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This year Sweden is preparing its second Voluntary National Review (VNR) submission to the UN High-Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development (HLPF) 2021, at the same time four Swedish cities are preparing Voluntary Local Reviews (VLRs). On January 19th, Global Utmaning was invited by the Swedish Ministry for Foreign Affairs to participate in a virtual study trip to Finland to learn from the Finnish experience of preparing a VNR and VLRs. During the study trip, Global Utmaning facilitated two sessions for peer-learning between Swedish and Finnish cities on the VLR process.
VNR is a process through which countries assess and present progress made in achieving the UN SDGs and the pledge to leave no one behind. The purpose of VNRs is to present a snapshot of where the country stands in the SDG implementation, with a view to help accelerate progress through experience sharing, peer-learning, identifying gaps and good practices, and mobilizing partnerships.
VNR results are reported to the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UN DESA) and discussed yearly at the UN High-Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development (HLPF). While VNRs are built on an existing mechanism and guidelines, VLRs can be conducted on a more open basis. The VLR process is designed after different local contexts. The VLR serves as a tool to build sustainable and multisectoral processes within cities. Realisations of national commitments often depend on local engagement, as such performing a VLR is a great way to connect the local to the global agenda towards a more sustainable future.
In 2020, Finland presented its second VNR to the UN HLPF. A huge effort was put into the whole VNR-process such as consultations with a broad range of stakeholders and peer-learning with other countries. As Sweden will be presenting its second VNR at the HLPF 2021, learnings from the Finnish experience are of great relevance.
The study trip was organized by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Sweden and in Finland. Global Utmaning was responsible for two workshops focusing on knowledge exchange between Finnish cities that have conducted VLRs (Helsinki, Espoo and Turku) and Swedish cities preparing VLRs for 2021 (Malmö, Helsingborg, Stockholm and Uppsala). Key outcomes and lessons learned from the VLR sessions are presented below.
A shared experience was the misjudgment of the timeframe for the VLR. The amount of material and data turned out to be more extensive than they had planned for, resulting in a prolonged VLR process. Adhering to the original deadlines became a challenge. Cities looking to prepare a VLR process were advised to have a time buffer, since it is very likely to underestimate the amount of work that the VLR demands. To increase the chances of adhering to the deadline, one should begin with translations and layouts early in the process, since they also took longer than expected. It is important to be aware that VLRs are conducted on an already tight schedule. At a first glance it might be understood as a weakness. However, the VLR could save cities time if its findings are used for other purposes and informs the strategic development of the city.
An obstacle emerging in the research phase of the VLR process was the selection of relevant indicators to use. The abundance of existing indicators demanded cities to do a thorough limitation on which indicators and data points to include in the VLR. This is a very time consuming task. Ville Taajamaa, representative from the city of Espoo, suggested it is preferable to go back to the selection criterias of indicators and data points more than once during the VLR process to narrow down the selection to include in the VLR even further. It will facilitate the overall structure of the VLR. Cities can also benefit from correlating city objectives to SDG indicators – to build a common platform to refer to when conducting VLRs. It will be less time consuming.
Use well known concepts
Another necessity to improve overall structure and communication of the VLR is to use well known concepts and vocabulary, such as Agenda 2030 and UN SDGs. VLRs provide an opportunity to incorporate SDGs into everything the city does. All Finnish cities agreed the VLR helped them visualize the synergies between local goals and priorities and the SDGs. An SDG connection will also simplify the access of the material to others.
Design the VLR after your city
There is no single way to perform a VLR. VLR is a localized process and differs from city to city. Be brave and make sure to do a process that suits your city and your needs. That is the best way to serve the global agenda. To formulate a clear focus of the review will also facilitate the process. There is no need to focus on all SDGs, choose the ones that are most relevant for you. Also make sure to not have “too many chefs in the kitchen” – as one Finnish representative noted. Sometimes it will be necessary to say no, in order to stay on your lane. When designing a VLR, structure is the key. With VLR’s imprecise design, cities will gain from creating a strong leadership and ownership from the beginning. In Helsinki, the SDG work is owned by the mayor, which facilitates the organisation. It may be preferable to have a clear umbrella structure, in that way you can go back and navigate right.
During the workshops, discussions regarding the level of honesty in the reports and how honest they should be emerged. From cities who still have not executed their VLR, concerns were raised of a future scenario of being criticized if presenting weak VLR results. Cities were asking themselves if they are willing to expose both their successes and challenges for others to judge. Transparency was highlighted as a key necessity by the Finnish cities who already had prepared VLRs – without transparency it becomes impossible to identify priorities and actions going forward. The VLR clarifies for cities what is already achieved and what needs to be done, which will be very useful to be aware of when developing future city strategies. To increase transparency, Helsinki will create a website to publish their process which will be available to the public.
Involvement of stakeholders
The Finnish cities emphasize the importance of involving different actors and stakeholders at an early stage of the process. In that way their needs will be noted and incorporated in the VLR and helps develop a more inclusive review. As a city, it is also important to listen to your citizens and include them in the process.
Peer-learning is an asset
Peer-learning opportunities, both national and international, in the work with VLR is a success factor. The cities who have done a VLR are experts on the topic. Take advantage of your peers and seek cooperation with cities who share your commitment to the VLR process and learn from each other. The similarities shared by the Nordic countries creates a unique opportunity to really learn from each other. To increase learning outcomes of VLRs, a creation of a horizontal network would be an advantage. However, when communicating your VLR to others it is preferable to adapt and compress the material. Minimize content regarding the specific city and focus on communicating what worked and what did not work. This will enhance the practical usefulness of the report.
VLR is an investment for the future
The first time conducting a VLR will be a big project. However, it is an asset for long term local SDG thinking, a mechanism set up to be used for the future. At an early stage, the Finnish cities realized they wanted to do a VLR on a repeating basis. They emphasized the importance of continuity. A VLR should not only be executed once, instead make up a plan for how to incorporate it in the future work. VLR is a guiding document and a guiding process. The Finnish cities now have a clearer picture of their cities’ strengths and weaknesses, which they can form a strategy around. The VLR also improved the cities’ overall indicator structure. For the next report in 2022, they will be more prepared and the finished product will be of even better quality. VLR is a never ending learning process, where knowledge is exchanged both vertically and horizontally. It encourages cooperation between cities to learn from each other. The VLR should be understood as an inspiration. The relation between VLR and VNR is also a zero friction relation with no hierarchies. They do not compete against each other, they serve the same goal. Therefore, a VLR is not only valuable to the local level but also to the national level.
To strengthen and clarify the linkage between national and local levels, VLR poses an improvement opportunity. When looking forward, a deepened peer-learning linkage between Nordic countries would be highly useful. At a national level, Nordic countries would benefit from creating a Nordic VLR platform. In addition, global peer-learning processes is another suggestion on how to take VLR work to the next level.
Differences within cities
A recurring question was how to deal with statistical differences within cities. While some districts might perform well in indicators, not everybody is facing the same reality. How to include segregational factors in the VLR remains an issue. Future solutions in finding a good balance between looking at city and district levels is yet to be presented.
Long term motivation
While participants initially were excited to the idea of carrying out a VLR, they became aware of fluctuations in motivation levels during the process. They realized it is a big step from talking to doing. The heavy work temporarily lowered teams’ motivation during the process. A remaining question is how to keep up motivation and create meaningful long term work throughout the VLR process. Perhaps the positive outcomes of others’ processes could partially act as a long term motivational tool.
Lately, the EU, UN and international organisations have shown increased interest in the VLR process and have begun to systemize its implementation by developing toolkits and methods to support VLR processes. To date, three key documents exists to support VLRs: Global Guiding Elements for Voluntary Local Reviews (VLRs) of SDG implementation by the UN-DESA who have the formal mandate to coordinate both VNR and VLR; Guidelines for Voluntary Local Reviews developed jointly by UN-Habitat and UCLG; and the European Handbook on local reporting on the SDGs by the The European Commission’s Joint Research Centre.
Tilde Karlsson, Intern at Global Utmaning
Projektledare Sweden Local2030 Hub
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Omslagsbild Vadim Morozov på Unsplash