Paper 2.7 The Role and Place of the High-Level Political Forum in Strengthening the Global Institutional Framework for Sustainable Development – An effort to analyse the challenges to the High Level Political Forum and offer a few options

Paper 2.7

The Role and Place of the High-Level Political Forum in Strengthening the Global Institutional Framework for Sustainable Development – An effort to analyse the challenges to the High-Level Political Forum and offer a few options

Jan-Gustav Strandenaes

The UNGA decision and resolution behind the HLPF

On July 9, 2013, during the morning session of its 91st Plenary Meeting, the United Nations General Assembly, UNGA, in resolution 67/290 formally adopted by consensus the format and the organizational aspects of the high-level political forum (HLPF). The resolution also recommended to the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), to abolish the Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD), effective from the conclusion of its 20th and last session, to be held prior to the first meeting of the forum later that same year. With ten introductory and thirty operative paragraphs, the resolution on HLPF stakes out the direction of global sustainable development policies including a governance structure for the next twenty years. Unless it would be subjected to serious revisions, this construct will heavily influence policies on sustainable development at all levels, global, regional, national and local – at least until 2032 when the UN will organize Rio plus 40 (or Stockholm plus 60). The HLPF will be the key unit in the international framework for sustainable development for this period

HLPF is thought to be the most important intergovernmental mechanism in the follow-up to outcomes on sustainable development agreed at the Rio Summit that took place in 2012. The structure of HLPF is new as is explained below but its real position within the international framework for sustainable development will only be seen and understood when its total working agenda is complete. And the totality of that agenda will not be complete until after the September Summit on the Post 2015 Development Agenda this year.

The HLPF resolution reflects in many ways a compilation of experience, knowledge and process understanding of more than twenty years of sustainable development deliberations at the global level. Accordingly, virtually everything one needs to be concerned about in relationship to the Post 2015 Development Agenda is at least potentially in place.

A heavy mandate

To understand the significance of HLPF in the global sustainable development structure, it is necessary to have a basic understanding of the mandate of HLPF including its many tasks. The resolution that established the HLPF has given the forum a wide-ranging agenda: It states that the HLPF shall convene annually for five days, under the auspices of the Economic and Social Council, ECOSOC, immediately followed by three days at ministerial level and result in a political declaration, have a thematic focus reflecting the integration of the three dimensions of sustainable development, and be in line with the thematic focus of the activities of ECOSOC and consistent with the post-2015 development agenda. The HLPF is further tasked with providing leadership, guidance, and recommendations for sustainable development, and with identifying emerging issues, reviewing progress in the implementation of related commitments, coordinate partnerships, identify the agenda and continually enhancing the integration of the three dimensions of sustainable development economic, social and environmental. And finally, every four years the HLPF will be held under the auspices of the UNGA at the level of Heads of State and Governments for two days, resulting in a concise negotiated political declaration to be submitted to the Assembly for its consideration” as the UNGA resolution states.

Of the 30 paragraphs in the HLPF, 12 of the paragraphs contain specific tasks for the HLPF to act on. In total, there are approximately 30 agenda points to be implemented by HLPF. In addition, the HLPF will also be tasked with the 17 SDGs including its 169 targets. Also, the Rio+20 Outcome Document identified and agreed to 14 processes, which have been started and which all deal with sustainable development issues. The SDGs and HLPF are but two of these processes. The HLPF is indeed a key unit in the future world of sustainable development.

A key institution with a complex structure

Studying the HLPF document closely may reveal several political realities – depending on the point of departure of the reader. The HLPF is a brand new organizational structure within the UN family and as such, there are a number of creative elements in the resolution that deal with process and procedure. HLPF has a strong, but not easily understood relationship with two central UN Charter Bodies, ECOSOC and the UNGA. Because of its novelty, member states have given it different names at different times; some have called it a hybrid, some have labelled it a platform, some have referred to it as a body. Whatever we may think of it, the HLPF is absolutely a novelty with an implicit power to modernise the UN – if its potential is used wisely

A close reading of 67/290 reveals that the resolution has authorised HLPF to carry out and execute a number of issues, and by that, a visible structure of a governance mechanism appears. In fact, several of the paragraphs in 67/290 deal with governance, authority and structure of the HLPF.

As the HLPF is established by a UN GA resolution it is a body within the UN system with an authority to make decisions. But there is more to this interpretation. Paragraph 3 gives HLPF its ultimate framework: Also decides that the meetings of the forum shall be convened under the auspices of the General Assembly and of the Economic and Social Council. HLPF has accordingly two masters, the UNGA and ECOSOC and is authorised to make decisions.

This actually accords HLPF with a high degree of political status and significance. HLPF will beginning in 2016, replace the annual ministerial review (paragraph 7a), which was earlier run purely by ECOSOC. The HLPF will also work closely with the Development Cooperation Forum (DCF) (paragraph 7e). HLPF functions between ECOSOC and the UNGA somewhat like the Peacebuilding Commission, which reports to ECOSOC, the UNGA as well as the Security Council. There are other such constructs in the UN: UNICEF, UNDP, and UNEP to mention but a few. They are called semi-autonomous bodies, and there are a few of these in the international compound of the UN. As the concept of light subsidiarity is being debated, HLPF is still not placed formally speaking within the UN hierarchy, but it certainly does have the potential to be designated as the key UN institution on sustainable development.

The first HLPF meeting – centrally positioned in global processes?

The first real HLPF took place during the summer of 2014. Several observers expressed serious disappointment with the entire process but attributed this to the interim period which the present HLPF serves and which exists now between the end of the Rio+20 Summit in July 2012 and the 2015 September Summit where state leaders from all over the world are expected to agree on the Post 2015 Development Agenda. HLPF in 2014 was to some seen as an extended side event, not unimportant, but not awe-inspiring in any way and falling way below expectations of several member states and civil society. But as one of HLPFs key assignments will be the SDGs, the first HLPF with a politically significant agenda will take place in 2016.

As pointed to above, HLPF is an entirely new construct and its proper function will only begin when the Post 2015 agenda is decided. The question to be asked of HLPF, is whether the new construct has been given proper and adequate mechanisms to promote the complex sustainable development agenda with a global responsibility over the next twenty or so years Is it also built to strengthen the international framework on sustainable development? A close reading of the HLPF resolution (67/290) may reveal a number of areas that need to be studied and understood and even strengthened over the coming year. The following attempts to draw attention to some of these issues.

HLPF is innovative

HLPF is innovative and at first sight, it seems well calibrated to tackle its many tasks and be the global sustainable development institution that the Rio outcome document The Future We Want’ meant it to be. However, to understand its full potential, its strengths, and possible shortcomings, we need to ask a few questions: What does it really mean when we say the HLPF will be the home of the SDGs/post-2015 development agenda? What does its governance structure allow? Is there a conflict of interest with its modus operandi between the HLPF, ECOSOC, and the UNGA bodies? What will its relationship with the specialised agencies of the UN be? Many of the UN specialised agencies will be key in implementing the SDGs. Will the HLPF be significant enough for these agencies to work with it on a senior level? What does agenda setting mean? What does identifying emerging issues bmean? What does universality imply? To what body in the UN does it report? It is supposedly agenda setting, but what decision-making authority does it have if any?

The HLPF has been given a number of strong features that clearly speak of its central role in future global politics; It is politically high level (paragraphs 3, 6 and 7); it is universal and inclusive, (paragraphs 2, 4, 13 and 14); it has the mandate to conduct and integrate reviews and build accountability (paragraphs 6, 7, 8 and 18); it must focus on science and evidence-based decisions and be responsible for the Global Sustainable Development Report (paragraph 20); it shall identify emerging issues and set agendas (paragraphs 18); and lastly HLPF integrates all stakeholders in a way never done before at the UN (paragraphs 14, 15 and 16).

In total, HLPF does indeed set new governance standards in the international architecture on sustainable development and definitely does point in the right direction. As often is the case with UN resolutions, the statement unless otherwise decided in this resolution is also found in 67/290. Many of the new governance directives in the resolutions override inherent procedural rules pertaining to ECOSOC and the UNGA Bureau, and a stringent question on formalities must be formulated in this context: how does UNGA resolution 67/290 challenge existing procedures? And does it accordingly make the HLPF the preeminent institution within the international framework on sustainable development?

Paragraph 84 of the Rio Outcome Document – is the CSD experience at all helpful?

Judging the content of The Future We Want, the global community of nations, the 193 UN member states, are more serious today about sustainable development than they were twenty years ago. Judging by the content of paragraph 84 of the Rio outcome document, building the new entity at the UN to coordinate sustainable development should be based on experiences from CSD. CSD was no talk shop, as has often been claimed. During its first ten years, CSD made more than thirty decisions that had serious effects on sustainable development policies and projects, nationally and globally. Several features pertaining to CSD contributed to the successes of CSD: it had a strong mandate; the resolution establishing CSD had a chapter on a Bureau that with its elected Chair would function as the political leadership of CSD; the resolution establishing CSD also had a chapter on its own secretariat; the structure of CSD was such that it harmonised and coordinated several large UN bodies to work on sustainable development through what was called a task manager system. The undoing of CSD was by many accounts the fact that it was decoupled from the reality it was set to develop and weakened because governments did not prioritise sustainable development the way they did in the years immediately following the first Rio conference in 1992, and the way they have expressed their commitment today. Another criticism levelled at CSD, was that it was primarily about the environment. This statement does not harmonise with its mandate or its many agendas but is in fact in sync with how governments at the time understood sustainable development and CSD. Most governments interpreted sustainable development and CSD to be about the environment and hence gave national responsibility for sustainable development to their environment ministries. They, in turn, respecting the importance of the committee, sent their environment ministers to CSD. The impression given was that CSD was actually all about the environment. Still, CSD was the main global institution on sustainable development in the 1990s and during nearly the first decade of the 21st Century and did accomplish a lot on the global arena of sustainable development, despite jargonised criticism of its activities. Therefore, lessons learned from CSD could be used to guide and help HLPF to become the key global institution on sustainable development? Because that is the original ambition expressed in the Rio+20 The Future We Want document.

The biggest difference between CSD and HLPF relates to their agendas and the capabilities to handle the agendas. CSD was developed after the UN member states had agreed on Agenda 21. When the member states developed CSD, they made serious efforts to calibrate the institution to fit the challenging agenda. With HLPF, the situation is the opposite. The organization, HLPF was developed and agreed on in 2013, and then the governments began developing the agenda. And because the Post 2015 development agenda grew in size and complexity, without influencing the structure or resource base of HLPF, it has come to appear increasingly inadequate.

HLPF is faced with a number of challenges

In summing up some of the main challenges the HLPF faces, we also detect the contours of some of its weaknesses: It does have a broad and undefined mandate; it has a relatively weak and fairly untried structure in the form of its present structure. It lacks a political steering mechanism. It has so far neither a bureau nor a steering committee. And finally, it does not own a secretariat. The resolution merely states that UNDESA and other UN entities should help the HLPF, when it is relevant.

The position of HLPF in the global governance architecture and implementation will also be decided by the work-programme given HLPF. We know that the post-2015 Development Agenda will heavily influence the UN system in general, and HLPF, the alleged home of the SDGs, in particular. By referencing one sub-paragraph in the HLPF resolution, the weight of this workload is clearly spelled out: According to paragraph 7d HLPF must perform the following tasks:

  • Review Implementation of progress of all major UN conferences on sustainable development;
  • Improve cooperation and coordination within the United Nations;
  • Improve the system on sustainable development programmes and policies;
  • Promote best practices and experiences on implementation;
  • Promote system-wide coherence;
  • Coordinate sustainable development policies within the entire UN system;

HLPF and ECOSOC  competing bodies?

The political relationship that connects HLPF with ECOSOC and the UN General Assembly is one of the strengths of this new unit. There are other bodies in the UN system that have a relationship with UNGA and ECOSOC, so-called semi-autonomous bodies (UNICEF, UNCTAD, UNDP, UNEP etc.) Their relationships with the Charter bodies have been calibrated so that they have decision-making authority, have political status, and fit well within the system and they were all novelties when they were created. None of them were thought to threaten the authority of ECOSOC.

A number of general questions have been raised concerning the relationship between HLPF and ECOSOC, and some have even insisted that if HLPF is given the authority to deal with the SDGs and sustainable development within the UN, there is nothing left to be dealt with by ECOSOC.

ECOSOC is a body with a heavy workload. With its broad mandate, ECOSOCs purview extends to over 70 per cent of the human and financial resources of the entire UN system. To many observers and delegates, the ECOSOC system in the UN is already overburdened and impaired by its momentous agenda. Will adding the large agenda of HLPF to ECOSOCs purview strengthen or weaken ECOSOC? HLPF cannot be separate from ECOSOC. But in discussing ECOSOC, it is well to remember that an institution is only as strong as its weakest link. Strong bodies working within the ECOSOC system will undoubtedly strengthen ECOSOC and conversely, weak bodies will weaken ECOSOC. A tempting conclusion will be to state that a strong and reasonably autonomous HLPF will strengthen ECOSOC. It will also emphasise the organizational integrity of HLPF and the importance of implementing the SDGs.

Will it be feasible to strengthen institutionally HLPF without making it into an institution, which will operate in conflict with ECOSOC? Several have asserted that if the UN were to create a strong institution dealing with sustainable development, such as HLPF might become, that would reduce the work-agenda of ECOSOC to almost nothing. But this ignores the fact that ECOSOC deals with a host of issues, where a large majority of issues has very little to do with sustainable development, drugs, interagency coordination, Specialised Agencies coordination etc.

And, finally, is there a conflict between the principle of universality, meaning that 193 UN member states shall be involved in the HLPF, and the fact that ECOSOC has a rotating membership of 54 nations? How can the principle of universality of HLPF be harmonized with the political status and importance given to ECOSOC as a Charter Body? It seems that this Gordian knot must be untangled and the relationship between HLPF and ECOSOC must be seriously reviewed.

The Role and Place of the High-Level Political Forum

Reading the Rio outcome document, it seems clear that HLPF is meant to be the preeminent UN body on sustainable development. But for that goal to be reached, clarification of its structure and authority pointed to in this paper must be sought, and solutions found to strengthen HLPF. There are also other slightly contentious areas that need to be discussed and answers found:

  • With its formidable agenda, is enough time allocated to carry out all assignments identified in the HLPF resolution, or is more time needed?
  • Is there a need for a preparatory process as well? If needs be, member states can allocate extra time for preparatory work. UNEP did this to prepare for the UN Environment Assembly by establishing the Open Ended Committee of Permanent Representatives (OECPR). A similar decision can easily be made by member states for the HLPF if they so decide
  • Is a revisit to the CSD task manager system warranted? Establishing such a unit in HLPF might be a way to involve, engage and coordinate the entire UN system in sustainable development the next decades.
  • Should a Bureau be established for HLPF? Using language, experience and precedence from DCF which has an Advisory Committee to deal with political issues there, could be used to establish a Bureau or an AC at HLPF
  • With its present organizational structure, HLPF may not be able to deal with the task given it by paragraph 19: Reaffirms that the forum shall contribute to the enhanced integration of the three dimensions of sustainable development in a holistic and cross-sectoral manner at all levels…HLPF shall supervise the integration of the three dimensions of sustainable development throughout the UN system to reach simply system wide coherence. This is also a formidable task, and it may need to lean on a support unit within the UN system. The Administrative Committee on Coordination (ACC) established the Interagency Committee on Sustainable Development IACSD in 1992 to identify major policy issues and follow-up to the Earth Summit to ensure effective co-operation and coordination of the UN system in the implementation of Agenda 21. Perhaps this experience could be revisited and a similar body could be established for the same purpose to enable HLPF to carry out its many assignments outlined in 67/290.


It seems fair to assume that the state leaders attending the Rio+20 conference intended to establish a key global organization to deal with the follow-up of the many outcomes form this summit. Delegates acted on this decision by establishing HLPF. HLPF is a novelty, and certainly, has most of what it needs to become the key unit on sustainable development in the world. But this chapter has also outlined a few weaknesses that must be addressed. In the final instance we must be allowed to ask a number of questions regarding the future of sustainable development and to what extent are we allowed to:

  • Improve what we see needs improving
  • Strengthen what we see needs strengthening
  • Interpret what we think is unclear

If an agreement is reached to strengthen the institutional framework of HLPF to ensure its unrivalled global position as the future coordinator of sustainable development, can that be done with respect to formalities? The answer is yes. Paragraph 29 of the HLPF resolution states:

Further decides to review at its seventy-third session the format and the organizational aspects of the forum, unless otherwise decided;

This allows decisions to take place affecting the HLPF in a positive way before the seventy-third session.

Only by seriously discussing all these elements will we be able to ascertain the rightful interpretation of the four letters HLPF: will it mean the High-Level Political Failure or will it continue to mean successfully the High-Level Political Forum?

Jan-Gustav Strandenaes is a consultant for NGOs on governance issues. Strandenæs has worked with environment, sustainable development, governance and democracy issues since the 1970´s and always in connection with the UN system. He coordinated global NGO input into the UN CSD process and into preparatory process for the UN Conference on Sustainable Development in 2012 in Brazil. He has given workshops all over the world on the UN, governance, the environment and sustainable development, evaluated projects, and organizations, advised governments on relations with civil society, chaired UN meetings and facilitated UN processes on the environment and sustainable development. His work has also included disseminating information and teaching about UN issues. He has followed and worked closely with the UN Commission for Sustainable Development since 1997.




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