A Sustainable Forum

Kate Higgins on the need for a forum that fully embraces all three dimensions of sustainable development.
By: /
April 23, 2013
2013_04_A-Funny-Thing-Happened-on-the-Way-to-the-High-Level-Panel.jpg
Theme Leader of the Governance for Equitable Growth program at The North-South Institute

A major outcome of the United Conference for Sustainable Development, better known as Rio+20, held in Rio de Janeiro in June 2012, was the decision to establish a universal, intergovernmental high-level political forum (HLPF) on sustainable development.  One of the few actionable outcomes to come out of the largely disappointing Rio+20 conference, the conference outcome document recommends that the forum build on the strengths, experiences, resources and inclusive participation modalities of the Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD), and subsequently replace the commission.  The idea is for the forum to follow-up on the implementation of sustainable development while avoiding overlap with existing structures, bodies, and entities in a cost-effective manner.

I was recently at the United Nations Headquarters in New York to participate in a two-day Experts Group Meeting on the HLPF.  The objective of the meeting was to move forward thinking on the HLPF, and its role in the wider institutional framework for sustainable development.  This is part of the “open, transparent and inclusive negotiation process” that has started under the United Nations General Assembly to define the format and organizational aspects of the forum. The timeline for negotiating the specifics on the form and function of the HLPF is tight: the General Assembly called for the negotiations to start in January 2013 and conclude in May 2013 so as to provide ample time to prepare the first HLPF meeting, to be convened at the beginning of the 68th session of the Assembly, in September 2013.

The CSD, established by the UN General Assembly in 1992 to ensure effective follow-up of the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, or the Earth Summit, has had mixed reviews, particularly in recent years.  While a number of seasoned experts on sustainable development, such as Felix Dodds, an Associate Fellow at the Tellus Institute, and Jan-Gustav Strandenaes, the Senior Governance Advisor at the Stakeholder Forum,  spoke at the Expert Group Meeting of the “golden years” of the commission in the 1990s, there was widespread acknowledgement that over the last decade, it has failed to meet the expectations many had for it following the 1992 Earth Summit. A recent report of the UN Secretary General to the General Assembly on lessons learned from the Commission on Sustainable Development reflects on the strengths and weaknesses of the commission.  It notes that perhaps the greatest achievement of the commission was that it provided a distinct institutional “home” for keeping the sustainable development agenda under active review.  It also recognises that the commission played an important role in setting the agenda on particular issues, such as forests (through the United Nations Forum on Forests), persistent organic pollutants, and energy; provided a space for participation by a range of stakeholders; and demonstrated the value and importance of voluntary, multi-stakeholder partnerships for sustainable development.  But critically, it states that the CSD has not been successful in attracting participation and attention from representatives of all three dimensions of the sustainable development agenda – environment, economic, and social.  Indeed, as I have argued elsewhere, over the last decade or so, sustainable development became synonymous with environmental sustainability. This rings true for the CSD, which has largely been perceived as a commission on the environment.

For those of us in favour of sustainable development receiving heightened global attention and action, there are reasons to see both opportunities and risks associated with the new high-level forum.  The forum could demonstrate real political commitment to sustainable development; it could do a much better job at promoting the economic, social and environmental pillars of sustainable development in an integrated way; and it could provide a new, more fit-for-purpose institutional home for sustainable development within the UN.  But there also risks. The South Centre’s Martin Kohr, University of Toronto’s Steven Bernstein, and the Third World Network’s Chee Yoke Ling have all expressed concern that the HLPF might have less resources – in terms of the supporting secretariat, for example – than the CSD, which in their view would set the forum up for failure. For this reason, they argued for a forum with an adequately-resourced secretariat to ensure the forum can effectively meet its mandate.  Some representatives from member state missions countered this, however, arguing that a large secretariat was unnecessary, advocating instead for a forum that draws on the resources of existing UN structures and functions.

I was asked to outline how the HLPF could engage all the relevant stakeholders to successfully help deliver on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and how the HLPF could best connect with the post-2015 development framework.  When it comes to global development goals beyond 2015, there are currently two processes running in parallel: the SDGs, which were agreed at Rio+20 and are being developed by an intergovernmental Open Working Group; and the post-2015 development agenda, which is currently being guided by a High Level Panel, which will submit its report to the UN Secretary General at the end of May 2013.  Most hope, and expect, that these two processes will converge, resulting in just one set of global development goals to replace the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) when they expire in 2015.  Both processes are centred on sustainable development, resulting in a renaissance of the concept. For the SDGs, given their endorsement at Rio+20, and indeed their name, this is clear.  But the post-2015 development agenda also looks set to have sustainable development at its heart. Indeed, in the communique from the High Level Panel’s last meeting in Bali, Indonesia, they outlined a vision “to end extreme poverty in all its forms in the context of sustainable development and to have in place the building blocks of sustained prosperity for all” and their commitment to a “transformative, people-centred, planet-sensitive” development agenda. 

I argued that a key role the HLPF could play once formed is to track the progress and implementation of the next set of global development goals.  Brice Lalonde, the Special Advisor on Sustainable Development to the UN Global Compact, had a similar perspective. I framed my thoughts on this around three important dynamics: actors, issues, and architecture.

On actors, or stakeholders, I argued, though am clearly not the first to do so, that the world is more multi-polar and less state-centric than was the case even just over a decade ago when the MDGs were established.  John MacArthur, who provided a very useful guide to the post-2015 debates as part of this In Depth series, has argued elsewhere that:


A generation ago [global goals] mainly meant officials coordinating government policies and investments around the world. At the time, rich and poor countries were clearly delineated and multilateral institutions helped broker conversations. Today’s geopolitical map is far more complicated. There has been a realignment of economic influencers and institutions, and dividing lines between developed and developing nations have blurred.


For the next set of global goals and the HLPF to be fit-for-purpose in 2015 but also decades beyond, they must reflect this new multi-polar reality. To be legitimate, the forum will face the difficult task of being a truly universal sustainable development forum, and one that makes sense to industrialised, emerging, and low-income economies.  It must also recognise that today’s non-state actors, such as business, civil society, and philanthropic foundations, play a heightened role in global affairs.  The HLPF needs to find ways to engage with and be relevant to these key partners.

When it comes to issues, I argued that the HLPF needs to truly be a forum on sustainable development, both in their work on the next set of global development goals and in their broader mandate, rather than a forum on environmental sustainability.  Given that the CSD is at this point largely viewed as an environment commission, the forum will need to make particular effort to engage on economic and social issues so that each of the three pillars of sustainable development are comprehensively addressed.  In the context of the next set of global development goals, indications from the Open Working Group on Sustainable Development Goals and the High Level Panel on the post-2015 development agenda are that all three pillars of sustainable development will be represented in the next set of global development goals. Reaching out to those working on the economic and social dimensions of development, but also the human rights and peace and security communities, for example, will thus be critical for the forum if its role in relation to the next set of global development goals is to have support and legitimacy.

On architecture, I suggested that the forum could play a role in coordinating commitments and overseeing progress on the next set of global development goals.   The MDGs are global goals, with global targets.  For MDG 1, for example, the goal is to “Eradicate Extreme Poverty and Hunger”, and the first target is to “Halve, between 1990 and 2015, the proportion of people whose income is less than $1.25 a day”.  For the next set of goals, there is much energy behind “getting to zero” targets, which could mean, for example, a target on ending extreme poverty in all countries by 2030. But there is also an acknowledgement that one of the weaknesses of the MDGs is that they are not easily translated into national targets and action. To address this, many are advocating that the next set of goals be structured as global goals, with national targets.  This would make the goals actionable and relevant in different country contexts, and ideally, allow for the goals to be linked more directly to domestic policy priorities. The national targets would need to be set by the country, but some sort of review mechanism would need to be in place to ensure that countries do not set the bar too low, or too high. An important role the HLPF could play would be to coordinate commitments made by countries but also, critically, the private sector, and civil society. They could also facilitate knowledge sharing between countries on strategies for supporting progress, as well as track and report on progress against the goals and targets.

I left the meeting feeling that there is still much to think through on the form and function of HLPF, and that with the proposed May 2013 deadline for negotiations to conclude on the forum, negotiators have lots of late nights ahead. It was hard, for me at least, to keep up with the detailed discussions on where the forum should fit within the UN bureaucracy, and the levels of legitimacy and resources that different types of UN bodies offer.  But I do applaud those that are focused on these important issues.  Getting this wrong may set the forum up to fail. At a time when the challenges of sustainable development are more acute than ever, and we approach planetary boundaries at breakneck speed, this would be a huge loss for the world. And for the UN.

Also in the series

2013_08_Nepalese-Brick-Factory.jpg

How Data is Revolutionizing Development

Sabina Alkire, Director of the Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative, on the important role of measurement in poverty eradication.
2013_05_BRICS.jpg

World Economic Forum (on Africa) meets the BRICS

Daniel Poon on whether new institutions for development promise to strengthen or undermine existing forums.
2013_04_Taking-Security-Seriously.jpg

Taking Security Seriously

Robert Muggah on why the MDG High-Level Panel needs to take conflict, violence, and fragility seriously.
2013_04_Partners-in-development.jpg

Wanted: A Real Global Partnership

John Sinclair on why the most recent model for a Global Partnership on development is failing to reach its potential.
2013_04_panel.jpg

An Unequal Partnership

Fraser Reilly-King on why the post-2015 framework still misses the meaning of 'partnership' in 'global partnership'.
2013_02_New-Development-Goals-For-a-New-World.jpg

New Development Goals For a New World

Derek Evans on how the nature of global poverty has changed, and why the post-2015 MDGs need to reflect that change.
2013_02_One-Size-Only-One-Global-Customer.jpg

One Size Only, One Global Customer?

John Sinclair on why universality and tiering should be part of the post-2015 Millennium Development Goal conversation.
2013_01_Corporate-Statecraft.jpg

George Haynal on Corporate Statecraft

OpenCanada talked to the professor of global practice at the Munk School about re-imagining the relationship between corporations and sustainability.
2013_02_The-Development-Technology-Disconnect.jpg

David Souter on the Development-Technology Disconnect

OpenCanada talked to the Managing Director of ICT Development Associates about how the spread of new communication technologies are challenging understandings of sustainability.
2013_02_Too-Much-Information.jpg

Sustainable Communication

Don MacLean on how communication technology create both opportunities for and threats to sustainable development.