Every year, during the High-Level Political Forum (HLPF) in New York, the United Nations and Member States review the achievements towards the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), with a specific set of goals under scrutiny.
The 2019 HLPF last month was particularly important for education civil society organizations as SDG 4 on education was reviewed for the first time, along with 5 other goals.
In a nutshell, as this HLPF closed the first phase of reviews since the adoption of the SDGs in 2015, it offered a great opportunity to reflect on the processes, and the adequate participation of all the stakeholders. Civil society as a whole agreed that a major reform was needed to allow for more meaningful engagement in the official discussions.
In the meantime, CSOs will continue to convene or participate in the numerous side events to raise their voices during future forums, and to produce and disseminate well-researched alternative reports to balance the official Voluntary National Review presentation.
The 2019 HLPF also acknowledged very strongly the place for youth in policy making, and the progress was visible at the States’ level with many young representatives being part of the official delegations.
From a policy perspective, education was confirmed as central to the realisation of all the other SDGs, and innovative propositions focused on fair taxation were highlighted as preferred solutions to address the need to finance the SDGs.
An official space under constraints
The first week of HLPF focused on the thematic review of the 6 selected SDGs. During the official sessions, civil society is allowed to participate through the Major Groups and other Stakeholders (MGoS), which are given the opportunity to deliver 2 minute statements, declarations or ask questions. It is up to the moderator to allocate more or less time to MGoS or State representatives.
Despite the challenges, among the highlights of this year’s edition, the Global Campaign for Education’s (GCE) vice-president Madeleine Zúñiga was chosen as the representative of the Education & Academia Stakeholder Group (EASG, one of the MGoS) and as a lead discussant during the official SDG 4 review. She made a powerful statement on the transformative power of education that was met with loud applause from all. Robert Napier from the European Students Union (ESU) also had the opportunity to comment on education and inequalities on behalf of the EASG.
Evaluation by countries of their progress towards the goals, called voluntary national reviews (VNRs), took place during the second week. VNRs are intended to be participatory and inclusive of national stakeholders such as civil society in the preparatory phase. Several States followed this process and invited civil society or youth representatives to join them and present their report on stage, like Ghana.
The Ghana National Education Campaign Coalition (GNECC) mentioned that "The highlight of the VNR process was the effective collaboration between civil society and government prior to and during the presentation of the voluntary national report."
The presentation of the VNRs itself is designed as a "participatory discussion" allowing for statements or comments from other States, UN representatives and civil society; but, unfortunately, due to time restrictions, civil society was only able to give two minute statements about the VNRs of up to 4 States.
As Magaly Avilla from Foro por el Derecho a la Educación Pública, Chile, stated "Although the Chilean government presented its National Voluntary Report for the second time, civil society organizations were not consulted during the preparation of this document. During the HLPF, we worked with representatives of the Major Groups to incorporate in the statement inquiries into the criminalization of students in Chile; the lack of priority in the financing of public education; the implementation and monitoring of the National Human Rights Plan; the guarantee of inclusion of sexual and reproductive education in school curricula to reduce the pregnancy of girls; and the elimination of a gender perspective program of the Ministry of Health."
Side events: an opportunity for meaningful discussions
One key learning for civil society participation in the HLPF is to find other spaces besides the official sessions for better advocacy opportunities and substantive discussions. The numerous side events during the two weeks of the Forum are a great example of the vibrancy of civil society. Education was on the agenda of many intersectoral discussions, from the scientific community, higher education, early childhood, inclusive education or lifelong learning point of views.
“We had the opportunity to hear from experts in the fields of inclusive education and early childhood development for children with disabilities, the Right to Education Index, Voluntary National Reviews of education in a variety of countries, and on building stronger education systems to resist the threat of privatization. Each session tackled a unique perspective on the push for SDG 4. Yet, principles of inclusion, quality, and equity were common priorities across the remarks of panelists and audience members alike” said Jennifer of GCE-US.
In the evening, the Education & Academia Stakeholder Group led a side event with Manos Antoninis, Director of UNESCO GEM report, and Sylvia Montoya Director of UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS) as guest speakers. The debate around “Strengthening public education systems” started by debunking some myths around financing for education.
“The developing countries lose $500 billion a year through tax dodging - with adequate tax systems there would be enough funds for education” said Katarina Popovic from ICAE.
Regarding the development of artificial intelligence in classrooms she clarified that: “No application can replace a teacher - Education is not just about passing a test but forming citizens and critical thinking”.
Other issues raised included the need for better data, the “concerning trend of profit-making private actors who intervene in the production of education content increasingly encroaching on the right to education and leading to exploitation of teachers” (Antonia Wulff, EI). Manos Antoninis, GEM report, added that: "To ensure the right to education to population on the move we need to focus on content, teacher training, and financing.”
Challenging the States with spotlight reports for greater accountability
CSOs can also engage with the process by writing and disseminating “spotlight reports”, which are alternative reports on the status of achievement of the SDGs that often challenge the official review.
Participating in the official process doesn’t prevent CSOs to work on their own report like GNECC for example: “Civil society organizations in Ghana participated actively in the entire process at country level and presented a shadow report on the voluntary national review [...]. GNECC also developed a spotlight report highlighting the mixed progress being made by Ghana in terms of education delivery and the need for stronger measures to address poor learning outcomes and increasing inequality in education.”
This year, CSOs produced many spotlight reports, at the national or regional level, all agreeing that States need to step up their efforts and investments in order to deliver on SDG 4 by 2030.
Among the areas of concerns, several CSOs pointed out the growing trend towards privatization of education, its impact on accelerating inequalities and diminishing workers’ rights and human rights, and the difficulty in achieving target SDG 4.7 in a context of weakening of the democratic space and decreasing States accountability.
“The socio-economic and political context in Guatemala is unfavorable with large tax evasions and impunity. The educational demand grows, but, due to weak tax collection, it is not attended by the state, giving way to accelerated privatization of this public good” said Victor Cristales from Colectivo de Educación para todas y todos de Guatemala.
A place for youth
This year’s ministerial segment was deemed the most inclusive of youth and children’s voices to date. Several events had a specific focus on the inclusion of youth and children or with youth as a partner in achieving the SDGs, such as the UNESCO panel discussion on “Relevant, equitable and inclusive quality education for all: an imperative for the 21st century”.
Youth have found their place at the highest level, and this is not debated anymore. The UN-wide Local 2030 network was facilitating an event highlighting examples of positive outcomes happening when space and tools are provided for young leaders.
This year the HLPF coincided with World Youth Skills Day, and young advocates from around the world participated in events. The emphasis was put on the need to change the structures so youth can engage in solving their own problems, and on the importance of lifelong learning to lower the number of unemployed, of which young people represent a huge share. Youth participation in these events is a win-win: they bring their knowledge and solutions, and bring home new knowledge and new ways of learning.
Assessing impact and moving forward
The common feedback shared during the GCE Caucus, which gathered around 40 civil society representatives, was the limited space for civil society participation throughout the official sessions, and the need to work ahead with States in order to achieve better impact.
From a policy perspective, working in a more holistic context (from early childhood to adult education) and strengthening intersectoral partnerships were identified as a way forward.
Most of the participants acknowledged the value of HLPF as a great opportunity to network and share ideas. “It was a rewarding experience to share with other organizations, which are working to strengthen public education and especially for social justice” said Magaly Avilla, Foro por el Derecho a la Educación Pública, Chile.
We can also echo the words from Maggie Kern (Light for the World) “In summary, attending the HLPF is a wonderful way to meet new allies for inclusion or get new people on board the inclusion bus. However, I also saw that there is still a long way to go until the ‘Leave No One Behind’ principle of the SDGs is fully realized.”
As Madeleine Zúñiga put it “We are convinced that education is a powerful instrument to transform lives and, therefore, transform the world, but not any education, but that which is an instrument of sustainable development, social justice, authentically democratic societies, global citizenship, the culture of peace that the whole world requires. A quality education that assumes the multiple dimensions of diversity to design models and strategies that are relevant to the characteristics of different societies but, in particular, focused on people and their dignity.”
Authors: Maryline Mangenot with contributions from Astrid Schmidt, Luis Eduardo Perez Murcia, GCE-US, GNECC, Magaly Avilla, Victor Cristales, Light for the World.