Paper 4.2 What are the key issues that governments should address for the global follow-up of major agreements reached in 2015?

Paper 2

What are the key issues that governments should address for the global follow-up of major agreements reached in 2015?

Steven Bernstein


The key themes to address in follow-up to the major agreements reached in 2015 are coordination at the global and national levels, mainstreaming of sustainable development (in particular, Sustainable Development Goals) at global and national levels and coherence. Translating these broad ideas into follow-up processes means putting in place specific mechanisms to mobilize finance, technical and governance capacity and other implementing resources; coordination and coherence at the global and country levels; and monitoring, review and learning mechanisms, especially at the country level. In the background, these mechanisms and processes should recognize and take into account that the post-2015 agenda, and SDGs in particular, are universal, but priorities and obligations will be differentiated. What follows are brief suggestions for these mechanisms and processes in six areas (1).

Partnership for Development and Finance for Development

At the time of writing, negotiations for the Third International Conference on Financing for Development (FfD) are ongoing with divisions remaining among countries on a number of important issues that are central to a new partnership on (sustainable) development. However, it is around many of the issues under negotiation that, arguably, coherence hits the ground globally. Without prejudice to negotiation outcomes, the following are some questions governments might consider in ensuring a robust new partnership on sustainable development:

  • What militates against the implementation of the SDGs outside of the SDGs, such as elements of the global trading system, or dependence on a few export commodities in case of some LDCs? (2)
  • What are the fiscal requirements for countries to have the capacity for implementation?
  • How much of that capacity is dependent on international or transnational policies, technical capacity or resources, or revenue as opposed to domestic policies or sources of revenue?

The ability to address these questions in follow-up processes is an argument to explicitly link FfD to the SDGs, whether wholly or in part.

Taking trade as an example, draft SDGs 8 and 17 recognize the importance of trade rules and an open trading system for sustainable development, but without adequate trade facilitation, existing targets in the SDGs will be inadequate. Moreover, capacity building should include helping countries best leverage trade rules and develop trade policy strategies to help achieve SDGs. Governments should also acknowledge, and confront, contradictions of a global trading system that is increasingly not universal, but increasingly characterized by bilateral, regional and plurilateral preferential agreements, which may be inconsistent with achieving the SDGs. Similarly, indicators might be developed on market access for environmental goods and services, subsidies including for fossil fuels, and inadequate funding for aid for trade.

Governments might also ask what is the proper time frame for Official Development Assistance (ODA) and other forms of development financing. The SDGs highlight that many of the challenges are very long term, but earmarked financing and particular programs are often short term. The SDGs offer an opportunity to create longer time horizons and encourage less narrow earmarking of funds from donors, as well as a greater focus on capacity building and governance. Long-term investment is needed to address many aspects of the SDGs (green growth, infrastructure development, etc.).

The bottom line: monitoring progress on a renewed partnership for sustainable development (SDG 17) should be part of follow-up and review in the context of the broader post-2015 agenda that includes FfD.

Interagency Coherence and Coordination

At the interagency level, consider creating additional sub-groupings for different SDGs in addition to UN-Water and UN-Energy, although not every SDG requires one. These groups could be organized around a nexus approach (see, for example, UNDESA, 2015, chapter 3; Weitz, Nilsson and Davis, 2014), with parallel coordinating mechanisms within countries encouraged and supported. There are already some promising examples in place of more explicitly integrating the three dimensions of sustainable development in the work of the UN, such as UN-Water’s initiative to look at the whole water cycle and provide technical assistance to states to do so, as well as a monitoring initiative aimed so help states review progress on water targets.

Mainstreaming the SDGs in the operations of agencies throughout the system should also be a priority. In that regard, the Framework for Advancing the Environmental and Social Sustainability in the United Nations would benefit from a political champion, rather than remaining as simply an inter-agency initiative under the Environmental Management Group (EMG), without which it has arguably languished. Perhaps the High-Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development (HLPF) could make it an agenda item and endorse it, or, at a minimum, make it part of the review of UN system commitments, regardless of what interagency process or grouping ultimately oversees it (3).

The HLPF/ECOSOC can also be used to develop more workmanlike sessions with financial institutions and the WTO, and also reach out more to organizations like OECD to draw on its expertise. For example, sessions within the HLPF could be devoted to means to operationalize the SDGs so they are relevant for the work of the World Bank, which has created cross-cutting solution areas. Such sessions could provide mutual benefits for learning and analysis of how to incorporate targets. Similarly, sessions or working groups on evaluating or learning from the MDG Acceleration Framework experience, which is a positive example of cooperation between UNDP and the World Bank, could provide some lessons going forward for the SDGs.

More broadly, future meetings between ECOSOC and the Bretton Woods Institutions/WTO can be more focused and action-oriented, which, arguably, is more likely if FfD and SDGs follow up are closely linked.

Science-Policy Interface, Especially Monitoring and Reporting

Monitoring should be more than data collection and aggregation of existing reports. It should also create systems to evaluate indicators more systematically, with sensitivity to signals of systemic transition and linkages among multiple parts or processes of a system (e.g., food, water, jobs and energy when monitoring intensification of agriculture); linkages across distances; and linkages among stakeholders to understand their different interests and perspectives. Such monitoring will be too expensive for single organizations, so mechanisms must be put in place to collect and synthesize information from multiple sources and then organized in the spirit of learning and openness to mutual adjustment.

There are serious concerns about capacity both at the country and global levels. These are matched by the high expectations for the Global Sustainable Development Report (GSDR). The latest draft report (UNDESA, 2015) is a promising attempt to move in the general direction of analysis and synthesis (e.g., with sections on scenarios, integrative tools, and analysis, an emphasis on identifying data and capacity gaps, attention to vulnerable countries etc.). However, the capacity within the Secretariat to do this work is very limited, which suggests a need to think creatively about how to increase that capacity either within the Secretariat or through partnerships, working groups of scientific stakeholders or task forces following a model like that of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), but drawing from a broader range of stakeholders and expertise to cover the three dimensions of sustainable development. Taking the science-policy interface seriously likely will require some combination of all of these efforts.

In practice, most of the required data gathering, for monitoring of progress and the more ambitious analysis and synthesis envisioned above, will be through other processes, agencies, national governments, and perhaps new modes of data collection including participatory models. Making such data usable and systematic requires analytic capacity that even some developed countries lack. The United Nations can provide frameworks, reporting modalities and standards, and learning opportunities. Two ideas to consider are as follows:

  1. The creation of a global partnership for sustainable development data. While I am not the first to propose such an idea, questions to consider in establishing such a partnership include where it might best sit and how it might build on existing partnerships such as Paris21. It should be designed as a mechanism to share expertise, best practices on gathering and use of data and a learning platform. Building a robust data partnership will require additional resources and political commitment, as well as a greater focus on learning than existing arrangements.
  2. Stress tests on institutions, regions or countries, as we do now for financial institutions, but related to sustainable development indicators. Such tests require linking monitoring systems to indicators and analytic work on tipping points or stress points in the system, and evaluations of tolerable and intolerable risks.

Review Architecture

The following are key principles and questions to consider on a review mechanism and broader review architecture as negotiations progress on this central plank of post-2015 follow-up.

  1. How can a review mechanism be designed not only to track progress, but also provide opportunities for learning among states and stakeholders about what is working, obstacles to progress and about the means of implementation that need to be mobilized. Reviews should therefore also involve different parts/ministries of government. Learning is also important on cause-effect relationships between goals and outcomes.
  2. Reviews should be designed to promote innovation, thus not be too rigidly thought of as strictly accountability mechanisms. Along these lines, a review mechanism should avoid overburdening countries with reporting requirements or create duplication with other processes.
  3. The corollary is that cooperation with, and utilization of, existing assessments and data is required and capacity building and technical assistance will be required to fill data gaps and find ways to utilize existing assessments into usable knowledge for progress on the SDGs. Such benefits should accrue directly from review through serious assessment of what MOI means in national contexts.
  4. It will be important to consider the best division of labour between HLPF, regional and national reviews. The Group of 7 sponsored workshop on 30 April 2015 made some progress on this issue (IISD 2015). While a full summary is not possible here, key points include the importance of national reviews with some iterations for engagement with stakeholders, to promote learning; regional reviews that focus on best practices and possibly peer review (the African Peer Review Mechanism is a possible model, though OECD countries may opt for the OECD peer review model), and HLPF review at the global level, focusing on particular themes each year, e.g., common challenges to maximize learning (e.g., countries with large coastlines, resource dependency, coping with megacities or running out of water). Even with the HLPF review only being one node in the larger review process, a robust review process with high participation rates combined with reviews of the UN system as mandated in UNGA resolutions suggests consideration of extending meeting times for the HLPF.
  5. Reviews of the UN system, which could also feed into the QCPR, should not reproduce specific operational reviews, but focus on how well agencies work across sectors and linkages, i.e., their collaborative work and how well they assist and build capacities in countries, promote rights and relevant norms and mainstream the SDGs.

MOI and Partnerships, Networks, Business and Civil Society

Engagement with business and civil society and other stakeholders and their buy-in to the SDGs is essential, as it is for FfD. If ECOSOC/HLPF is to serve the purpose of steering partnerships and other transnational initiatives towards SDGs and the goals of FfD, increased efforts are needed to create incentives for the private sector, foundations, partnerships, and transnational initiatives to work with the United Nations. Endorsement can be a powerful tool, that is, inviting partnerships and initiatives that have best practices in terms of multi-stakeholder participation, accountability and performance to side events, workshops, and other learning opportunities (Abbott and Bernstein 2015). The sustainable development knowledge platform should be a one-stop clearinghouse to let parts of the decentralized approach know what others are doing. It could facilitate identifying gaps in the world of activities, catalyze identification of synergies, helpful redundancies, and inefficient redundancies, and encourage experimentation.


National Capacity for Follow Up

Perhaps most important for follow-up are ways to facilitate national capacity. Here, we can learn from the mixed success of the MDG experience on what is needed to facilitate a more integrated and coordinated follow-up. Drawing on Levy (2015), a number of observations and lessons from the MDG experience are relevant. First, we can observe that many countries have created mechanisms for coordination across sectors and consultative and coordinating mechanisms with stakeholders. In addition, some countries formulated coordinating efforts around project planning and developing high-level policy priorities so they could organize research mobilization around projects consistent with priorities.

At least three lessons can be gleaned from these efforts. First, vision and consultation are best organized in central agencies, including finance and economic agencies, not ministries of environment or natural resources. Framing sustainable development as inclusive across the three dimensions is crucial.

Second, assessment capacity is crucial for an integrated and coherent approach in order to move away from silo thinking. Support for adequate, and disaggregated, data is key.

Third, there is a need to tailor mechanisms for lessons learned in ways better suited to developing countries circumstances. In part, such learning requires recognizing that improving integration, coherence, and coordination means paying attention to how to link sustainable development to broader political processes like coalition building around policy innovations, or governance reforms that may be very country specific, such as appropriate forms of decentralization or constitutional reform. At the same time, it should be recognized that such change can be politically difficult and can lead to unintended consequences. Obviously, country ownership and high levels of engagement are essential in such circumstances.


  1. This chapter reflects a synthesis of relevant ideas and suggestions both of my own and based on what I have learned from others through participation in a number of workshops and meetings related to the various post-2015 processes. In particular, I would like to thank Marc Levy, Michele Scobie, and Frank Biermann, who influenced my suggestions here, and apologies to any others whose influence I may have omitted. Of course, any errors are my own.
  2. The idea of phrasing this question in this way comes from Michelle Scobie, from a presentation at the Arizona Workshop on Implementing the Sustainable Development Goals. Center for Law and Global Affairs, Arizona State University, Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law, April 24-25, 2015.
  3. See UNEMG, 2013 for options being considered for this initiative.


Abbott, K. A. and Bernstein, S. (2015) The High-Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development: Orchestration by Default and Design, Global Policy doi: 10.1111/1758-5899.12199.

IISD (2015) ‘A Briefing Note of the Workshop on Building an Effective Review Mechanism for the Post-2015 Development Agenda, HLPF Bulletin, vol 221, no 3 (May 3).

Levy, M. A. (2013) United Nations Capacity Building Workshop and Expert Group Meeting on Mainstreaming Sustainable Development in National Development Strategies New York, 9-11 October 2013.’ Available from the author.

UNDESA (2015) Global Sustainable Development Report 2015 Edition (Advanced Unedited Version),, accessed 20 June 2015.

UNEMG (2013) Draft Outline: Options Paper on system-wide Issues in the Follow-up of the Framework for Advancing Environmental and Social Sustainability in the UN System, accessed 20 June 2015.

Weitz, N., Nilsson, M., and Davis, M. (2014) A Nexus Approach to the Post2015 Agenda: Formulating Integrated Water, Energy, and Food SDGs, SAIS Review of International Affairs, vol 4, no 3, pp37-50.

Steven Bernstein is Associate Chair and Graduate Director, Department of Political Science and Co-Director of the Environmental Governance Lab at the Munk School of Global Affairs, University of Toronto. His research spans the areas of global governance and institutions, global environmental politics, non-state forms of governance, international political economy, and internationalization of public policy.

Bernstein’s publications include: Unsettled Legitimacy: Political Community, Power, and Authority in a Global Era (co-edited, 2009), Global Liberalism and Political Order: Toward a New Grand Compromise? (co-edited, 2007), A Globally Integrated Climate Policy for Canada (co-edited, 2007) and The Compromise of Liberal Environmentalism (2001), as well as many articles in refereed academic journals including European Journal of International Relations, Science, Review of International Political Economy, Journal of International Economic Law, International Affairs, Canadian Journal of Political Science, Policy Sciences, Regulation and Governance and Global Environmental Politics. He was recently a convening lead author and the member of the Global Forest Expert Panel on the International Forest Regime and a consultant on institutional reform for the Rio +20 UN Conference on Sustainable Development.




Theme by HermesThemes

Copyright © 2024 Friends of Governance for Sustainable Development. All Rights Reserved