Setting the Scene: Breaking Down or Breaking Through

COVID-19 laid bare the severe and deep-seated socio-economic and political inequalities dominating societies globally. In a world already troubled by corruption, unrest, and violence; an erosion of the rule of law, media freedoms, the integrity of information ecosystems; diminishing civic space, and a trust deficit in public and private institutions, the pandemic put into stark relief such systemic injustices, calling for a new social contract.

However, now two years since the outbreak of COVID-19, more than half a million people die from violence each year, 1.5 billion people still have legal problems they can’t solve, fewer people globally trust public institutions, and an estimated 1.6 billion informal economy workers have lost their capacity to earn a decent living.

As noted by UN Secretary-General Guterres’s 2021 Common Agenda, We are at an inflection point in history. In our biggest shared test since the Second World War, humanity faces a stark and urgent choice: a breakdown or a breakthrough.

In confronting global realities, the Common Agenda sets forth 12 commitments, with several overarching calls to action, including a renewed social contract between governments and societies, anchored in human rights, and designed to make the changes that people want to see in their daily lives.  

Embedded within this call as well as across the 12 commitments set forth in the Common Agenda are SDG targets and principles, interlinked with our Sustainable Development Goals as part of the larger 2030 Agenda.

In echoing this urgent call to action and with less than ten years left on the 2030 Agenda, this course hopes to humbly contribute to collective efforts to effectively address global inequalities and sustainably build more peace, just and inclusive societies.

Overarching Objective

This module seeks to practically support the work behind advancing more peaceful, just, and inclusive societies through Sustainable Development Goal 16 (SDG 16) of the 2030 Agenda.

It does so by offering guidance and good practices on how the Voluntary National Review (VNR) can be best used to advance and accelerate SDG 16 implementation at national and subnational levels, which is ultimately where peaceful, just and inclusive societies will be achieved.

This course approaches the VNR as a tool for strengthened SDG implementation and impact across actors and institutions.

In supporting a whole-of-government and a whole-of-society approach, policy and programmatic coherence, coordination, and partnership – vertically and horizontally within and across stakeholder groups — are emphasized. To this end, the case is made for broad inclusion in, and ownership of, the VNR and post-VNR process.

Finally, attention is placed on linking VNR processes with NDPs and strategies, as well as to other relevant frameworks, including human rights reporting, to streamline implementation, avoid duplication, and meet multiple objectives.

What are some of its Key Findings and Messages?

SDG Coordination Mechanisms and linking to National Development Plans, Strategies and Priorities

SDG Coordinating Bodies and Structures bring together government institutions and incorporate the SDGs into integrated policies, and corresponding budget lines, with actions attributable to the responsible ministries, departments and agencies, including in terms of SDG 16 and related priorities. They can also systematically incorporate other stakeholders, such as National Human Rights Institutions (NHRIs) and civil society. As such, well-functioning coordination structures are, in and of themselves, a means of SDG 16 implementation.
Post-VNR processes can and should be used to translate SDG 16-specific VNR commitments and findings into national action.

  • Where possible, follow-up should be tied to national development plans (NDPs), national dialogues and/or sector strategies, with a focus on aligning SDG 16-related government programmes and projects with those implemented by civil society.
  • This helps mainstream implementation, consolidate multi-stakeholder processes, and better capture progress.

Government Oversight and Stakeholder Engagement – Practicing a Whole-of-Government and a Whole-of-Society Approach

Related to accountability, this module highlights the role of Parliaments and Supreme Audit Institutions (SAIs) – from government audits on SDG preparation and implementation to parliamentary committees ‘reporting back’ on a government’s VNR and integrating the SDGs into the work of parliament .

  • Whether related to strengthening institutions, increasing access to decision-making, reducing corruption, or supporting the rule of law, oversight bodies are directly relevant to SDG 16 implementation.
  • Acknowledgement of their role and unfulfilled potential in supporting VNR processes is growing.

Fundamental to accountability and a whole-of-society approach, meaningful and diverse civil society participation in VNR processes not only reflects inclusive and effective governance and decision-making, but also helps to ensure that SDG 16-related components of a VNR are taken forward.

  • Particularly relevant amidst shrinking civic space, civil society engagement should be prioritized in VNR design, delivery, and follow-up.

Other important stakeholders include academia and research institutions (especially in terms of monitoring and reporting), the media and journalists (in terms of accountability, awareness-raising and access to information), and the private sector.

Leave No One Behind

A foundational tenet of the 2030 Agenda, the promise to “Leave No One Behind” (LNOB), highlights the importance of inclusion, engagement, and impact from the ground up.

However, analysis of the 2021 VNRs indicates that reporting on LNOB continues to lag behind, highlighting the need for much more comprehensive and systemic approaches to realizing this fundamental objective of the 2030 Agenda.

In advancing LNOB:

  • Civil society at all levels plays a key role in supporting those most at risk of being left behind by filling data gaps, supporting and/or providing relevant policy and programming, and advocating for groups not otherwise seen or heard.
  • Local and Regional Governments also play a significant role in advancing LNOB.

Localization and Ownership: Listening and Engaging from the Community-level Up

Local and regional governments (LRGs), with strong, democratic, and accountable institutions, are prerequisites for achieving SDG 16. National governments have stressed that they cannot tackle the 2030 Agenda alone, and that all SDGs have targets directly related to the responsibilities of local and regional governments.

  • Voluntary Sub-national Reviews (VSRs) and Voluntary Local Reviews (VLRs) are particularly useful tools in the localization process.

In addition to LRGs, localizing SDG 16+ more broadly speaks to the critical importance of meaningfully engaging civil society and non-state leaders and stakeholders, at various levels of governance, in order to ground SDG 16 and the VNR in lived realities and impact.

  • Particularly now as communities around the world continue to struggle with the CoronaVirus, it is critical to focus on localizing SDG 16 through the VNR and related local and regional reporting.

Data and Maximizing Related Reporting Mechanisms

Data continues to challenge tracking SDG 16 progress, with both coverage and the quality of data available for SDG 16 and related targets being impacted.

Such challenges also present an entry point for civil society and other stakeholders to collect and disaggregate data, as well as monitor and report, providing a more robust assessment of progress.

Data can also provide a useful path into leveraging similar frameworks and reporting cycles for strengthened SDG 16 implementation, particularly human rights reporting mechanisms.

  • Linking the VNR with related reporting and review mechanisms and frameworks not only allows for greater policy coherence, coordination, and impact, but also broadens the number of stakeholders engaged and makes better use of data generated by National Statistical Offices (NSOs) and other data sources.
  • To this end, data collected by civil society can then be validated or used by NSOs, a process that saves resources and empowers civil society organizations.

Particularly in a global pandemic, greater coherence, communication, and collaboration are required among NSOs, UN custodian agencies, NHRIs, civil society, and other data providers to better monitor SDG 16 at global, national, and local levels.

Financing and Partnerships

Greater focus needs to be placed on solutions to financing gaps facing governments, civil society, and other stakeholders.

Political and financial investments are critical to accelerating progress on SDG 16, with development agencies, international financial institutions and international organizations having a fundamental role to play.

Multi-donor funding schemes and a greater use of innovative, institutional partnerships, in addition to Official Development Assistance (ODA), to support programmes and policies that address both the pandemic, as well SDG 16 related priorities and targets, will be critical to supporting the underlying systems and social cohesion required to “build back better”.

Further, standardizing a global approach to mapping ODA to the SDGs or their respective targets that allows for comparable monitoring may help in future alignment and prioritization of support as reflected in VNRs and NDPs. This may be particularly true for SDG 16 as an enabler of all other SDGs.

A country’s VNR, as linked to an NDP, including revised NDPs, and based on inclusive, multi-stakeholder processes, offers direction in how to best support SDG 16 implementation at national and subnational levels, including as related to COVID-19.

Strengthening VNR Design and the Decade of Action and Accountability

When designing the VNR process, immediate next steps should be identified, such as reporting back to parliament and/or the media about the VNR, as well as longer-term implementation.

Similarly, issues related to budget allocation and SDG data should be addressed both during and post-VNR. Actions not directly related to the VNR should also be considered, including peer reviews or a performance audit.

Looking Forward: Opportunities for Action in the Decades of Action and Accountability

In a COVID-19 world, the UN, all governments, and all partners need to come and stay the course together. The Decade of Action and Decade of Accountability launched in 2020 are rallying calls for more collaborative and innovative action, political mobilization, and investment, particularly at national and local levels.

Particularly given COVID-19’s impact on societies globally, SDG 16 implementation, through the VNR process, and otherwise, needs increased and re-focused efforts. To this end, the SDG16+ community of 40 countries and over 100 partners is committed to meeting the aspirations set out in the SDG16+ targets for peaceful, just, and inclusive societies, with SDG 16 as an enabler of the entire 2030 Agenda.

Supporting the larger SDG 16+ community, the SDG 16+ Coalition is a diverse, multi-stakeholder group of key global initiatives committed to realizing SDG 16 at all levels, with a focus on local and national-level implementation.

Coalition members include:

Opportunities for engagement, either in-person or virtually, include:


In addition, the SDG 16 Hub is a one-stop platform for knowledge and exchange on peace, justice, and inclusive societies, designed to provide an interactive space to foster knowledge sharing and learning on SDG 16, including with a page dedicated to COVID-19 and SDG 16. It is recommended to sign in as a member to the SDG 16 Hub to access all the resources.

Going Forward

In a briefing note to the 2021 EGM, the SDG 16+ Coalition articulated a seven-point midterm strategy on SDG 16+ implementation. Central to this strategy is national and local action, from a dedicated section on LNOB in all VNRs to increased political leadership, partnerships to accelerate implementation and strengthen capacity, and data to monitor national responses to COVID-19.

At a time of systems breakdown across the world, this course aims to practically contribute to such action, particularly at national and subnational levels, to advance more peaceful, just, and inclusive societies where people need to feel that change the most.


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