Guest blog: SDG 5 and the HLPF process - just singing and dancing in circles or actually moving?

Guest blog from Gabriele Köhler, independent researcher, UNRISD senior research associate and board member, Women Engage for a Common Future.
The HLPF process has come under critique for being an insiders’ airbrushing exercise. So the question is: what is the normative role and impact of the 2030 Agenda? Is there any real pressure from a UN document which after all is now a few years old now, was elaborated by more progressive governments, does not get ratified in parliaments, and is not binding? Is it all just fancy but futile song and dance?
Well, a number of countries have actually used the 2030 Agenda and its more narrow set of SDGs to influence their domestic policy frameworks. One intriguing case in point is Germany – one of the GDP-richest economies in the world and, for this year and next, in a rotating seat at the Security Council, with an internationally-projected  positive image as the country of the Energiewende (energy shift to renewables), and one of the protagonists of feminist foreign policy.
Germany in 2016 was in the first batch of countries to present a country report to the HLPF – a clever move, as one could not expect much implementation so soon after the adoption of the 2030 Agenda. The country then cast its national sustainable development strategy in the SDG-mould, selecting many of the 169 SDG targets to guide & measure policy making. This German sustainable development strategy was peer-reviewed by a panel comprising experts from the global South and North, and is administratively subjected to a complex monitoring architecture, involving an advisory council in the German parliament as well as an inter-ministerial task force, assigned to follow up on strategy commitments and push its evolution. Several Länder (states), too, have adopted sustainability strategies. A considerable number of municipalities signed on to a commitment to implement the SDGs, and a few are working on dedicated city-level sustainability plans.
So, from a formal, government level perspective, observers could feel satisfied: Germany is singing the HLPF song and dancing the dance at home too.
However, once one looks closer at the actual policy decision arena in the country, the pretty impression fades away. One case in point is gender policies. In a recent study for UN Women, we zeroed in on the percolation of SDG 5 in Germany.  
Gender justice  is arguably the pivot point of the 2030 Agenda, and in Germany, the reality is quite different from the projected image. Germany structurally disadvantages working-class women, fails on its promises to socially excluded groups such as women migrants, and – to many people’s surprise - has one of the widest gender pay gaps in Europe. Care work remains largely in the domain of women, with inequitable time pressures and negative income effects, resulting, i.a., in feminized old-age poverty. 
One would hope that SDG5 and the Agenda would help correct this situation. We found, however,  that as of yet, SDG5 has not had a discernible impact on domestic gender equality struggles. This is surprising, since the 2030 Agenda offers a holistic conception of sustainability, in that it offers a much-welcome ‘value added’ in terms of merging and transcending the usually disjointed and siloed policy strands of gender, social justice and sustainability in the ecological sense of the term.
Based on 28 interviews with government officials, CSO representatives and researchers, we observed multiple disconnects. There is a lack of cohesion and consistency across ministries, although ministries and their sub-departments are meant to coalesce around the national sustainable development strategy, given the coordinating modalities in place. However, ministries are politically conceptualised as autonomous bodies that are under the final fiat of the minister concerned, rather than of the cabinet as a whole and its overarching policy direction.
German civil society is vocal, but tends to specialise on thematic areas. This phenomenon is partly driven by the well-received ambition to base activism on sound professional knowledge and expertise; it also is a consequence of perennial and ever-increasing underfunding, especially of core funding, so that their leaner staffing tables force CSOs to focus on a narrow, identifiable remit so as to be heard.
Both the inter-ministerial autonomy and the specialisation of CSOs then result in a horizontal disconnect – counter to the holistic endeavour of the SDGs as an integral set of objectives, and undermining the fact that  gender equality and women’s empowerment require policy and action in all spheres – economic, political, the environment, and at all levels from the personal, the interpersonal to municipal and federal policy.
On top of this, there is a – surprising - disconnect between the 2030 Agenda as a multilateral agreement and its adaptation. We think this may be owed to the fact that the 2030 Agenda is a soft-law tool, and thus has limited clout for transformative change, as compared to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) or EU-level legislation which, ratified into national legislation, must be adhered to. SDG 5, we were also repeatedly told, appears weaker on gender equality commitments than the CEDAW or the Beijing Platform of Action, or EU and Council of Europe agreements. This leads to a vertical disconnect.
So, what can be done? If an income rich country with a strong women’s and gender justice movement – and so many areas that call for structural  change - cannot pull out all the stops, why would one expect other societies – facing a plethora of political and fiscal challenges – to really get serious about the 2030 Agenda?
For Germany, we make a number of proposals in our study. An obvious one is to strengthen institutional linkages. In government policymaking, links between gender and “green” issues need to illustrate the value added of SDG 5 and its 2030 Agenda context. The federal government needs to interface much more systematically with all civil society communities, not just the select few of the inner circle. Political parties need to re-visit the UN’s 2030 Agenda and examine how to claim consequent action on gender equality and sustainable development.
In 2021, Germany is due to present again at the HLPF; this will be based on a revised national sustainable development strategy incoming next year. We hope that our study findings will be heard. And that the HLPF will stop dancing and singing in happy inner circles, and start moving!

Please read: Hannah Birkenkötter, Gabriele Köhler, Anke Stock, 2019.  A tale of multiple disconnects: Why the 2030 Agenda does not (yet?) contribute to moving German gender equality struggles forward. UN Women.


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