Paper 2.1 Follow-up to the Sustainable Development Goals: Institutional Framework for Sustainable Development: The role of the High Level Political Forum

Paper 1

Follow-up to the Sustainable Development Goals: Institutional Framework for Sustainable Development: The role of the High Level Political Forum

Nikhil Seth


All the efforts and ideas we are deploying to elaborate the post 2015 agenda and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) will be in vain if the agenda is not implemented. Institutions in the area of sustainable development and beyond have an important role to promote and track implementation. This requires significant adjustments. The agenda brings not only new issues but also a new development paradigm. In addition, the SDGs also address issues related to governance and rule of law. The effective functioning of sustainable development institutions itself has thus become an objective in itself.

At the same time, Rio+20 took important steps to reinforce the institutional framework for sustainable development (IFSD)  notably the creation of the high-level political forum (HLPF) and a universal United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA). Just over two years later, it is clear that we do not need a major overhaul of our institutions nor the creation of new bodies. But we must introduce a new way to operate our institutions. We need to recalibrate them and devise a strategy to make the HLPF a strong player in the IFSD.

I would like to focus on how the IFSD can best foster integration, implementation and review. Those are three dimensions identified by Member States as critical responses to the post 2015 development agenda (it is also the theme for HLPF in 2015).


The SDGs are closely interrelated including through their respective targets. This reflects the dynamic linkages between economic, social and environmental dimensions as well as the interaction between various sectors and issues. We should build on these synergies throughout the IFSD.

This implies that the General Assembly (GA), Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) and UN system and other bodies need to work differently. When addressing a given issue, we should always be aware of how it relates to other dimensions and sectors. This way, we can avoid unintended negative effects and build synergies.

Rio+20 asked the GA and ECOSOC to adopt sustainable development as an organizing principle for their work. We are not yet quite there.

The elaboration of the sustainable development goals (SDGs) and post 2015 development agenda have led the GA to focus on sustainable development much more than in the past. This included GA President’s special events. The whole process of informal consultations to elaborate the new agenda is now following on the heel of the Open Working Group (OWG) on SDGs. Still, we need to ask ourselves whether addressing economic and social issues in two separate GA committees is consistent with a sustainable development approach. We should also rethink how GA committees approach sustainable development. This goes beyond the fairly limited reflection we have conducted thus far on the working methods of the Second Committee.

ECOSOC is also making a tremendous effort to place its work – in particular its integration segment – under the sign of sustainable development. This effort should be sustained. ECOSOC is also a function-based body. It has a critical task to ensure overall coherence and coordination of its subsidiary machinery and the whole UN system. It must steer their debates and actions so that, together, they support the implementation of the full post-2015 development agenda. It must also bring in economic dimension through its relationship with the World Bank (WB) and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). These are important roles which no other body can deliver.

We must indeed look beyond our headquarters-based mechanisms. The SDGs will be the guidepost for the entire UN system. Firstly, we should reflect on whether each SDG has or should have a home- in the UN system. There is no clear UN intergovernmental platform to discuss issues such as oceans or energy or transport for example – should there be one? Secondly, the range of UN system bodies should be mobilized to promote and review implementation of the SDGs. The High Level Political Forum (HLPF) could be the platform to review overall progress based on their findings and additional elements.

Needless to say that the HLPF should epitomize the way an intergovernmental body should address sustainable development. Innovative methods of work need to be put in place if it is to become a strong player in the IFSD. A robust preparatory process would be essential for example.

Let me add that the post 2015 development agenda will englobe peace and security issues. Is it then logical that the UN machinery in the area of peace and security operates pretty much in isolation from UN platforms dedicated to sustainable development? I am not sure there is the political appetite to deal with those issues at some point. But the moment will come.


A major challenge for the UN system is how its intergovernmental bodies can have a real impact on efforts to translate the SDGs into actions and, ultimately, on people’s lives. The breadth of the SDGs makes this task all the more daunting.

Rio+20 and the GA in its resolution on the HLPF gave some indications on how this can be facilitated. Intergovernmental bodies need to serve as platforms for Member States to exchange good policy practices and lessons learned and reflect on how to address challenges. Their work must be anchored in evidence from the country level, evaluation, data, analysis and findings from scientists. There should be feedback loops to grasp follow-up to intergovernmental outcomes. All of this should equip our intergovernmental bodies to not only track progress but also recommend any necessary adjustment to the global agenda and policy approaches.

Importantly, the IFSD should keep reviewing means of implementation. It needs to look at whether those are adequate and used in a most effective manner to advance sustainable development. There must be synergy between HLPF, ECOSOC Development Cooperation Forum as well as the WB and IMF, and other regional and international organizations such as World Trade Organization (WTO) and Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

The IFSD should also engage those who are actually driving the implementation of the SDGs. We must continue to include civil society and the private sector. Arrangements such as the major groups have proved very useful and other stakeholders are increasingly brought on board.

The IFSD should also increasingly become a place for launching partnerships around each SDGs. There should also be a degree of accountability of such arrangements and of non-state actors.

Review – the role of the High-level political forum on sustainable development

Reviews of progress will be important tool to accelerate implementation. The HLPF has a central role in reviewing SDGs in the framework of the post-2015 development agenda. It is mandated to conduct reviews of implementation by both developed and developing countries and the UN system as of 2016. We are beginning to reflect on how it can best do this.

Since one of its central roles is integration, the HLPF should review SDGs in a way that reflects their interlinkages. We could consider whether it should review interlinked clusters of SDGs. This would probably make sense as the prototype Global Sustainable Development Report (GSDR) showed, by focusing on the nexus of climate, land, energy and water.

At the same time the main locus of review and indeed accountability is at national level. The HLPF reviews must be rooted in national consultative processes. Ideally, they should be in sync with Governments elaboration or review of national policies. The reviews will of course be voluntary. But their timing could also be guided by the country’s own calendar. They will be a unique source of lessons learned and experiences, and thus enhance the relevance of the HLPF guidance.

Consultations confirmed the importance Member States attach to reviewing progress and policies and exchanging experiences at regional level. The regional commissions will have an important role.

There must be strong linkages between national, regional and global levels. The synthesis report of the Secretary-General underlines this. It also suggests that the UN system conducts thematic reviews of progress. ECOSOC can have an important role in doing this, drawing from the work system-wide.

We should recognize that we face a huge challenge. The HLPF meets only two days under the auspices of the GA and eight days under the auspices of ECOSOC. Is this enough for it to deliver the many functions entrusted to it? Regardless of what we conclude, we must recognize that it is the entire UN system starting with our charter bodies which needs to join forces to advance implementation of the new agenda.

This is the key message I would like to leave with you. We actually have a range of very strong intergovernmental bodies in the area of sustainable development. We need to build a sense of architecture, make sure they enrich each other’s work and that, together, they advance the SDGs. Let us think about what needs to be done now and what would require legislation or impetus from the 2015 summit.

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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