High Level Political Forum, 2018: Evoking the Will

Photo by IISD/ENB | Kiara Worth

For ten days in July over two thousand government, business and civil society leaders made their way to UN Headquarters in New York to take part in the 2018 High Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development. Meditators working with World Goodwill’s Cycle of Conferences Initiative joined them subjectively, pondering the thought-form under construction at the event and visualizing seeds of living will energy being planted in the heart of this thought form. The theme of the 2018 Forum was: Transformation towards sustainable and resilient societies. And the meditation keynote for the Cycle Visualisation: A recognition of the unity of all life and an economics based on simplicity and sharing are essential for the realisation of the sustainable development goals.

The Forum provides an annual space where leaders, governments and goodwill networks can inspire each other with the transformative vision of the Sustainable Development Goals. A realistic assessment is made of progress in achieving the goals, and what more can be done to accelerate progress.

The 17 Goals offer a vision of future possibilities. They are a sign that in 2015, governments, having consulted with leaders from all sectors of society and all parts of the world, recognized that the problems of the 21st century are so inter-dependent that they demand a transformation of the way in which the world operates. At the heart of the Goals lies recognition of human unity and of humanity’s responsibility for the health and well-being of the Earth. No-one is to be left behind; no minority, no economic class is to be left out of the universal vision of human development that respects and values the natural worlds. It is a vision of right relations in which nations are challenged to ensure every person has access to health care, to clean water and sanitation, and livable housing. The SDG vision includes eliminating poverty and hunger everywhere, ending economic inequality within and between countries, and taking urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts. The transformation of human relations needed to reach these goals is to take place with full respect for the integrity of the living systems of the Earth. 

The Goals were not designed to be legally binding. Governments would never have agreed to such a plan. Instead the idea is for the SDGs to generate genuine political will (targeted to specific objectives) and a sense of purpose within the United Nations, within national governments and amongst the peoples of the world. Ultimately the intention is that people of goodwill throughout the world will concentrate their thoughts and actions around the common task of ensuring that the Goals are met by 2030.

The High Level Political Forum is the main instrument for the generation of this will. It is ‘High Level’ because governments are encouraged to send foreign ministers and senior officials. This year’s Forum was attended by a record 145 Heads of State, Government Ministers and Vice-Ministers.  In the words of one commentator, the gathering of senior officials and leaders from different stake-holder groups provides an annual moment of political urgency around goals which are not due for over a decade.

Political circumstances change, and some of the governments in office today have different priorities from the governments of 2015 which signed up to the Goals. The intensity of crises today produces a focus on immediate problems leading to short-time fixes. The regular rhythm of these annual Forums at the UN helps to keep the long-term vision of the goals vitalised. As success stories are shared and problems highlighted, governments are challenged. The Forum also provides an opportunity for civil society leaders, business executives, and academics  to offer independent reports assessing what needs to be done before targets can be met. Furthermore, the event attracts key players who are already highly motivated by the Goals, providing unusual opportunities for networking, strengthening alliances and refining the skills of goodwill forces from across the planet. More than anything else, the SDG ‘plan’ aims to mobilize and organize and raise the skill-level of networks of goodwill within local and national government, business and civil society. Nothing like this has ever been attempted before. During the High Level Forum, the spirit of Synthesis is unusually present in the atmosphere of UN Headquarters.

Each year governments provide reports on progress in meeting the goals. This year 47 countries presented Voluntary National Reviews drawing attention to progress being made. At the same time ‘Shadow National Reviews’ were prepared by independent networks of NGOs – often challenging the official reports and highlighting what more needs to be done within the country. This year also saw a focus on six of the 17 goals – with special sessions featuring best practices and reviews of specific challenges and ways in which those challenges are being addressed in different environments.

Goal 6. Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all.

Goal 7. Ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all.

Goal 11. Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable.

Goal 12. Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns.

Goal 15. Protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, and halt and reverse land degradation and halt biodiversity loss.

Goal 17. Strengthen the means of implementation and revitalize the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development, that will be considered each year.

One of the keynotes of the gathering was a sober recognition that, although progress is being made on several targets, a far greater effort is needed if targets are to be met by 2030. The 2018 SDG Index and Dashboards Report noted that no country is currently on target to meet all SDGs by 2030. The UN has transformed its development structure, coordinating the programs of a multitude of agencies at country level, to concentrate efforts in line with the SDGs. Furthermore, initiatives are underway, involving representation from governments, banking, finance, business and civil society to develop new approaches to the financing of the SDGs. As part of this practical spirit of focusing innovative thought around practical actions, the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network, headed by Jeffrey Sachs, coordinated numerous events during the Forum, including workshops on Realizing the SDGs: Urban Knowledge, Challenges and Tools and Research Partnerships for SDGs in Small Island Developing States.  For the first time the High Level Forum included a Local and Regional Governments Forum; there was an SDG Business Forum and a one-day Partnership Exchange, exploring voluntary partnerships and cooperation between different institutions involved in development. 


Photo by IISD/ENB | Kiara Worth

Ideas highlighted by keynote speakers included Jeffrey Sachs' reference to the universal spirit that is a feature of the design of the Forum. During his address to the opening session, he shared his delight at being in the conference room, figuratively together with the whole world, to consider the prospects for the SDGs. He described the Goals as being achievable but not being achieved, noting that the biggest obstacle is greed. He also highlighted the opposition of vested interests, noting the power of corporate interests within government delegations. Referring to the 2018 SDG Index he congratulated the top ten countries closest to achieving the SDGs, all from Europe which is by far the part of the world closest to achieving the sustainable development goals. Sachs added that a similar group of ten countries are top of the World Happiness Report, suggesting that sustainable development is the path to happiness.

Resilience, a major theme throughout the gathering, was defined in the programme notes as the ability of a system, community or society exposed to hazards to resist, absorb, accommodate, adapt to, transform and recover from the effects of a hazard in a timely and efficient manner. It might be considered as the spirit of a community, or the living will. Sudden disruptive events, such as economic disruptions, natural disasters, or mass migrations have led to a heightened awareness of the need to prepare for crises by strengthening the spirit of community.   

While the Forum held in the light the vision of a future in which no-one is left behind, it also provided a sober assessment of the challenges posed to this vision by the rising tide of populist nationalism. In an address featured in the World Goodwill at the UN Blog, the Assistant Secretary-General of the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees commented, we are living in a moment where we see powerful actors fanning the flames of discrimination, racism, xenophobia and other forms of intolerance, to cement their hold over power. …  What’s needed is a broader collective challenge to the real obstacles lying in the path of the SDGs, and this requires tackling discrimination and inequalities in all their forms.   

One of the Goals under review this year, goal 12, aims to develop patterns of sustainable consumption and production (SCP), particularly in the ‘developed’ countries, a move that might be considered to strike at the heart of modern materialism. It involves values, desires and established behaviors. As Gaia Education notes, SDG 12 will be one of the hardest to achieve as it speaks to the need for transformative change in the ways we produce, consume and generally live our lives. In the words of the moderator of the main Forum session reviewing the goal: We have no hope of succeeding in the sustainable development agenda without sustainable patterns of consumption and production. And yet the transition towards greater sustainability in our patterns of consumption and production remains a challenge. Yet, as the session confirmed, there is a much deeper effort to work on this long-term goal of changing the desires, and economic structures of modern society than might be thought.

The One Planet Network had a major presence at the Forum. It is a well-organized network of hundreds of governmental and civil society groups collaborating to accelerate the shift towards sustainable consumption and production in both developed and developing countries. Programmes are targeted towards six areas: Public Procurement, Buildings and Construction, Tourism, Food Systems, Consumer information, Lifestyles and Education. The Network’s all-important five-year strategy for SCP (2018 – 2022) ‘One Plan for One Planet’, was launched during the Forum. 

The main Forum session on Goal 12 featured an inspiring keynote address by Peter Thompson, UN Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for the Ocean. Ulf Jaeckel who heads the German Federal Ministry for the Environment’s program on Sustainable Consumption and Production and is also a leader of the One Planet Network, summarized the wide range of initiatives underway around the world and spoke briefly of the German government’s work. Adopted in 2016, Germany now operates over 170 concrete actions aiming to shift sustainable consumption from a niche market to mainstream so that sustainably produced products are available and affordable to all. Recognizing the huge cultural challenges in changing behaviors and consumer demand, around ten government ministries in Germany are actively implementing programs.  

The incredible concentration of energy represented by this year’s High Level Political Forum is a sign that humanity is taking seriously the universal vision of the unity of all life and the urgent need to develop an economics based on simplicity and sharing. These ideas came up time and again throughout the ten days. What was perhaps most heartening was the recognition that, although much is being done, the SDGs will remain visionary and idealistic unless a deeper and more resilient will can be evoked from all the players involved – governments, businesses, social movements and people of goodwill everywhere.

Next years High Level Political Forum will endeavor to increase the tension. Every four years the Forum includes a two-day gathering of Heads of State, held under the auspices of the General Assembly – 2019 will be the first of these “High Level Plus” gatherings.  







Videos, interviews, discussions at HLPF 2018: