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The annual High-Level Political Forum (HLPF) was held from Tuesday, 9 July, to Thursday, 18 July 2019 at the United Nations headquarters in New York City, USA and attracted more than 2,000 participants from civil society from around the world, including staff members from the UN and other multilateral organisations (e.g. International Organisation for Migration, International Labour Organisation and the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development) and some 100 ministers. Over 40 countries presented their voluntary national reviews (VNR). This article is adapted from a piece written by Jakeline Magalhães.

The HLPF is the main UN platform for follow-up and reviewing the progress towards the 2030 Agenda, consisting of 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) set out in 2015.

At the HLPF, Misean Cara hosted side events with the Salesians, supported panel and side events involving other members (Franciscans International, Presentations International, the Daughters of Charity, Little Sisters of the Assumption, and the Jesuits for example), and joined a Coalition2030 briefing with Minister of State Sean Canney, who has responsibility for leading Ireland’s SDG implementation. Misean Cara also linked with missionary advocates at the UN, helped connect grassroots speakers with different networks and delegations, and discussed potential advocacy collaborations on strategic priority areas with faith organisations.

This year, the annual meeting was held under the theme “Empowering people and ensuring inclusiveness and equality” and conducted an in-depth review of SDG 4 (quality education), SDG 8 (decent work and economic growth), SDG 10 (reduced inequalities), SDG 13 (climate action) and SDG 16 (peace, justice and strong institutions), in addition to SDG 17 (partnerships for the Goals) which is reviewed each year. 

According to Inga Rhonda King, President of the UN Economic and Social Council (ESOSOC), entity that supports the HLPF, this event is a global platform to showcase experiences and forge partnerships and offers “unprecedented opportunity to talk to each other and learn from each other.”

Addressing Inclusion, Inequality and Institutions

The first side event co-hosted by Misean Cara and the Salesians, “Addressing Inclusion, Inequality & Institutions” tied in with almost all the SDGs under review this year, except Goal 13. This session focused on people’s country, community and project experiences; reflections on the VNR process and civil society engagement with it; and ideas on strengthening VNRs, the HLPF, and possibilities for civil society engagement with them, to enhance accountability around delivering the SDGs.

A keynote address was presented by Sandra Epal-Ratjen, International Advocacy Director of Franciscans International, who highlighted the need to build global and national accountabilities around achieving the SDGs, which represent a voluntary political commitment for states at present. Yet most of the SDGs are underpinned by human rights, and these bring legal obligations that must be monitored and reported on according to established norms and standards, so the human rights framework can bring more accountability to the SDGs.

“We can use human rights to attain and infuse this accountability to implement and achieve the SDGs,” Sandra stated, urging that all stakeholders view the SDGs from a human rights perspective because it is the best way to have more precise monitoring, give visibility to issues, have (strong) human rights mechanisms complement (weak) SDGs mechanisms, and build solutions to achieving the SDGs.

To further the discussion, the panelists presented their own grassroots experiences and learnings. They were all from the Africa continent, but from different countries, projects and realities.

Benson Osei-Savio Boateng, Coordinator of the Provincial Development Office in Anglophone West Africa Salesian Province, highlighted the Don Bosco Technical Institute in Ghana that provides diverse educational programmes, addressing SDG8. Benson noted that the VNR process was highly inclusive of civil society, and that he had been closely involved at different stages including a validation exercise. Ghanaian civil society had drafted a complementary report focused on grassroots experiences, rather than a ‘shadow report’ to the official state one, he added.

Samuel Thomas Bojohn, assistant Director of Don Bosco Fambul in Sierra Leone, shared examples from his organisation’s work with victims of trafficking and prostitution, notably addressing SDG8 indicators 8.5 to 8.8 (decent work, ending forced labour and human trafficking, safe and secure work environments for all workers, including migrants and women), and highlighted how it is possible to bring accountability through advocacy work.

In contrast to the Ghanaian example, Samuel said, Don Bosco Fambul declined to participate in Sierra Leone’s VNR process, in which it did not have much confidence – although it continued to observe the situation with interest. (In New York, Sierra Leonean CSOs asked how the government plans to address the inequalities resulting from forbidding pregnant girls to attend school. They also asked for practical plans regarding climate change, child marriage, and violence against women.)

Colin Kenneth Northmore, Director of Three2Six, a programme supported by Misean Cara through the Marist Brothers in South Africa, shared his experience of the efforts to give migrant and refugee children access to education through advocacy to generate inclusion and justice. He noted bureaucratic obstacles to the participation in South African education of many thousands of refugees, migrants and forcibly displaced people, despite a constitutional and legal entitlement to be included.

He emphasized the need for such services addressing SDG4, but also for “a voice for the voiceless” in forums such as the HLPF. He noted, however, that the words ‘refugees’ and ‘migrant’ warranted barely a mention in South Africa’s VNR – despite the SDGs’ commitment to Leaving No One Behind and ‘reaching the furthest behind first’. Neither was there more than a cursory reference to refugees and migrants in South African civil society’s shadow report. The government allowing schools to issue some kind of identity numbers to children without official documents would represent a tangible, pragmatic step to providing for inclusion of refugee, displaced and migrant children in education and society, Colin added.

William Keyah from Kenya, an intended speaker, was unable to attend the HLPF because he failed to secure a US visa in time. He forwarded content, however, describing how the Franciscan Brothers were supporting pre-primary, primary, secondary, technical and vocational education, and adult education, in Kenya, Uganda and South Sudan, in support of inclusive and quality education. William detailed different approaches – providing scholarships and life skills, promotion of girls’ access, supporting marginalized households, training in sustainable agriculture practices, conflict-sensitive initiatives – to build the capabilities of young people for life and sustainable livelihoods (SDGs 4 and 8).

Wrapping up, Misean Cara moderator Éamonn Casey noted how missionaries in development, in keeping with civil society more widely, could pragmatically engage with VNR processes as they are at national and HLPF levels, while simultaneously pushing for more meaningful participation (including of groups commonly described as being left behind, such as Indigenous People) and demanding more rigorous, accountable and rights-based SDG reporting.

Grassroots Calls for Climate Urgency

The second side event co-hosted by Misean Cara and the Salesians, “Youth Aspirations & Climate Urgency”, included a keynote address by Archbishop Bernadito Auza, Permanent Observer of the Vatican to the UN, addressing the challenge of personal, community, state and socio-economic transformation represented by Pope Francis’s encyclical Laudato Si on the environment and human ecology.

This was followed by youth activists from four continents presenting on their hopes and demands for the future – including through SDG, VNR and HLPF processes – for a world threatened by climate crisis.

  • September Kelokelo from Papua New Guinea, in an emotionally powerful address, cited direct and rapid changes to her small-island Pacific home nation, including on food, livelihoods, shelter, destruction of human and natural environments – and pleaded with listeners, particularly from industrial nations, to change our ways and “save our home, save our future”.
  • Santiago Corrales, a student from Panama, noted how climate crisis issues are “not far away in time or place, but here and now in Panama City” with flooding, pollution, weather changes. He urged that nobody should wait for laws, or for someone else, to affect things – but for everyone to “make noise and be the change we need to see.”
  • Abigail Gyabaa from Ghana described how her future and her community’s is being negatively affected (with seasonal changes, severe weather events, irregular migration, drying up water sources, food security challenges) by something they did little to contribute to. Nonetheless, Abigail said, she and her friends are not getting down about it: rather, they are becoming more active – on afforestation, sustainable agriculture, solar energy projects, clean-up drives, influencing and advocacy. She urged that everyone aware of the crisis should take initiatives, right now, to be a model of the life changes required.
  • Rebecca Petz from Germany, who has been studying climate crisis for an MA in Peace and Conflict Studies, noted inter-related challenges around natural disasters, forced displacement and migration, economic challenges and vulnerability to violent conflict, particularly in poor countries. Managing the crisis is a human rights issue, she said, and we need to “act radically” (as youth movements have suggested) – not through business as usual, but through more citizen participation, youth leadership, and UN power to demand more than voluntary reviews. Rebecca urged not just local actions but to “link to global networks to change the big things”.

These young HLPF panelists worked strongly together (meeting each other’s country delegations, civil society groupings, youth and activist networks) as well as making links elsewhere, such as with Ireland’s civil society ‘environmental pillar’ delegate at the HLPF Aine O’Gorman and Ireland’s UN Youth Delegates, Valery Molay and Jack O’Connor. Indeed, through connecting with Ireland’s UN Youth Delegates, September Kelokelo went on to address an intergenerational dialogue addressing the case for ‘A greater role for youth and civil society in climate action’, hosted by Ireland on 16 July.

“It was truly inspiring and engaging with these young people, each of them from a different continent, all of them committed to the cause of climate action, because they feel strongly that climate change is threatening the aspirations of young people,” noted Fr Savio Silveira, founder of the Don Bosco Green Alliance and moderator of the 11 July ‘climate urgency’ side event.

Next Steps

Misean Cara noted at HLPF 2019 the need to really get to grips with Agenda 2030’s imperative to ‘support the furthest behind first’ – both at the level of least developed regions, countries and country groupings, and at the level of communities and population cohorts within countries. This includes, among many other requirements, a need to ensure their strong participation and engagement in VNRs and at UN summits, and enabling powerful grassroots voices (including women, youths, Indigenous Peoples, human rights defenders) to voice their own experiences and demands at these summits.

There continues to be a need to tackle Policy Coherence for Development (on energy, agriculture, financial regulation, corporate taxation, Financing for Development, debt, peace and security, etc.) although the real substance of many of those discussions is in for a other than the HLPF, and the pathway to bridge or bring together such priorities with the SDGs, within our strained multilateral and machinery, is very unclear.

At summary level, civil society activists from across the world, meeting in parallel with the HLPF, declared the achievement of the SDGs to be under threat, due to inaction on climate change, rising inequality and increasing repression of peaceful civic activism. A broad alliance of CSOs collectively called for greater ambition from states, and a people’s Week of Action in September to #StandTogetherNow for social, economic and environmental justice.

Addressing Inclusion Inequality and Institutions flier

Youth Aspirations and Climate Urgency flier

Photo caption: Misean Cara Project Officer Éamonn Casey introduces ‘Addressing Inclusion, Inequality and Institutions’ High Level Political Forum side event co-hosted with the Salesians of Don Bosco.