Asia and Pacific

Civil Society Engagement in the Voluntary National Review (VNR): Sightsavers’ Experience in 2016-19.

2021-01-29 15:03:54 sisd 50

This case study is an outline of Sightsavers engagement with advocacy on accountability of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development at national level between 2016 and 2019. It particularly looks at identifying lessons for civil society engagement on transformative pathways towards sustainable development. It is based on Sightsavers’ experience of advocacy on Voluntary National Reviews (VNRs) in our programme countries, built on our analysis of the VNR reports themselves and short semi-structured interviews with those who led in-country advocacy.

Objective of the practice

Our objective was to support the development of coalitions and strengthen the collective ability to influence by technically supporting and enhancing civil society engagement in the VNR processes review.
As per the Secretary-General’s Voluntary common reporting guidelines for VNRs “Voluntary National Reviews (VNRs) of implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development at the High Level Political Forum (HLPF) are the cornerstone of the follow-up and review framework of the 2030 Agenda.”
For this reason, Sightsavers promotes two distinguishing features of the 2030 Agenda, in order to promote SDG implementation. These are:
· Integration of the environmental, social, economic pillars of sustainable development by aligning, or triggering the process for, National Development Planning and/or sectorial strategies (economic and growth) to support SDGs implementation (for example, in Cameroon); and
Design for acceleration of progress and reaching the furthest behind first by supporting civil society forum. This is either through: supporting existing forums or leading the creation of new and inclusive groups; and by supporting consultations to bringing the voice of marginalised communities into the process (for example, in Bangladesh and Senegal), which ensure that disability and eye health have a higher and more accurate profile.

Key stakeholders and partnerships

Civil society organisations including Disabled People Organisations, governments, particularly the sections in charge of or participating in the VNR process.

Methods of engagement and participation
Sightsavers ran and supported consultations of people with disabilities in a number of our VNR countries. The strategy of supporting consultations was felt to be the most capable of bringing the voice of marginalised communities into the process to ensure control over how the governments presented marginalised groups. It was also reflective of the short timeframe presented by the VNR in most countries. Stakeholder perspectives and testimony validated outcomes/results ensuring sustainability.

Implementation of the Project/Activity

Firstly, Sightsavers works with partners to promote opportunities for the voice and participation of people with disabilities in national development planning processes. This includes ensuring that: national and international institutions effectively consult with, include and reflect the views and experiences of people with disabilities; national Human Rights Institutes ensure that they are adequately protecting and promoting the rights of people with disabilities; and electoral commissions ensure that all election processes are accessible, whilst political parties include the voices of people with disabilities in their policy agendas.

Secondly, Sightsavers supports civil society forums, through either:
supporting existing forums or leading the creation of new and inclusive groups; by setting up sub-groups within coalitions, as has been done within Wada Na Todo in India, CONGAD in Senegal, Kenya and Uganda;
or building sector-specific coalitions and then formalise a relationship with the main SDG coalition, as was done in Bangladesh between the Disability Alliance on the SDGs and the Citizen’s Platform for SDG
Sightsavers has also played a critical role in ensuring that there is consultation and engagement in Cameroon’s and Sierra Leone’s VNR. In partnership with others, Sightsavers was a founding member of the CSO SDG Forums in both countries and provided significant leadership in linking civil society, including people with disabilities, with those leading the process in government. This approach has already ensured a more consultative and open national VNR. In a number of countries, multi-actor technical working group have been set up, which has the objectives of ensuring a consultative process, drafting/writing the VNR and developing a longer-term follow up mechanism. Specific activities includes but are not limited to: running consultation processes; meeting with focal points for clarification and developing SDGs briefing notes; technical working group retreats to work on a zero draft; public presentation of zero drafts for feedback; ensuring secretariats finalise the VNR and begin developing the presentation. We have also worked with governments to ensure that the final report is sent to relevant government representatives for validation before being sent to DESA, and come to an agreement on the delegation representing the country at the HLPF.

What monitoring mechanisms, if any, are in place
Sightsavers has strong monitoring systems in place, including in the above-mentioned activities. However there is increasing awareness of the need to articulate the impact civil society organisations have on the implementation of the SDGs, especially that of large international NGOs like Sightsavers. For this reason, Sightsavers, in collaboration with the University of Newcastle, is working on a processes to monitor its SDG implementation.


The VNR process is still a new process and many stakeholders felt that there has not been enough time to see how sustainable the changes achieved are. Nevertheless, there were three examples, outlined below, which demonstrate how the VNR process is able to lead to longer term activities. This was felt to be the real benefit to engagement in the VNR process.

In Kenya, after the VNR, the government reached out to the SDG Platform for a shared reflections meeting. This was an important opportunity to agree a future approach to engagement between the government and civil society, especially in the coordination mechanisms to implement the 2030 Agenda, as laid out by the VNR.

In Uganda, in the dialogue about the country’s VNR there was a specific commitment made by the government to integrate disability in the national planning guidelines. This has resulted in a group, including civil society, UNICEF and led by the National Planning Authority, jointly developing disability planning guidelines launched in 2019.

In Senegal, following its 2018 VNR, there was government proposition for increased participation of civil society to their internal sectorial monitoring meetings of public policy aligned to SDGs. Those meetings’ purpose is to dialogue and monitor SDGs implementation of sectors such as Water & Sanitation, Health, Education and Disability. CSO’s monitoring is ensured by the use of action plans and tools for SDGs (3, 4 and 6) jointly developed.

These examples demonstrate the importance of building on the momentum created through the VNR in order to identify transformative pathways for sustainable development. They also demonstrate the variety of responses to the VNR and how important a context-specific approach is to promoting an increased focus on sustainable development, through the existing follow up and review mechanisms.
Longer term results to which practice contributes
By undertaking more inclusive development plans and consultations, governments have also been more willing to promote disability inclusive practices. A number of countries that had undertaken VNRs came forward with a number of commitments at the Global Disability Summit hosted by Kenya, The UK and International Disability Alliance in July 2018, in some cases building on the work and consultations around the VNR. DFID has already started influencing efforts in certain countries, namely: Kenya, Rwanda, Malawi, South Africa, Ghana, Nigeria, India, Uganda, Zambia, Bangladesh, Jordan, Pakistan and Zimbabwe.

Differential impacts across genders/population groups if any
In Senegal, the VNR process triggered a national interest in the SDGs as whole. Sightsavers supported civil society umbrella (CONGAD) to submit a proposal to GIZ (German Cooperation), which was successfully approved. The grant will enable the consolidation and operationalisation of the civil society action plan, targeted engagement with specifically marginalised groups and greater collaboration on data disaggregation.

Enabling factors and constraints

Enabling conditions
All of our Sightsavers teams stressed the importance of working in coalition to effectively influence VNRs. This was either through actively participating in existing coalitions (India, Kenya, Senegal, Mali) or by establishing coalitions (Cameroon, Sierra Leone, Bangladesh). It was agreed in all countries that the presence of an enabling environment was essential to Sightsavers’ ability to influence the VNRs on specific policy issues, and that effective coalitions were the critical element of this. As a result, a significant part of Sightsavers’ work on the VNRs was in supporting the development of coalitions and strengthening the collective ability to influence. Coalitions were believed to be the most strategic approach to influencing for a number of reasons: firstly, they minimised risk to individual organisations by presenting a unified position and voice. In some more sensitive contexts, this was important in incentivising engagement from civil society. Secondly, working in coalition increased the legitimacy of the message presented to government. This was a view that was made clear to Sightsavers by governments, and this feedback greatly increased the confidence of our teams in their influencing work. Thirdly, it was agreed by all that working in coalition made it far easier to build a strong relationship with the government.

Specific constraints
Many civil society organisations were reluctant to engage fully in the VNR process. This included within SDG advocacy coalitions which led Sightsavers to play a disproportionate role in many the coalitions of which we were part. This was manifested either in our leadership and strategic guidance or our funding of the coalition activities. There was often felt to be an assumption that these coalitions would, as one participant put it, ‘just carry on and do the work’, with little strategic and realistic discussion about the capacity needed and where this would come from.

A difficult aspect was ensuring that the individual voices of organisations, marginalised groups and sectors was not lost in a broad coalition. This was a consistent challenge in all ten countries and there were two strategies developed to manage it:
· to set up sub-groups within coalitions (India)
· to build sector-specific coalitions and then formalise a relationship with the main SDG coalition (Bangladesh)

Finally, a common theme in all our countries was the lack of information about how to engage with the VNR process. In addition, governments in the countries in which we worked were often unclear on the process they intended for the VNR and did not have a process for outreach; it was left to civil society organisations to initiate dialogue.

Innovations, or new ideas/technologies/ways of thinking that it was able to leverage.
The impact of civil society engagement with government was not the same in all the countries we worked in. In some examples, the initial engagement led to a long-term partnership with government and parliament; however, in other countries, our teams believe that government felt threatened by civil society engagement and sought to limit their influence in the VNR process.

Sustainability and replicability

Elements that are in place for environmental, social and economic sustainability and resilience.
In our experience, the main engine of sustainability has been the adaptation to or inclusion of SDGs in national policies and strategies triggered by the VNR. A good example of how this can be achieved is in Senegal. After the VNR was presented to the HLPF, in 2018, a national workshop to review progress toward implementing SDGs through national programmes in Senegal was organised. 35 persons from civil society, technical ministries, national social and territorial equity programmes and the Union of Associations of Local Elected Officials came together to reflect and agree key orientations for the design of a national strategy “to leave no one behind" and for Senegal’s engagement on the Inclusive Data Charter. National programmes and initiatives for social protection, territorial equity, and territorial governance were reviewed, including their targets population (category, characteristics) and exhaustive list of marginalised communities left behind while implementing public policies in all sector targeted by the SDGs. Finally a road map was agreed for the finalisation of the national strategy to "Leave no one behind", as well as Senegal’s engagement as a data champion.

In Cameroon, the VNR is ongoing. The Government have reaffirmed that they will align the Vision 2035 National Development Plan with the SDGs. This process will codify the SDGs within this key document. This is currently awaiting validation from the Prime Minister’s office. This initial step is essential, especially as it will provide a background to the VNR and will be important to post-VNR planning. The inter-ministerial group is also committed to ensuring that the Growth and Employment Strategy is aligned to SDG implementation, which is something that then needs to be clearly included in the VNR.


The 2030 Agenda – with its emphasis on new national plans and reviews – is an opportunity to ensure Sightsavers’ priorities are included in the wider development plans of governments in the countries in which we work, and that our issues are aligned to mainstream development priorities. As a broader, interlinked and universal framework, it is also a chance for us to develop effective policy recommendations for a wider sustainable development context. It is an opportunity for internal reflection, to ensure the voices and perspectives of the people that we work with are included in all aspects of our work on Agenda 2030. But also, it is a new challenge, to ensure these voices can be heard in emerging national planning, implementation and accountability mechanisms; and are reflected in new regional and international processes.