From July 9th to 18th, the High-Level Political Forum (HLPF) took place at the United Nations Headquarters (UNHQ) in New York, under the auspices of the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC).

Every year, during this important meeting, 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 was particularly important for education civil society organisations as SDG 4 on Education was reviewed for the first time, along with SDG 8 (Economic growth), SDG10 (inequality), SDG13 (climate change, SDG16 (Peace and strong institutions) and SDG17 (Partnerships for the goals). This HLPF also closed the first phase of reviews since the adoption of the SDGs in 2015.

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 possibility to make 2 minutes statements, declarations or questions. It is up to the Moderator to allocate more or less time to MGoS or States representatives. For example, in the SDG16 review which lasted 3 hours, MGoS were only granted a total speaking slot of 6 minutes…

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[1]) and as a lead discussant during the official SDG4 review. She made a powerful statement on the transformative power of education which was met with loud applause from both the floor (States) and the balcony (Civil society). Robert Napier from the European Students Union (ESU) also had the opportunity to comment for a short minute 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 the stage, like Ghana.

The Ghana National Education Campaign Coalition (GNECC) mentioned that ” This was the first time the Government of Ghana was submitting itself to the Voluntary National Review process. […] 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.”

01Madeleine Zúñiga delivering an official statement on SDG4 during the official review

Unfortunately, in other cases civil society was neither informed nor consulted. 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. However civil society’s participation through the MGoS was limited to 2 minutes, even when States were presenting in a panel, which meant basically commenting in 2 minutes about the VNRs of up to 4 States. Civil society representatives had thus to actively coordinate to be able to deliver key messages during this very limited time.

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 organisations 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 more 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 organised 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 life-long learning point of views.

CLADEASPBAE and ANCEFA representatives, participated in or organised many meetings linking SDG4 with education in emergencies, disability, democracy, peace, citizenship and inequalities.

On July 12th, GCE Secretariat together with Global Campaign for Education-United StatesLight for the World and RESULTS organised a successful all day event focused on education at the Ford Foundation Center for Social Justice. The day was an opportunity for the movement to explore the topics at the heart of our advocacy and to present the key learnings from GCE and our national and regional members’ Spotlight reports. Reflecting back on the day, GCE-US highlighted that “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 building stronger education systems to resist the threat of privatisation. Each session tackled a unique perspective on the push for SDG4. Yet, principles of inclusion, quality, and equity were common priorities across the remarks of panelists and audience members alike. “
The event was recorded on Facebook, and is available here.

02EASG side event

In the evening, the Education & Academia Stakeholder Group lead a full room side event within the UNHQ, 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 were raised about 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 Spotlights reports

Civil society organisations can also engage with the process by writing and disseminating “spotlight reports”. A spotlight report is an alternative report on the status of achievement of the SDGs which 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 organisations 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 SDG4 by 2030.

Among the areas of concerns, several CSOs pointed out the growing trend towards privatisation of education, its impact on accelerating inequalities and diminishing workers’ rights and human rights, and the difficulty in achieving SDG4.7 in a context of weakening of the democratic space and decreasing States accountability. As Victor Cristales from Colectivo de Educación para todas y todos de Guatemala puts it: “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 privatisation of this public good.”

03Cecilia Soriano presenting ASPBAE regional spotlight report during the July 12th event

A place for Youth

It is said that this year’s ministerial segment (VNRs) was the most inclusive of youth and children’s voices to date. During the two weeks of HLPF, 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 Local2030 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 one of the rooms in the UNHQ filled up with young advocates from around the world. 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. It was also pointed out that youth participation in these events is a win-win: as youth bring their knowledge and solutions, young people who attend equally bring home new knowledge, and new ways of learning.

Finally, youth got a special place during a session organised by Bridge 47, bringing together specialists in the field of education, policy makers, government representatives, including the Minister of Education of Finland and the Fiji Representative at the UN. The event was an opportunity to reflect on the importance of placing SDG4.7 at the heart of education policies, especially related to education for global citizenship and democracy. And at some point, the room was asked What holds us back from achieving the change we want? The answer was clear:

04Interactive poll during Bridge 47 side event

Assessing impact and moving forward

The common feedback shared during the GCE Caucus, which gathered around 40 civil society representatives on Saturday 13th, 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 organisations which are working to strengthen public education and especially for social justice” (Magaly Avilla, Foro por el Derecho a la Educación Pública, Chile).

We can also echo those words from Maggie Kern (Light for the World) “In summary, attending the High-Level Political Forum 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.”

While it was satisfying to hear education recognised as a key SDG to achieve all the others, we remain concerned about the growing influence of the neoliberal ideology using the delays in the achievement of SDG4 to push for “fast action”, and deliberately closing the door to proven sustainable solutions involving the strengthening of States and more tax justice.

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.”


Maryline Mangenot with contributions from Astrid Schmidt, Luis Eduardo Perez Murcia, GCE-US, GNECC, Magaly Avilla, Victor Cristales, Light for the World.

All photo credits @GCE

[1]The Education Academia Stakeholder Group is one of the Major Groups and other Stakeholders. GCE, Education International(EI), ESU and the International Council for Adult Education(ICAE) are the organising partners.

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The Global Campaign for Education (GCE) is a civil society movement that aims to end exclusion in education. Education is a basic human right, and our mission is to make sure that governments act now to deliver the right of everyone to a free, quality, public education.