The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development myriad development challenges facing the world. The 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are interconnected, with each consisting of specific targets meant to be achieved by 2030. The goals and targets are universal, meaning that all countries must implement them with support from all development actors.
Five years since its adoption, the United Nations admits that the world is not on track to realize its goal of “leaving no one behind”. This was the main finding of the two-week virtual High Level Political Forum (HLPF) held from 7–16 July, at which governments reflect on how the international community could better respond to problems exposed and magnified by the pandemic.
It is quite ironic, however, that while governments were all calling for international cooperation and solidarity through the leadership of a strong UN, world leaders were unable to come to an agreement, and thus failed to seal their commitments on how to get the world through this very difficult juncture.
The Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung’s Tetet Lauron spoke with Warda Rina, a programme officer at the Asia Pacific Forum on Women, Law and Development (APWLD), co-chair of the Asia Pacific Regional CSO Engagement Mechanism (AP-RCEM) and organizing partner of the Women’s Major Group to get her view on why the SDGs are floundering and what civil society and social movements are doing to make the process deliver on its promise to end poverty and inequality without compromising future generations’ ability to meet their own needs.
Why do you think the SDGs are off-track?
Agenda 2030 was built on a shaky foundation, so it doesn’t come as a surprise that we are not on track. The three fundamental pillars required for a truly transformative development agenda—financing, accountability and reform of the global financial system—are missing entirely.
We have seen multi-dimensional crises being lived by people with severe income and wealth inequality, environmental and climate crisis, corporate capture, patriarchy and the resurgence of patriarchal authoritarian governance which leads to increased militarism and attacks on democratic rights and civic spaces. The pandemic exposed how neoliberal capitalism has failed to protect people’s rights and needs, including access to quality public healthcare and universal social protection.
Warda Rina works as a programme officer at the Asia Pacific Forum on Women, Law and Development, is co-chair of the Asia Pacific Regional CSO Engagement Mechanism (AP-RCEM), and an organizing partner of the Women's Major Group (WMG). She spoke with Tetet Lauron of the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung.
The SDGs fail to address the asymmetrical international economic order that has historically stripped developing countries of their resources and continues to limit their domestic policy space to implement development and human rights-oriented decisions. This imbalance is evident in the functioning of international trade, capital markets, and international financial institutions and agencies, which not only favour developed countries but place corporate interests above all else. Even at this HLPF 2020, “PPP to BBB” (Public-Private Partnerships to Build Back Better) is the new mantra. This completely ignores the fact that cutting government spending for public services and privatizing state assets are among the very reasons for this prolonged crisis and deepened inequalities right now.
Due to illicit financial flows (IFFs) through tax evasion and avoidance, misappropriation of state assets, and criminal money laundering as well as profit shifting by multinational corporations (MNCs), wealth and resources continued to flow out of developing and poor countries and into wealthy and developed countries for years.
The SDGs are off-track because there is no policy coherence. How is it possible that 2030 Agenda views trade as an engine for development, when we can see how bilateral and multilateral trade and investment agreements cause further impoverishment of workers, small farmers, and fisherfolk, and thus contradict the SDGs and human rights? How can the UN ignore the fact that corporations can now sue governments over public regulations that negatively affect their profits, even if these regulations are for protecting the most vulnerable communities, public health and equity, and the environment?
With only ten years left in the implementation of the Agenda 2030, actions must not only disrupt, but also do away with the system that breeds more inequality, more environmental destruction, more rights violations, and more suffering for those left behind. We need solutions that work for the people and planet – not people and the planet working and exploited for the economy.
Forty-seven states presented their SDG progress reports at this HLPF, all of which appeared exceedingly positive. What can be done to ensure that reports are not just glossy presentations of “accomplishments”?
The HLPF focuses too much on success stories and best practices, but does not devote much attention to analysing root causes or addressing the systemic barriers to achieving sustainable development.
Accountability is missing from the SDGs because countries voluntarily report on their progress. It should be informed by established systems of reporting used in other UN processes, such as in the Human Rights Council.
The SDGs are not a standard-setting exercise. It will not produce new rights or normative language. It is an agreed set of commitments governments have already made to ensure that everyone enjoys fundamental human rights. Agenda 2030 should ensure an enabling environment such as needed processes, governance structures and reforms for these for rights to be enjoyed, particularly by the most marginalized.
Countries’ voluntary reports should not only talk about progress and gaps, but also look into an analysis of the root causes and structural impediments that hinder progress. There should be both policy and process coherence to ensure that development programmes and policies are coherent with the principles of human rights, peace, and international cooperation. The HLPF needs to be more grounded, meaning it should welcome more grassroots experts and move away from its obsession with inviting high-level “experts”.
We are currently at an impasse concerning how future HLPF reports will be undertaken. Both the AP-RCEM and the WMG have come out strongly against the clustering or “silo-ed” approach to reporting. What would you propose in its place?
We don’t want another four years of a silo-ed approach in the follow up and review of the SDGs. In our experience, governments and other UN agencies only work and report on the group of SDGs featured for each year. These “clusters” not only hinder the effective implementation of the interlinkages, but also discourage the generation of knowledge and tools for transformational work.
Identifying and tackling systemic drivers of inequality must be central to the Agenda 2030 annual review. There must be a holistic and analytical discussion of how neoliberalism, fundamentalisms, militarism, and patriarchy are compounding problems of poverty, underdevelopment, and exclusion. We have proposed thematic reviews on: economic, financial, and trade measures that impede development justice, land and resource distribution, militarism and conflict, corporate influence, as well as patriarchy and fundamentalisms. Reports should look at how each of the 17 goals link to the theme. This is also one way that national governments could work in a more collaborative manner.
A so-called “Ministerial Declaration” articulates the overall political direction of high-level meetings. There was no Ministerial Declaration adopted at HLPF 2020. Is that good or bad for multilateralism?
We are truly disappointed that member states were unable to reach a consensus on the Ministerial Declaration. It is quite ironic that the UN’s “Decade of Action” started with this failure to provide political direction through the Ministerial Declaration. It is also further evidence that governments are utterly failing to take action in the midst of a global pandemic.
We cannot believe that the issues of debt relief, gendered violence against women, foreign occupation, and climate change are being contested. It poses the question of where is multilateralism headed? What kind of message are governments and the UN sending to the people?
We need a strong Ministerial Declaration, a strong UN, as well as strong multilateralism that is accountable, committed to extraterritorial human rights obligations, and underpinned by the principles of justice, equity, policy coherence, common but differentiated responsibility, and international solidarity.
This HLPF’s virtual format highlighted the digital access divide especially around civil society participation. How can this be improved?
Civil society has called on the UN and member states to provide a platform for strong civil society engagement during the HLPF2020. While we understand the technical limitations and logistical challenges that arise in virtual meetings, the UN must address them guided by principles of accountability, transparency, and equity, taking a rights-based approach.
We have voiced our concerns over escalating limitations on civil society participation, freedom of assembly and expression in certain national contexts, and attacks on multilateral institutions and processes under the pretext of the COVID-19 crisis. Now more than ever, increased inclusivity and meaningful civil society participation must be asserted and protected.