Moving Beyond Words: A Meaningful Partnership for the Realization of the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda

By Lana Baydas, and Mariefaye Bechrakis

The High Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development (HLPF) has convened this month to monitor progress achieved in the implementation of the 17 sustainable development goals and to address challenges and the most pressing issues of sustainable development. HLPF is supposed to provide a platform to engage all stakeholders- governments, civil society actors and the private sector- in a dialogue on approaches to fully realize the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda at the national, regional and global levels. However, this year’s meeting, as previous ones, presents another example of the disconnect between words and practice when it comes to revitalizing meaningful partnerships, on both national and international levels, between governments and civil society actors in pursuit of sustainable development.

Under the theme “Transformation towards sustainable and resilient societies”, HLPF ignited the logical equation between “sustainable and resilient societies” and free, open and vibrant civil society. It is well recognized that civil society is a key driver in pushing sustainable development forward and has been found to “harbor tremendous knowledge and experience that canvasses a wide range of areas and are often the most faithful practitioners of sustainable development”.

Governments, presenting their Voluntary National Reports, have reiterated the important role of civil society actors in sustainable development, “[t]he role of both the private sector and civil society is key in the realization of these goals.” Others noted “One lesson learned through the recent talks between the government and civil society has been the need to establish a new relationship between these actors that does not just focus on providing information, but instead truly encourages political dialogue and impact”.

Yet, the state of civic space around the world tells us a different story. According to CIVICUS, there are serious threats to civic space in 109 countries. Governments continue to employ different tactics to crackdown on civil society actors. These actions have resulted in serious restrictions on basic civic freedoms, such as the freedom of association, freedom of assembly and freedom of the press. On an even closer look at countries that have participated in the Voluntary National Reviews (VNRs) process, civic freedoms are curtailed in those same countries that have acknowledged the essentiality of meaningful engagement with civil society for the successful implementation of the sustainable development agenda. In Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia, civic space is completely closed, whereas in other countries such as Mexico, Honduras and Algeria it is increasingly becoming more repressed. More worryingly, civic space in democracies, such as Hungary are narrowing to a dangerous degree.

The freedom of press has been severely crippled in Mexico, giving it the first spot for journalists murdered in 2017. In 2018 alone, there have been more than 130 attacks against the press in the context of elections, with journalists of the #RompeEIMiedo campaign being harassed and threated and in extreme cases, murdered for covering sensitive issues, such as crime and drug cartels.

Similarly, civic space in Egypt is suffocating, despite the Government stating in its 2018 Voluntary National Review that: “ [t]he Government of Egypt is working to capitalize on the positive synergies between the combined efforts of the Government, the private sector and civil society to achieve this ambitious agenda.” Contrary to these words, the Egyptian authorities continue to implement various methods, including legal loopholes, to crackdown on civic freedoms by targeting human rights organizations by freezing assets, implementing travel bans, harassment, arbitrary detentions of activists, forced disappearances, all under the convenient justification of countering terrorism and protecting national security. More recently even, Egypt ratified a new Cybercrime law, granting the authorities broad powers to block or censor online and print media that is considered “harmful to the national economy or national security”. This vague law provides for a total of 29 disproportionately harsh penalties, ranging from three months to five years in prison and up to 2.5 million Egyptian Pounds (equivalent of $140,000). 

At the international level, civil society actors are often not given the opportunity to actively provide perspectives on sustainable development challenges. Mandated by the UN Resolution on the organizational aspects of the high-level political forum on sustainable development, all stakeholders are encouraged to “autonomously establish and maintain effective coordination mechanisms for participation in the High Level Political Forum and actions derived at the global, regional and national levels, in a way that ensures effective, broad and balanced participation”. However, accounts of civil society actors, including members of disability and indigenous organizations, attest to facing many obstacles in trying to attend HLPF sessions or when they do end up attending, enjoying limited opportunities to voice their concerns and provide their perspectives on their respective government’s policies and actions. Often, civil society is “relegated to the sidelines” by having to conduct side events instead of participating in important UN Conferences. When civil society is excluded from important international platforms of communication, no true interactive dialogue can take place, leading to a rather one sided and often narrow conclusion of pressing issues.

Against this backdrop, only a meaningful national and international collaboration between civil society and governments, within an open and safe space, will “sustainable and resilient societies” become a reality. A first step toward the realization of the SDGs would be to push for expanding platforms of communication and engagement between members of civil society and governments at the national, regional and international levels. Moreover, additional spaces should be created where members of civil society, governments and the private sector alike, can participate in decision making processes, discuss local findings and collectively identify policy directions and determine solutions to persistent problems.

More importantly, members of civil society should have a well-defined space within the international platform to voice their concerns, share their solutions and ideas, particularly where national civic space is closed. As it currently stands, they are unable to meaningfully participate in the HLPF and other platforms, which only stunts the growth of civil society and stalls the achievement of the 2030 agenda.

As Amina J. Mohammed, Deputy Secretary General of the UN, stated: “We must avoid an SDG-light approach, one that pays only lip-service to the 2030 Agenda’s call for transformation.” Governments must move beyond words. They must not only talk the talk, but start walking the walk.

Lana Baydas is a senior fellow with the Human Rights Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Mariefaye Bechrakis is an international human rights lawyer and serves as the Program Manager and Research associate with the CSIS Human Rights Initiative.

Lana Baydas
Senior Associate (Non-resident), Human Rights Initiative