Goals Open Working Group Recommendations

GOAL 1: End poverty in all its forms everywhere

GOAL 2: End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture

GOAL 3: Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages

GOAL 4: Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all

GOAL 5: Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls

GOAL 6: Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all

GOAL 7: Ensure access to a­ffordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all

GOAL 8: Promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all

GOAL 9: Build resilient infrastructure, promote inclusive and sustainable industrialization and foster innovation

GOAL 10: Reduce inequality within and among countries

GOAL 11: Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable

GOAL 12: Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns

GOAL 13: Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts*

GOAL 14: Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development

GOAL 15: Protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, and halt and reverse land degradation and halt biodiversity loss

GOAL 16: Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build e­ffective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels

GOAL 17: Strengthen the means of implementation and revitalize the global partnership for sustainable development.

Compared to MDGs, SDGs, apart from being much broader, they present several challenges. SDGs need to be universal, yet applicable to all countries, both developed and developing; aspirational, yet action oriented and accompanied by targets and indicators; concise and easy to communicate, focused on all priority areas for achievement of sustainable development; simple, yet integrating all three dimensions of sustainable development.

Given the breadth and ambition of the proposal, it is evident that the governance structure at all levels needs to be adequate to the challenge posed by the implementation of SDGs as well as the post-2015 development agenda.

Global governance refers to the complex of institutions, mechanisms, norms, and policies  that shape global processes, mediate relations between actors, and provide a framework for cooperation in addressing global challenges. Currently, it includes the United Nations system, the World Trade Organization (WTO), international financial institutions, and hundreds of international treaties and soft law instruments on trade, the environment, and development (IBON, 2012). Informal member states grouping such as G-20 also play a role.

In the context of a new post-2015 development agenda that will have SDGs at its core, global governance needs to enable integration in decision-making and look at interlinkages and trade-offs. Implementing SDGs will not be easy. Even more, so that areas such as peace or governance, have been woven into the goals, making them all the more transformative. Global governance needs to steer progress to eradicate poverty, achieve social empowerment and preserve the environment.

Governments are primarily responsible to achieve sustainable development and implement SDGs, but no nation can achieve this on its own, as challenges are global and intertwined. Therefore, governance at the international level needs to not only engage states but also to support state and non-state actors, mobilize resources, monitor implementation of commitments, while giving countries the space and capacities to chart their own pathways to sustainable development.

The institutional framework for sustainable development

The fact that sustainable development has not been achieved despite a large number of laws, norms and institutions, was recognized during preparations for the Rio+20 Conference. It was thus decided that one of the themes of the Conference would be the institutional framework for sustainable development (UNGA, 2010).

The outcome document of the Conference underscores that the institutional framework for sustainable development should integrate the three dimensions of sustainable development in a balanced manner and enhance implementation by (i) strengthening coherence and coordination, (ii) avoiding duplication of efforts and (iii) reviewing progress in implementing sustainable development, while (iv) being at the same time inclusive, transparent and effective in finding common solutions related to global challenges.

The outcome document also underscores that the institutional structure for sustainable development needs to be consistent with the Rio Principles, build on Agenda 21 and the Johannesburg Plan of Implementation, and its objectives, contribute to the implementation of commitments in the outcomes of UN conferences and summits in the economic, social, environmental and related fields and take into account national priorities and the development strategies and priorities of developing countries (UNGA,2012).

The following characteristics of this framework are defined in this outcome document:

  • promote balanced integration of the three dimensions of sustainable development
  • be action- and result-oriented giving due regard to all relevant cross-cutting issues and interlinkages to ensure a systemic approach to issues
  • enhance coherence, reduce fragmentation and overlap and increase effectiveness, efficiency and transparency
  • promote full and effective participation of all countries in decision-making processes
  • engage high-level political leaders, provide policy guidance and identify specific actions to promote effective implementation of sustainable development
  • promote the science-policy interface
  • strengthen participation of all countries in international sustainable development processes and capacity-building
  • enhance engagement of civil society and other relevant stakeholders and promote transparency and broad public participation and partnerships to implement sustainable development
  • promote the review and stocktaking of progress in the implementation of all sustainable development commitments, including commitments related to means of implementation

A wealth of UN and other institutions and a new highlevel political forum on sustainable development (High Level Political Forum [HLPF] on Sustainable Development)

In order to achieve all this, the Rio+20 has decided to establish the HLPF on SD as a dedicated platform at the United Nations for sustainable development. This new platform aims to be sufficiently high-level to provide political guidance for sustainable development including new and emerging issues, yet practical and flexible enough to ensure follow-up, reviewing and monitoring of implementation of sustainable development including SDGs and their respective means of implementation in the context of the post-2015 development agenda.

Rio+20 also reinforced the environmental pillar of the institutional framework by making the governing body of United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) universal and strengthening UNEP. It called for an enhanced integration of the three dimensions of sustainable development in the work of the General Assembly (GA) and Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) and reaffirmed their core mandate “ notably ECOSOC’s role in coordinating the UN system and conferences follow-up. The institutional framework in terms of Rio+20 also includes international financial institutions and UN operational activities as well as regional, national, subnational and local authorities all of whom were asked to adopt sustainable development strategies.

The GA subsequently defined the organizational modalities of the HLPF. It was positioned as a hybrid platform with some light subsidiarity to both GA and ECOSOC. It can, thus, provide political guidance at the highest possible level every four years under the auspices of the GA, and advance sustainable development through the reviews and regular political guidance developed under the auspices of the ECOSOC.

The need for coherence and coordination

An important characteristic of the institutional framework for sustainable development defined at the Rio+20 was enhancing coherence, reducing fragmentation and overlap and increasing effectiveness, efficiency, and transparency. The framework was also to promote full and effective participation of all countries in decision-­‐making processes. However, some more work still needs to be done.

The High-Level Panel of Eminent Persons on the Post-2015 Development Agenda underscored the need for a single agenda, as soon as one starts thinking practically about what needs to be done. Right now, development, sustainable development, and climate change are still often seen as separate. They have separate mandates and separate financing streams. Progress is tracked and accountability ensured through separate processes. This creates overlap and confusion when it comes to developing specific programs and projects on the ground. It is time to streamline the agenda” (UN, 2013).

Shaping the HLPF to fulfill its mandate

The SDGs should influence all the development agenda and finally bring together these parallel strands. The HLPF is centrally positioned in the governance framework in order to ensure coherence and provide direction. As part of the global governance structure for sustainable development, HLPF has a broad mandate to: (i) review progress in the implementation of all the outcomes of the major United Nations conferences and summits in the economic, social and environmental fields, as well as their respective means of implementation, (ii) provide an integrative platform for all three dimensions of sustainable development in a holistic and cross-sectoral manner, (iii) promote integrated-decision making and review implementation of SDGs in order to (iv) provide recommendations on advancing sustainable development.

  • Provide political leadership, guidance and recommendations for sustainable development
  • Conduct regular voluntary reviews of both developed and developing countries as well as the United Nations System, starting in 2016, on the follow-up and implementation of sustainable development commitments and objectives, including those related to the means of implementation, within the context of the post-2015 development agenda and will be state-led and provide a platform for partnerships
  • Enhance the integration of the three dimensions of sustainable development in a holistic and cross-sectoral manner at all levels
  • Have a focused, dynamic and action-oriented agenda
  • Provide a dynamic platform for regular dialogue and for stocktaking to advance sustainable development
  • Ensure the appropriate consideration of new and emerging sustainable development challenges
  • Devote adequate time to the discussion of the sustainable development challenges facing developing countries, including the most vulnerable countries, in particular the least developed countries, small island developing States, landlocked developing countries and African countries and recognize the particular challenges facing the middle-income countries in achieving sustainable development
  • Have a thematic focus reflecting the integration of the three dimensions of sustainable development, in line with the thematic focus of the activities of the Council and consistent with the post-2015 development agenda
  • Follow up and review progress in the implementation of all the outcomes of the major United Nations conferences and summits in the economic, social and environmental fields, as well as their respective means of implementation
  • Improve cooperation and coordination within the United Nations system on sustainable development programmes and policies and promote system-wide coherence and coordination of sustainable development policies
  • Provide recommendations to the board of the 10-year framework of programmes for sustainable consumption and production
  • Strengthen the science-policy interface by examining documentation, bringing together dispersed information and assessments, including in the form of a global sustainable development report
  • Promote the sharing of best practices and experiences relating to the implementation of sustainable development
  • Facilitate voluntary sharing of experiences, including successes, challenges and lessons learned
  • Enhance regional dimension of sustainable development through regional meetings organized by UN regional commissions
  • Enhance the consultative role and participation of the major groups and other relevant stakeholders at the international level (UN,2013)

This is a very challenging proposition. The HLPF is a new part of the institutional framework for sustainable development It still has to show clearly its value added. This challenge is compounded by its hybrid nature. As noted by Steven Bernstein, universal model of high-level decision making has the advantage of widespread legitimacy, but has a limited capacity for deliberation and diffuses peer pressure. The limited frequency of high-level meetings raises a challenge of addressing emerging and ongoing issues and having a dynamic agenda, although the provision for special sessions can mitigate this concern. Thus, the HLPF might consider meeting in such special sessions when sustainable development emergencies or urgent issues arise” (Bernstein, 2013).

Indeed, on one hand, the HLPF needs to set the agenda and give recommendations to advance sustainable development, which requires having a strong link to what is happening in sustainable development both on the science-policy side and on new and emerging issues. At the same time, it needs to help countries advance their own path to sustainable development by serving as an integrative platform for reviewing SDGs in the context of post-2015 development agenda, sharing experiences and lessons learned and encouraging wide participation of both state and none-state actors.

This requires a very clear agenda as well as rigorous methods of work. The mandate of HLPF says that its meetings need to be focused, while allowing flexibility to address new and emerging issues (United Nations, 2012). What needs to be defined at this stage, is how exactly the HLPF will deliver on its ambitious mandate within the framework of eight days that the forum has for its meetings.

There is thus a need for: (i) a robust preparatory process to lay the ground for focused discussions resulting in concise and action-oriented recommendations to advance sustainable development; (ii) a clear substantive focus and effective agenda-setting that will ensure integration of the three dimensions of sustainable development; and (iii) a long-term perspective, as not all issues of sustainable development can be discussed each time HLPF meets. SDGs can provide an organizing framework for the work of HLPF. At the same time, while SDGs are a critical element for achieving sustainable development, sustainable development is broader than SDGs and many important issues need to be discussed, including new and emerging issues. It would be also important for HLPF to follow-up on its recommendations in order to provide further guidance when and where needed.

Ground the HLPF work in science

Strengthening science-policy interface can also be helpful and the Global Sustainable Development Report will play an important role in this regard. It could adopt an assessment-of-assessments approach, documenting and describing the landscape of information and knowledge on specific sustainable development issues that are policy-relevant. The report should be global in coverage while taking into account regional perspectives. It should draw from the UN system, scientists, government officials, and stakeholders at all levels and should be guided by themes of the HLPF.

HLPF as integrative and review platform

The HLPF is mandated to conduct regular reviews on the follow-up and implementation of sustainable development commitments and objectives, including those related to the means of implementation, within the context of the post-2015 development agenda (United Nations, 2013). These reviews will start in 2016 and will (i) be voluntary, while encouraging reporting and will include developed and developing countries, as well as relevant United Nations entities; (ii) be State-led, involving ministerial and other relevant high- level participants; and (iii) provide a platform for partnerships, including through the participation of major groups and other relevant stakeholders (United Nations, 2013). Thus, a review mechanism would be an incentive-based voluntary structure relevant and attractive for all countries to participate with a collaborative and collegial spirit. Its added value would be that it could foster an integrated nexus approach and integrated decision-making on sustainable development rather than operating in traditional silos.

The HLPF could debate the lessons and findings of all the reviews. The purpose would be to assess overall progress, identify difficulties, share good practices, provide collective advice, and assess the adequacy of means of implementation including global partnership for development and bolster capacity development.

As an integrative platform, HLPF would not review every single sustainable development goal individually, as each goal should have home within the UN system, such as ECOSOC’s functional commissions or UN specialized agencies. The main role of the HLPF should be to review and promote overall progress on all SDGs or on clusters of SDGs. Its added value is to view the SDGs and post-2015 development agenda in terms of an interlinked system. It should thus provide high-level guidance for advancing integrated action across the spectrum of SDGs.

Giving a sense of direction

It would be important to aim for coherence with the rest of the institutional framework for sustainable development, as what should be clear from the broad Rio+20 outcome and agreed the mandate for the HLPF is that no single organization will emerge to define the rules and carry out the mandate of sustainable development. The leadership challenge for the HLPF will be to work with that complexity while building the necessary vision and legitimacy that will link sustainable development goals more clearly and directly to the organizational, financial and other levers that can deliver or facilitate it at different levels and in different settings (Bernstein, 2013).

This is in part outlined in the mandate of HLPF which requires the HLPF themes to be in line with the thematic focus of the activities of the [Economic and Social] Council and consistent with the post-2015 development agenda (United Nations, 2013). The HLPF needs to take into account the work of the Development Cooperation Forum, as well as other activities of the Council, will need to take into consideration issues relating to the integration and implementation of sustainable development (Bernstein, 2013).

Economic and Social Council’s role in the institutional framework for sustainable development has been reinforced both in the outcome of the Rio+20 and in the resolution of strengthening the ECOSOC as a central mechanism for the coordination of the United Nations system and supervision of the subsidiary bodies of the Council, as well as in the coordination of funds, programmes and specialized agencies, ensuring coherence among them and avoiding duplication of mandates and activitiesâ (United Nations, 2012).

HLPF also needs to build linkages and engage with other institutions. Those include primarily the GA, the United Nations Environment Assembly, UN specialized agencies, World Bank and IMF, regional development banks as well as other relevant international and regional organizations, especially UN regional commissions and multilateral environmental agreements in order to develop adequate finance mechanisms, technology facilitation and capacity building.

GA, ECOSOC, and HLPF all have a role to help mainstream sustainable development in the United Nations system. Mainstreaming is about ensuring that economic, social and environmental perspectives are reflected in different organizations strategic planning processes and that it is a main guiding principle in their operational and budget choices. But, while ECOSOC will retain its mandate as a lead organization for coherence across the system, the HLPF is best placed to undertake a strategic discussion of the implementation of the SDGs (Bernstein, 2013).


HLPF is of great systemic importance within the global institutional framework for sustainable development. There is a dire need for a dedicated platform for sustainable development in the United Nations.  The forum’s high-level political status, strong mandate, ability to address emerging challenges, and inclusiveness make it uniquely placed to integrate the three dimensions of sustainable development, while at the same time enhancing coordination and coherence working with all other parts of the institutional framework for sustainable and all relevant stakeholders in implementing the post-2015 development agenda and reviewing SDGs.


Bernstein, S. (2013) The Role and Place of the High-Level Political Forum in Strengthening the Global Institutional Framework for Sustainable Development: United Nations

IBON (2012) Reforming Global Sustainable Development Governance, IBON Policy Brief,

United Nations (2013) High-Level Panel on Eminent Persons on the Post-­‐2015 Development Agenda, A New Global Partnership: Eradicate Poverty and Transform Economies Through Sustainable Development. New York: United Nations

United Nations General Assembly (2010) A/RES/66/236 Implementation of Agenda 21, the Programme for the Further Implementation of Agenda 21 and the outcomes of the World Summit on Sustainable Development: United Nations

United Nations General Assembly (2012) A/RES/68/309 Report of the Sustainable Development Goals Open Working Group: United Nations

United Nations General Assembly (2013) A/67/290 Format and organizational aspects of the high-level political forum on sustainable development: United Nations

United Nations General Assembly (2013) A.RES/68/1, Annex, Paragraph 1, Review of the implementation of General Assembly resolution 61/16 on the strengthening of the Economic and Social Council

United Nations General Assembly (2014) A/RES/66/288 Report of the Open Working Group on Sustainable Development Goals established pursuant to General Assembly: United Nations

Nikhil Seth is currently the Director of the Division for Sustainable Development, Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA).

During his career with the United Nations since 1993, Seth has served as Special Assistant and Chief of Office to the Under-Secretary-General for Economic and Social Affairs, as Secretary of the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) and the Second Committee of the General Assembly, and, most recently, as Director of the DESA Office for ECOSOC Support and Coordination (OESC), where he guided the ECOSOC’s work in implementing several new key mandates, including its Annual Ministerial Review and Development Cooperation Forum.

Prior to joining the United Nations, Seth served in the Indian diplomatic service, where his diplomatic assignments included Geneva, DRC, Central African Republic, Gabon and Equatorial Guinea, as well as the Permanent Mission of India, New York.




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