Let’s make this a multiple choice question.
1. The country has English at its official language.
2. The country has won at least one Gold Medal in the Summer Olympics.
3. The country has placed a man on the moon.
4. The country has at least one university ranked in the top 10 Global Rankings by U.S. News & World Report.
5. The country has not published a Voluntary National Review.
If you picked (5) you got it right! Even if you don’t have any idea what a Voluntary National Review (VNR) is. So let me explain. In 2015 the United Nations adopted 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) “as a universal call to action to end poverty, protect the planet, and ensure that by 2030 all people enjoy peace and prosperity.” These goals are interlinked with each other and “recognize that action in one area will affect outcomes in others, and that development must balance social, economic and environmental sustainability.” Furthermore, “The creativity, knowhow, technology, and financial resources from all of society is necessary to achieve the SDGs in every context.” The U.S. supported the adoption of the SDGs and “played a central role in shaping these benchmarks, joining all the world’s countries in adopting them in 2015.”
Panama City/Panama, October 18, 2018: The Global Goals displayed in Spanish on the windows at Panama … [+]
Before discussing the U.S. I’d like to cut some slack for the other countries in this group. According to the Fragile States Index Yemen ranks 1st, South Sudan 3rd, Myanmar 10th, and Haiti 11th. A barely existing country probably doesn’t have the time and resources to produce a VNR.
That excuse doesn’t apply to the U.S. It is certainly ranked highly in terms of “creativity, knowhow, technology, and financial resources.” On the last point, it is the largest country in the world in terms of GDP. It is also worth noting that 65 percent of the market cap of the world’s largest 100 companies are U.S. ones ($20.55 trillion). On the investor side, seven of the top 10 asset management firms and 13 of the top 20 are U.S. firms. In the top five are BlackRock, Vanguard, Fidelity, and State Street Global Advisors. Together they account for nearly 25 percent of global assets under management (AUM). Stating the obvious, it will be very difficult to achieve the SDGs without strong U.S. support.
Which gets us to the VNRs. These are “regular and inclusive reviews of progress at the national and sub-national levels, which are country-led and country-driven” (paragraph 79)” which “aim to facilitate the sharing of experiences, including successes, challenges and lessons learned, with a view to accelerating the implementation of the 2030 Agenda.” They are presented to the High Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development which is “is the main United Nations platform on sustainable development and it has a central role in the follow-up and review of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).”
Woman hands holding piece of cardboard with words Volunteers Needed against brick wall background.
So how very strange that the U.S., Haiti, Myanmar, South Sudan, and Yemen are the only countries which have not presented a VNR to date. And they won’t be presenting in 2023 either. Here are the countries that are: Bahrain, Barbados, Belgium, Bosnia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Brunei Darussalam, Burkina Faso, Cambodia, Canada, Fiji, France, Guyana, Iceland, Ireland, Kuwait, Lichtenstein, Lithuania, Maldives, Mongolia, Oman, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, Slovakia, St Kitts & Nevis, Syrian Arab Republic, Tajikistan, Timor-Leste, Turkmenistan, United Republic of Tanzania, Uzbekistan, Venezuela, Vietnam, and Zambia. Two of these will be doing so for the first time, 39 for the second time, and one for the third time.
Look. I’m not naïve. The credibility and sincerity of some of these countries, and other ones which have already presented, are clear. But I really have to wonder about some of the others. Consider the list of those presenting next year. Freedom House ranks 210 countries in terms of people’s access to political rights and civil liberties. Nine of these countries are rated Not Free (Bahrain, Brunei Darussalam, Cambodia, Syrian Arab Republic, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Venezuela, and Vietnam). Seven are Partly Free (Bosnia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Burkina Faso, Fiji, Kuwait, Maldives, and Tanzania). All of these countries rank poorly in the Sustainable Development Goals Report. Reflecting my global geographical ignorance I’ve never heard of St Kitts & Nevis (population of 40,000) or Timor-Leste (population of 1.9 million and recognized as a country by the U.S. in 2002).
I haven’t looked at the VNRs of any of these countries so I can’t judge their quality. My prior going in is that it’s hard to believe a country ranked Partly Free or Not Free is producing a credible VNR. Of course, I could be wrong. These countries may see the SDGs as a more apolitical means for making improvements in their country since they have the backing of the UN which provides them some cover.
Beautiful Nature Norway natural landscape aerial photography.
I did look at the very informative 124 page 2021 VNR for Norway. It is well done and informative. In her Opening Statement Prime Minister Erna Solberg notes that “We identify our positive results and point out where we have not yet succeeded. Our ambition is to learn from the past and plan for the future. Norway ranks high on the SDG index. But we, too, have challenges to resolve.” Norway ranks fourth behind, in order, Finland, Denmark, and Sweden. Not a surprising list. The United States ranks 41st, right behind Cuba but ahead of Bulgaria. Russia ranks 45th and China 56th.
Norway’s VNR clearly lays out its methodology and explains how it was created based on input from government, civil society, and the private sector. It notes that “The private sector plays a key role in realising the 2030 Agenda. Through their investments, the private sector mobilises financing for the creation of vigorous businesses that contribute innovation, technology, knowledge and experience that can solve our societal challenges.”
For each SDG there is a government assessment of progress since 2016 and challenges to be met. There is also a civil society assessment which is, again not surprisingly, generally more negative. Civil society provides an overall score of positive, stagnant, or negative. There are no positive trends and six negative ones (#1 No Poverty, #10 Reduced Inequalities, #11 Sustainable Cities and Communities, #12 Responsible Production and Consumption, #14 Life Below Water, and #15 Life On Land).
In its Conclusion, the report notes that “Knowledge about the 2030 Agenda and the goals is increasing in the public and private sector. The number of networks that have been established in recent years to work with the 2030 Agenda and the SDGs, illustrates the increasing interest and engagement in implementing the goals.”
Politician of European Union signing sanction termination, congratulates partner
To be honest, I’m not really sure what to make of the fact that the U.S. hasn’t published a VNR although the Brookings Institution has recently recommended that it do so. I’m aware of the fact that the U.S. hasn’t signed on to certain international conventions or has signed them but they haven’t been ratified. The U.S. is also not a member of the International Criminal Court (ICC) which was created in under its founding treaty, the Rome Statute, from which it gets its authority. There are 123 member states which have signed onto it. “The US participated in the negotiations that led to the creation of the court. However, in 1998 the US was one of only seven countries – along with China, Iraq, Israel, Libya, Qatar, and Yemen – that voted against the Rome Statute.” I’m not an expert on any of the conventions the U.S. hasn’t signed onto so maybe there’s a good reason.
On the flip side, the U.S. is a signatory to a number of international treaties and conventions. The latter includes the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights; the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination; the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment,;and the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. Under President Obama, the U.S. signed the Paris Agreement, “a legally binding international treaty on climate change.” At the end of his term in office President Trump withdrew the U.S. from this agreement. On his first day in office President Biden signed the U.S. back in. When it comes to climate, there is nothing surprising about how the two parties have approached this agreement.
Climate change and American flag in two directions on road sign. Withdrawal of climatic agreement.
The SDGs are not legally binding. They are not a treaty or a convention. They are a form of “soft law” that depends upon voluntary consent. They were endorsed by all 193 member states of the UN in 2015, when Obama was still president. When Trump became President, they were no doubt a low priority—assuming he even knew of their existence—but there was nothing formal to withdraw from. The first VNRs were presented in 2019 so the work would have to have been done during his term in office. The next reviews will be presented in 2023. It seems to me that a country with the resources of the U.S. should be able to meet this deadline since Biden became President in 2020. It is certainly keeping odd company in not doing so.
I have no idea who has the authority in the U.S. government to decide to produce a VNR. Perhaps the issue is simply one of bureaucratic complexity and uncertainty about who should be or can be responsible for conducting such a review. It is easy to speculate about the likelihood of a 2027 VNR from the U.S. depending on what happens in the next election. But this speculation could be wrong.
A beautiful, young Weimaraner with his head cocked to the side isolated on a white background.
Given my puzzlement about this let me end with three questions.
1. Why hasn’t the U.S. published a VNR?
2. Is it important for the U.S. to publish a VNR or not?
3. If the answer is “Yes,” what needs to be done to make this happen?