2016 High-Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development (HLPF 2016) Ensuring that No One is Left Behind

11-20 July 2016 | UN headquarters, New York


The 2016 meeting of the High-Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development (HLPF) under the auspices of the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) took place from 11-20 July 2016, at UN Headquarters in New York. The meeting focused on the theme of “Ensuring that no one is left behind.” It was attended by nearly 1500 Member States, Major Groups and other stakeholders (MGoS), and intergovernmental and UN organizations. In addition to the official programme, 37 side events were organized.

During the first week, a brief plenary was followed by moderated dialogues on: Where do we stand at year one; Envisioning an inclusive world in 2030; Lifting people out of poverty and addressing basic needs; Fostering economic growth, prosperity, and sustainability; Food security and sustainable agriculture, climate action, sustainable oceans and terrestrial ecosystems – adopting a nexus approach; Creating peaceful and more inclusive societies and empowering women and girls; Science-policy interface: new ideas, insights and solutions; Creating ownership at the national level; Mainstreaming Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) into national policies, plans and strategies and integrating the three dimensions of sustainable development; Vertical cooperation – local authorities and national governments working together for implementation of the 2030 Agenda; Challenges in mobilizing means of implementation (MOI) at the national level (financing, technology, capacity building); National mechanisms for monitoring progress and reporting on implementation for the achievement of the SDGs; Making the 2030 Agenda deliver for small island developing states (SIDS), building on the SAMOA Pathway; Countries in special situations; From inspiration to action: Multi-stakeholder engagement for implementation; Ensuring that no one is left behind – the implementation of the 2030 Agenda by MGoS; Multi-stakeholder approaches at the national level – the opportunity to enhance follow-up and review by engaging MGoS; and Regional experiences.

The HLPF Ministerial Segment, which convened from 18-20 July, was addressed by heads of government and by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. Sessions took place on Main messages from first HLPF week: our starting point, and on topics related to the meeting’s theme of “ensuring that no one is left behind,” including: Reaching the most vulnerable; Challenges of countries in special situations; Unlocking MOI for SDGs and creating an enabling environment; and Prospects for the future (Projections, scenarios and new and emerging issues). In addition, five sessions focused on the first round of Voluntary National Reviews (VNRs) on implementation of the 2030 Agenda and the SDGs, and a general debate took place every afternoon during the Ministerial Segment.

A Ministerial Declaration, focusing on the meeting’s theme of “Ensuring that no one is left behind,”was adopted during the closing session, after the retention of a paragraph relating to the Paris Agreement on climate change was put to a vote. One hundred forty-one countries voted to keep the paragraph, one voted against, and three abstained. The declaration was adopted with the paragraph intact, along with the report of the meeting.

The  Summary of this meeting is now available in PDF format at http://www.iisd.ca/download/pdf/enb3327e.pdf and in HTML format at http://www.iisd.ca/vol33/enb3327e.html

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Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.

Pale Blue Dot, Carl Sagan

The HLPF’s 2016 meeting marked the Forum’s first session since the adoption of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development just ten months earlier. Characterized not by the fanfare and media attention of the Summit that adopted the 2030 Agenda in September 2015, but, rather, a series of moderated panel discussions, and three days of experience-sharing at the ministerial-level, the event in many ways reflected the less “sexy” but critical side of sustainable development governance: actual implementation of the 2030 Agenda.

In many ways, the format of HLPF 2016 and the audience the Forum attracted are important indicators of what lies ahead for this process. Like a starship without its compass, the previous two sessions of the HLPF seemed to lack direction. This year, however, the world’s 17 SDGs and 169 targets provided this Forum with the coordinates to “transform our world.”

This brief analysis will consider some of the issues that emerged at HLPF 2016 and examine to what extent the Forum, at its first post-2030-Agenda session, set the course for the achievement of the 2030 Agenda’s sustainable development vision.


There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand. Pale Blue Dot, Carl Sagan

The 2030 Agenda was adopted against the backdrop of immense global challenges―including high levels of poverty and hunger, rising inequality, the refugee crisis, a rapidly warming world, and growing insecurity. It is perhaps no exaggeration to consider this generation the last to have a “chance of saving the planet,” as the 2030 Agenda states, requiring us to address, fundamentally and structurally, many of these pressing challenges. Follow-up and review, then, is a critical priority. At HLPF 2016, the use of voluntary national reviews was the response to the HLPF’s follow-up and review mandate. The meeting’s key outcome document, the Ministerial Declaration, meanwhile, is expected to maintain the momentum of the implementation of the 2030 Agenda.

Voluntary National Reviews: This year’s ministerial-level presentations saw four LDCs, one SIDS, four lower-middle income, five MICs and eight high-income countries share their experiences with the 2030 Agenda.

Presentations revealed that many countries have begun to put institutional mechanisms in place; have already, or are considering, integrating the SDGs into their national development plans and international cooperation strategies; and have embarked on an exercise to make their national data collection and analyses processes relevant for the SDGs.

But the process was also met with some skepticism, as several countries readily admitted that 2030 Agenda implementation, for them, entailed pursuing existing national priorities. One observer said this was an indication that the goals have traction at the national level, while an expert discussant wondered if the SDGs would really be transformational without “additional” action that reflects a significant shift from business as usual.

The VNRs were followed by brief question-and-answer sessions, providing an opportunity for governments and stakeholders to raise questions and concerns. In one instance, stakeholders from one country told their government that their VNR was neither concrete, nor participatory. While some stakeholder remarks certainly appeared to hit home, real interaction remained limited as a result of time constraints. Whether the comments will be taken into account by the volunteering country is not certain―there is currently no follow-up process, and it is not clear when these countries will present another VNR before 2030. It remains to be seen whether civil society’s call for at least three VNRs for each country over the next 15 years will be answered.

On the other hand, many commented that the VNRs showed a positive aspect of the “universality” of the 2030 Agenda: developed countries shared their challenges in a global forum, on an equal footing with developing countries, prompting a developing country delegate to remark that it is heartening to see industrialized countries admitting that they too have problems.

Ministerial Declaration: The challenges of the HLPF’s comprehensive scope became apparent in the process of formulating the Ministerial Declaration. The close interlinkages between climate change and sustainable development had been highlighted numerous times during the session as a matter of fact and urgency. But with the draft Ministerial Declaration welcoming the Paris Agreement, Nicaragua’s concerns about the Paris Agreement not being able to limit warming to 1.5°C were brought to the fore.

Nicaragua felt its concern about the Paris Agreement was not being reflected and called for the first-ever vote at the HLPF, on a paragraph of the Ministerial Declaration. A number of Member States said more efforts should have been made to bring Nicaragua on board, worrying that a vote sent the “wrong political signal” regarding the international community’s commitment to implement the 2030 Agenda. For example, Nicaragua was not opposed to “noting” the Paris Agreement, but this language was not agreeable to others who wanted to “welcome” it.

While Member States overwhelmingly voted to retain the paragraph on the Paris Agreement with 141 supporting (with Nicaragua opposed and Russia, Egypt and Myanmar abstaining), veteran observers highlighted concerns about the precedent that had been set.

The Russian Federation pointed out that a lack of clarity on the HLPF’s rules of procedure had further complicated matters, with the challenge of reconciling the universal character of the HLPF with the functioning of ECOSOC, a limited member membership body. Similarly, some Member States expressed concerns about the lack of a transparent consultation process on the draft declaration—they felt their views had not been heard, and parts of the Declaration had been “imposed” on them. The weaknesses in the institutional hardwiring of the HLPF were revealed, and a veteran delegate hoped that this would prod Member States to think more concretely about how to improve the functioning of the HLPF.


“[E]very hunter and forager, every hero and coward, [..] every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals […] every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species live[s] thereon a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.” - Pale Blue Dot, Carl Sagan

On paper, the HLPF provides a very strong basis for stakeholder participation, with the 2030 Agenda aspiring to be not just an agenda for the world, but of the world. At HLPF 2016, this was reflected in an unprecedented number of speaking opportunities for civil society (a total of 116 times), including stakeholders whose voices have not always been represented in sustainable development processes, such as people with disabilities, including those who contributed through sign language.

This inclusive approach was apt given the Forum’s 2016 theme of leaving no one behind. But many also struck a critical note; questioning to what extent civil society participation reflects real representation. One youth representative spurred delegates to “look around the room” as “the most marginalized and vulnerable are not here today.”

Many also pointed out that participation needs to trickle down to the national level, where there is much to be desired. A study by the Women’s Major Group showed that less than 10% of this year’s VNRs had involved civil society. Many NGOs also expressed concern about the shrinking space for civil society at the national level, even as many delegations paid tribute to the principle of public participation in SDG planning, implementation and follow-up.

In a broader sense, the theme of leaving no one behind seemed to resonate with many, as an array of delegates highlighted the need to ensure programmes and activities, and ODA, reached those most in need the fastest.


There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known. - Pale Blue Dot, Carl Sagan

As the first Forum since the adoption of the 2030 Agenda, HLPF 2016 sets an example for future years. The VNR process has the potential to be the centerpiece of the HLPF going forward but as an observer noted, much depends on the extent to which governments are willing to do their homework to “localize” the 2030 Agenda.

Negotiations under the UNGA are still ongoing regarding follow-up and review of the 2030 Agenda at the global level. The June 2016 draft resolution on this topic foresees the following HLPF themes for the next three years: eradicating poverty and promoting prosperity in a changing world, in 2017; transformation toward sustainable and resilient societies, in 2018; and empowering people and ensuring inclusiveness and equality, in 2019. It also allocates different SDGs to be “reviewed in depth” at the next three HLPF sessions, with MOI, including Goal 17, to be reviewed annually.

Reactions to this approach have been somewhat mixed as an observer remarked that this year’s theme of “leaving no one behind” had demonstrated that different aspects of the SDGs can be highlighted while keeping the indivisibility of the goals intact. Others, however, requested clarification regarding the criteria and methodology used to select these goals and priorities. A number of NGOs raised concerns about the environmental dimension not being sufficiently addressed in the proposed themes. Countries expressed concerns as well―for example, Mexico said the thematic clustering of SDGs should not be interpreted as the prioritization of one goal over another, or a disregard for the linkages between them.

At the national, regional and international levels, then, there remains much to be worked out as all actors find their feet in the new sustainable development landscape. But whereas the year 2015 evidenced that the UN, governments, and all other stakeholders are able to come together to adopt an ambitious agenda, the true test of how our pale blue dot will fare lies in what comes next.

This analysis, taken from the summary issue of the Earth Negotiations Bulletin © <enb@iisd.org>, is written and edited by Anju Sharma, Rishikesh Ram Bhandary, Dina Hestad and Cleo Verkuijl. The Digital Editor is Kiara Worth. The Editor is Pamela Chasek, Ph.D. <pam@iisd.org>. The Director of IISD Reporting Services is Langston James “Kimo” Goree VI <kimo@iisd.org>. The Sustaining Donors of the Bulletin are the European Union, the Government of Switzerland (the Swiss Federal Office for the Environment (FOEN)), the Italian Ministry for the Environment, Land and Sea, and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. General Support for the Bulletin during 2016 is provided by the German Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation, Building and Nuclear Safety (BMUB), the New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, SWAN International, the Finnish Ministry for Foreign Affairs, the Japanese Ministry of Environment (through the Institute for Global Environmental Strategies - IGES), the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), and the International Development Research Centre (IDRC). Specific funding for coverage of HLPF 2016 has been provided by the European Commission and the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC). Funding for translation of the Bulletin into French has been provided by the Government of France, the Wallonia, Québec, and the International Organization of La Francophonie/Institute for Sustainable Development of La Francophonie (IOF/IFDD). The opinions expressed in the Bulletin are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of IISD or other donors. Excerpts from the Bulletin may be used in non-commercial publications with appropriate academic citation. For information on the Bulletin, including requests to provide reporting services, contact the Director of IISD Reporting Services at <kimo@iisd.org>, +1-646-536-7556 or 300 East 56th St., 11D, New York, NY 10022 USA.