An Intern’s Perspective on the HLPF
Entering the UN complex on the first day of the High Level Political Forum reminded me of my first day of college, where hundreds of people whizzed around in a flurry of excited preparation for the days to come. Though I had read the provided introduction materials, I had little idea of what to expect; I knew, though, that working with the NGO Major Group for the next 8 days would give me invaluable insight into the world of civil society at the UN.
Under the auspices of the Economic and Social Council, the HLPF was recently held from July 10 to 19. Its theme? “Eradicating poverty and promoting prosperity in a changing world”. The session included a High-Level General Debate, the presentations of 44 Voluntary National Reviews (VNRs), and multiple thematic discussions about the challenges accompanying the implementation of SDGs 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 9, 14, and 17. Finally, in the last 3 days (and after continuous pressure on behalf of the Major Groups), the 2017 Ministerial Declaration was negotiated and eventually agreed upon.
Regarding the involvement of the NGO Major Group, it all started in 1993 with the UN Conference on Environment and Development (also known as the Rio Conference). According to the website of the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UN-DESA), it was an important and unprecedented time of opportunity for civil society, as governments agreed that “achieving sustainable development would require the active participation of all sectors of society and all types of people”.Thus, “Agenda 21, adopted at the Earth Summit, drew upon this sentiment and formalized nine sectors of society as the main channels through which broad participation would be facilitated in UN activities related to sustainable development.” The nine areas, formally called “Major Groups”, include the following groups:
Business and Industry
Children and Youth
Indigenous Peoples and their communities
Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs)
Scientific and technological Community
Workers and Trade Unions
In addition, there are demographics demarcated as “other stakeholders” that contribute to global policy planning and implementation:
Persons with disabilities
Volunteer groups and foundations
Migrants and famiiies
It is unlikely that this system will be changed until the HLPF process is formally reviewed in 2019.
The Rio+20 Conference in 2012 had major implications for this MGoS system because its outcome document highlighted the importance of their involvement in UN processes related to the SDGs. Their influence upon the link between governments and civil society is seen now more than ever - governments know that NGOs (especially the NGO Major Group) are not just watchdogs, but partners.
As I attended VNR sessions, side events, and NGO Major Group daily coordination meetings, it was clear that everyone’s top priority was inclusion - statements were repeatedly made reinforcing the dire importance of including the voices of all stakeholders, particularly the disenfranchised. The most interesting time for me was the period in which the negotiations surrounding the Ministerial Declaration occurred. While it was amazing to be involved - even marginally - in the decision making, it did not surprise me in the slightest that the most contentious issues were climate change, women’s rights, and the occupation of foreign lands. While I was not surprised to hear that the US and Israel protested the language surrounding foreign occupation, it was rather shocking to hear that Canada and Australia took issue with the wording surrounding the empowerment of women and girls. Despite all of the rhetoric about ‘diversity’, ‘‘inclusion’, and ‘cross-cutting strategies for sustainable development’, there’s still plenty of work to be done.
As a volunteering intern on the NGO Major Group advocacy committee, it was truly inspiring to see how civil society leapt to action when the fate of the Ministerial Document was jeopardized. Though it’s been great to learn more about the inner workings of the MGoS system, I was mostly impacted by the people whom I met along the way. Without a long-term view, it is nearly impossible to do this work. Civil society is tasked with the Sisyphean task of pressuring governments to make the right choices; it is by no means easy, but, despite this, people still dedicate their lives to it. They are the real heroes, and it has been positively remarkable to be able to work with them - and the NGO Major Group in general - during the 2017 HLPF.