Why world mistrust must not threaten the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development

Technology Eye | Jan. 12, 2017

We live in a world where mistrust reigns. From the voters demonstrating their disdain for “political elites”, to the people using their power to undermine the international community, the past year has provided ample proof of this. Some states are now consistently undermining global solutions to global problems. The very institutions set up to foster international cohesion are facing unprecedented resistance.

It’s a far cry from the hope we all felt in 2015, the year when world leaders agreed on two landmark accords for safeguarding the future of our planet and its people: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the Paris Climate Change accord , Both documents were built on world agreement, solid science and the conviction that the status quo was neither acceptable nor sustainable.

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are breathtaking in their ambition, detailed in their targets and unrivalled in their scope. The COP21 climate change accord was rightly hailed as a breakthrough moment in planet-wide cooperation. It looked and felt like the dawning of a new era.

The year of mistrust

But, if 2015 was the year of hope, 2016 was the year of mistrust. The gulf of mistrust between citizens and systems has never seemed wider. The paradox is that, while the stated global political will to bridge the gap has never been clearer, the challenges of building the bridge have never been greater.

Into this gulf steps civil society – from the largest international development organisations to the smallest grassroots community project. Civil society: committed to tackling the world’s growing inequalities of wealth and opportunity, the unprecedented numbers of people on the move, the poverty and hunger of millions - while watching a weakened international community which seems unable to act even in the face of unfolding genocide.

Against this unpromising backdrop, the 2030 Agenda makes its call for a new global partnership. Its bold promise is a “spirit of strengthened global solidarity, focused in particular on the needs of the poorest and most vulnerable and with the participation of all countries, all stakeholders and all people”.

SDGs under threat?

But our experience is that the atmosphere of mistrust is threatening the agenda’s whole future. The transformational and positive partnerships needed to deliver the SDGs simply cannot be built if they are not underpinned by trust.

Our evidence points to a risk that the SDGs are being compromised almost before the ink on them is dry.

When Together 2030 conducted a survey of stakeholder’s in the run-up to the UN’s 2016 High-level Political Forum , we found that their understanding of the 2030 Agenda did not translate into an ability to engage with national planning processes.

We’ve produced case studies to highlight how civil society, for all its engagement and knowledge, is being shut out of discussions on how the agenda will be implemented in individual countries - and who will hold those governments to account.

What’s more, we can demonstrate that richer countries are not living up to the 2030 Agenda principle that the SDGs are for every single country on the planet, not just developing countries.

We analysed statements made at the 2016 UN General Assembly to see which countries had grasped this concept of universality. The results were shocking. Of the 40 States that referred to national SDG implementation plans, only six were developed countries: Bulgaria, Finland, Netherlands, Estonia, Switzerland and Japan.

A fact that becomes even more astonishing when you realise that the Assembly’s theme was “The Sustainable Development Goals: A universal push to transform our world”.

Holding richer countries to account

This failure to grasp such a central plank of the 2030 Agenda – that it’s for all countries, everywhere – further undermines the trust between civil society and governments, in both the global north and south.

This evidence that richer nations are already lagging is feeding into the existing atmosphere of mistrust. If people can’t trust commitments made on the global stage, how can they believe promises closer to home?

Of course there are many positive examples too. The lessons from these can give us some hope. Some countries are already leading the way on making national plans to make the goals a reality. Our members can testify that when civil society is engaged in this planning and implementation processes, the 2030 Agenda can actually be used to overcome mistrust between governments and civil society.

It’s not as if the issues covered by the agenda are hard to sell or explain. Health, education, equality, ending corruption, looking after the environment – these are the things which matter most to people in their daily lives. But for the 2030 Agenda to become real to people, there must be a meaningful connection between them and the implementation plan.

New forms of accountability

Civil society is uniquely placed to connect the aspirations and needs of people with the means of delivering them. But we must understand the new forms of accountability that will work in the current atmosphere of mistrust.

There are already examples of this to draw on. The National Voluntary Review process through the 2016 High-Level Political Forum showed us how civil society can work effectively with governments to bridge the substantial gap between people and national policy setting.

In countries where civil society helped develop national sustainable development plans, as a respected “listened-to” voice, a host of benefits flowed. Honest and productive partnerships were developed, marginalised groups were included, and civil society provided a vital link between those affected by decisions and their governments. Indeed, where they were engaged fully in the process, governments could see the value of multilateral solutions to the issues they had identified.

It’s a model that needs to be built on and expanded as all countries step up to their SDG challenges.

None of the vital elements for this – planning, budgeting, delivery, accountability - can be generated through high-profile international platforms. Nor can they be imposed through often distant UN-led results scorecards – as was the status quo under the old Millennium Development Goals , which the SDGs replaced.

Some of the best research is already suggesting that “supportive and appreciative mechanisms” will provide the best form of accountability for delivering the 2030 Agenda. Civil society can and must play a central role in building this new form of supportive and appreciative accountability.

We will continue to gather evidence and information about what works best within individual countries. We’ll highlight the standard-bearers and perhaps shame the slackers. We’ll collect stories, publicise best practice and do all we can to see that the 2030 vision is delivered. We simply can’t let this once-in-a-generation opportunity for extraordinary change slip away because of a worldwide crisis in trust.

Holding governments to account is a central part of that strategy to rebuild trust. Civil society can and must take a central role in this new accountability, standing in the gulf, building bridges across it - and above all making sure the SDGs come off the page and into people’s lives.

Together 2030 is a civil society initiative that brings together more than 450 organisations from 89 countries to promote national implementation and track progress of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

SOURCE: World Economic Forum

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