In 2015, the global community renewed an international commitment to eliminating some of our most harmful and challenging problems and committed to tackling a few newer ones. Dubbed the 2030 Agenda, this sustainable development plan is a substantial follow-up to the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) from the period of 2000-2015. This time around, the goals intend to bring equitable results on all 17 goals to everyone, but especially communities historically pushed to the margins of society. Unlike the previous agenda, the 2030 Agenda promises to address the needs of marginalized groups first by embedding crucial guiding principles into the framework, like Leaving No One Behind and a Human Rights-Based Approach to Development. The 2030 Agenda’s scope is universal; focusing on five core pillars of people, planet, prosperity, peace, and partnership, it calls for a balanced approach to the three dimensions of sustainable development: environmental, social, and economic. And although the 2030 Agenda and the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) framework have officially been around for seven years, they have only started to gain widespread traction in Canada more recently.
The movement focused on “localizing” the SDGs, essentially adapting the 17 goals, 169 targets, and 232 indicators associated with the framework to fit the local context, has become popularized in many communities around the world with the help of the Voluntary Local Review process. Driving this movement is the knowledge that over 60% of the SDG targets require action from subnational governments to be achieved. An important tool for the localization process, Voluntary Local Reviews (VLR), aptly named after the national-level process they mirror, Voluntary National Reviews (VNR), is a locally-owned exercise of assessing where a subnational community, such as a city or province, is on their journey of adopting and implementing the SDGs. This challenging attempt to solidify local relevance of the global goals has sparked impressive creativity and drive to improve our existing systems. Ideally, VLRs are a community-wide chance for reflection and redirection based on a diverse collection of data, usually matched to corresponding targets from the SDGs framework, and chosen in direct consultation with the community. While VLRs may be viewed as a niche policy tool for local governments to participate in national and international-level processes, in reality, VLRs present a unique opportunity for local governments and communities to unite efforts with the help of a comprehensive, cross-sectoral roadmap for tackling some of our most persistent, intersectional issues. This opportunity is one with tangible potential to make significant progress on these issues by bringing a wide variety of actors together under one universal plan comprised of 17 goals. The SDGs are here to stay even beyond the 2030 deadline as the framework has sent ripples across Canadian communities and proactive community mobilization is quickly growing.
Voluntary Local Reviews are typically led by a local government, however, local governments in Canada have been relatively slow to adopt the SDGs. Instead, local NGO partnerships, some of which established leaders in tracking the SDGs within their communities, take on the role of leading development on the VLR. This has been the case in both published Canadian VLRs to date from Kelowna, BC and Winnipeg, MB. Although members from city administrations were supportive of the VLR, the city governments took an arms-length approach to the process. The same is true for Canadian VLRs that are currently under development, which are led by universities or community organizations. This unfortunately means that Canadian VLRs fall short on measurable local targets and that recommendations for policies based on the data and findings will still need to be pushed for by external actors. On the upside, this approach also allows a certain level of candor and transparency with regards to where more work is needed to achieve the goals. And with established expertise, these NGO partnerships can set the example for other communities to take action and begin the own VLR process. Ideally, local governments take an active role in co-creating policies with the community to get a head start on implementing them. But there seems to be some hesitation to commit to the process given it will inevitably lead to significant changes to the way our society functions. This is especially true in Canada, where the country’s deeply entrenched colonial foundations and systems continue to perpetuate harmful inequalities; systems that are in direct conflict with the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals.
The VLRs from Kelowna and Winnipeg have come to similar conclusions, demonstrating a need to reimagine community consultation with respect to Indigenous peoples, and the need to incorporate Indigenous worldviews on sustainable development to Leave No One Behind and achieve the SDGs in communities across Canada.
One way to support growing momentum among Canadian communities is to share experiences and promote successful strategies. The Tamarack Institute and Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN) Canada are hosting the SDG Localization Community of Practice where interested stakeholders can learn about existing tools and approaches to localize the SDGs in Canada and share their lessons learned. The International Institute for Sustainable Development is working on a Canada-focused, interactive handbook for communities looking to do their own Voluntary Local Reviews. The resource synthesizes good practices, tools, and experiences with a focus on forming meaningful partnerships with Indigenous governments and peoples in the interest of transformative reconciliation.
With the trailblazing examples from Kelowna and Winnipeg and more Canadian VLRs on the horizon, roughly eight years to go before the 2030 deadline, there is still great potential for growth in the mission of localizing the 2030 Agenda at home.