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The United States and the SDGs: Voluntary National Reviews. "You are known by the company you keep"

[1]

Third in a series of articles based on the Brookings Institution Report, “The State of the Sustainable Development Goals in the United States”.


Introduction


On Wednesday, the 22nd of February 2023 the United Nations launched a webinar on the seventh edition of Progressing National SDGs Implementation. In this webinar, key findings from Voluntary National Reviews (VNRs) submitted by countries to the UN in 2022 were presented, and experts and government representatives discussed the main lessons learned and how to use these lessons to increase progress in reaching the SDGs. [2]

44 countries prepared a VNR in 2022, with civil society organizations preparing parallel reports. [3] In 2023, an additional 41 countries will present their VNRs. [4] The United States is one of only five countries that have never prepared a VNR –the other four are Haiti, Myanmar, South Sudan and Yemen. [5] However, some individual cities and states within the U.S. have taken the initiative of preparing their own. [6]

VNRs are "… regular and inclusive reviews of progress at the national and sub-national levels, which are country-led and country-driven" (paragraph 79 of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development). [7] VNRs are discussed at the High-Level Political Forum (HLPF) on Sustainable Development, created in 2012 to serve as central United Nations platform for the follow-up and review of the 2030 Agenda and SDGs. [8] The HLPF reviews are “voluntary, state-led, undertaken by both developed and developing countries, and involve multiple stakeholders.” [9]

The VNRs are intended to encourage member states to share their experiences, discuss positive achievements as well as obstacles and lessons learned, to improve and quicken the implementation of the 2030 Agenda. “The VNRs also seek to strengthen policies and institutions of governments and to mobilize multi-stakeholder support and partnerships for the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals.”


The US and VNRs

In the second article in this series, we presented the U.S. Government’s claim that it wants to lead by example. When it comes to VNRs, however, it is very clear the U.S. is in no position to lead, considering that it has not even attempted to produce a VNR. Even worse, its companions in this group of countries that have not submitted VNRs are not known as models of human rights, democracy or stability.

A VNR is a way for the U.S. Government to practice transparency and accountability, by acknowledging obstacles it has faced in reaching the SDGs. It is also a way for the U.S. Government to be more inclusive and participatory, by working with state governments, local authorities, and other stakeholders, such as communities, civil society, academia, and the private sector to reflect on what has been going right, and what needs to be improved, and in doing so, making these stakeholders, particularly affected persons and communities, part of the solution.

Local U.S. Efforts – Voluntary Local Reviews


As noted previously, several U.S. cities and states have tried to make up for the federal government’s lack of compliance with the 2030 Agenda, by preparing Voluntary Local Reviews (VLRs) on SDG progress in their areas. For example, Pittsburgh has done work on reducing racial inequality by creating a “racial equity toolkit” and discussing the toolkit in its 2020 VLR. [10] Los Angeles has produced two VLRs, focused on all 17 SDGs, and has recognized that “The work of cities and local governments is the action at the heart of sustainable development. Through services and programs that directly serve residents, cities can deliver progress toward the Global Goals, set norms, share models from which to learn, and scale what works.” [11] Moreover, according to the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), “the progress of … cities [working on VLRs] offers a remarkable baseline on which the federal government can build. Doing so will require excellent engagement between the Domestic Policy Council and the National Security Council through an established policy process that draws data from diverse agencies, including the Department of Education, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Department of Health and Human Services, and others.” [12]

The CSIS recommended that the federal government commit to a VNR and an internal review so that all agencies and offices of the U.S. government will become sensitized to the SDGs. It suggested that the government look at previous submissions to the United Nations, such as the Universal Periodic Review (UPR). Furthermore, the government should “[p]rovide tangible support and incentives for local governments to incorporate the SDGs into policy or to participate in international levers, such as submitting a VLR for a future HLPF.”

The Brookings Institution Report provided similar recommendations as the CSIS, but on a broader scale (the CSIS report focused on SDG 16). The Brookings Report noted that the U.S. is the only G7, G20 and OECD country that has not submitted a VNR, and strongly recommended that the U.S. commit to producing a VNR, based on the efforts that it already has made to track its progress. The VNR would offer a “unified, measurable vision” of U.S. development priorities. The Report stated that the process of producing a VNR should “entail hosting a series of regional forums that meaningfully engage mayors and governors, universities, business leaders, civil society groups, and other stakeholders already working to advance the SDGs.” The Report also recommended that the U.S. government “should support creation of a dedicated initiative for civil society to offer a parallel VNR that highlights the needs and priorities of communities that are most impacted by gaps in SDG efforts. Findings from this process can feed into the setting of national priorities and reinforce the reporting advanced by the U.S. government.” [13]

The Open Government Partnership in the U.N. and the U.S.

In 2011, the U.S. government helped launch the Open Government Partnership at the U.N. General Assembly. [14] As part of its membership in the OGP, the U.S. has submitted five National Action Plans. Its fifth plan submitted in December 2022 and covering the period 2022-2024 states that its themes include:


• Improve Access to Government Data, Research, and Information • Increase Civic Space to Engage the Public • Transform Government Service Delivery • Counter Corruption and Ensure Government Integrity and Accountability to the Public • Ensure Equal Justice Under the Law [15]


Nowhere in the National Action Plan are the SDGs mentioned, although many of the actions and activities fall squarely within the ambit of the SDGs. If the U.S. government can take the time to prepare this plan, which acknowledges some of the inadequacies and failings, why can’t it produce a VNR? Given the resources available to it, the number of existing reports and plans, the options to foster cooperation and participation, as well as its stated commitments to human rights and democracy, it makes no sense for the U.S. to avoid creating a VNR.


In the current geopolitical environment, the one thing that the world has agreed and continues to agree on are the SDGs. For example, during the pandemic, scientific communities around the globe worked closely together to find ways to deal with COVID-19 and at the same time, reach SDG 3. Supporting the SDGs provides a great opportunity for the US to demonstrate that it agrees on core common issues with other countries. Refusing to take concrete steps in support of the SDGs sends the wrong message. It contradicts the perception of American exceptionalism, defined as the idea that the U.S. is “a unique and even morally superior country for historical, ideological, or religious reasons. Proponents of American exceptionalism generally pair the belief with the claim that the United States is obligated to play a special role in global politics.” [16]


Failing to commit to preparing a VNR is a missed opportunity for the U.S. to demonstrate its exceptionalism, its ability to lead by example, and its commitment to human rights, democracy, and the SDGs. If it continues to refuse to present a VNR, to its detriment the U.S. could instead be identified with the other four countries who have not created a VNR, and become known by the company it keeps, rather than the a country to which others should look to for leadership and exceptionalism.


Footnotes

[1] H. Dubrow, “You are known by the company you keep.” https://www.livin3.com/the-company-you-keep-quotes

[2] See https://www.progressingsdgs.org/seventh-edition-2022 which contains a link to a video of the proceedings, highlights and the report of the proceedings, as well as a power point presentation.

[3] In 2022, 11 countries submitted their first VNR, 28 submitted their second VNRs, 3 submitted their third VNR and two submitted their fourth VNR.

[4] These countries are: Bahrain, Barbados, Belgium, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Brunei Darussalam, Burkina Fasso, Cambodia, Canada, Central African Republic, Comoros, Chile, Croatia, Democratic Republic of the Congo, the European Union, Fiji, France, Guyana, Iceland, Ireland, Kuwait, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Maldives, Mongolia, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Rwanda, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, Slovakia, St. Kitts & Nevis, Syrian Arab Republic, Tajikistan, Timor-Leste, Turkmenistan, United Republic of Tanzania, Uzbekistan, Venezuela, Viet Nam and Zambia.

[6] These are: New York, Los Angeles, Hawai’i, Pittsburgh and Orlando. See pages 15-17, The State of the Sustainable Development Goals in the United States, https://www.brookings.edu/research/the-state-of-the-sustainable-development-goals-in-the-united-states/

[9] Paragraph 80, 2030 Agenda on Sustainable Development, https://sdgs.un.org/2030agenda.

[10] Cordell, K and Li, C, It’s Time for the United States to Reengage with the SDGs, Starting with SDG 16, Center for Strategic & International Studies, published on 12 April 2021, at https://www.csis.org/analysis/its-time-united-states-reengage-sdgs-starting-sdg-16

[12] Cordell, K and Li, C, It’s Time for the United States to Reengage with the SDGs, Starting with SDG 16, Center for Strategic & International Studies, published on 12 April 2021, at https://www.csis.org/analysis/its-time-united-states-reengage-sdgs-starting-sdg-16

[13] Pages 19 and 21, The State of the Sustainable Development Goals in the United States, https://www.brookings.edu/research/the-state-of-the-sustainable-development-goals-in-the-united-states/

[16] https://www.britannica.com/topic/American-exceptionalism, entry written by Adam Volle, fact checked by The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, last updated on 6 February 2023.

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