The SDGs need a strong and loud civil society

The Global Goals represent a quest to achieve human rights for all. In the face of democratic backsliding and a global trend to restrict free speech, we must ensure that civil society remains an active force for their progress

Global governanceGlobal

A demonstration outside the House of Commons, UK in support of women in Iran and their struggle for greater freedom. The UK is one of many countries in the last few years to increase restrictions on the right to protest. © Alisdare Hickson

Agenda 2030 has suffered a significant setback. Its engine, civil society, is being severely limited in its ability to affect positive change. Civil society’s role is vital, as it helps drive the action, cooperation, and innovation to realize the SDGs. The Global Goals are entering their most important development phase, at the halfway point to 2030. To achieve them, we need an active and robust civil society that can facilitate their urgent implementation. The SDGs are not only the domain of governments and multilateral institutions, and so the current approach must be accelerated by including a bigger tent of actors that will ensure that the change sought will be sustainable.

A shrinking civic space

Civil society is being limited both in terms of operations and access. The enabling environment for civil society to be effective continues to worsen. Progress in the global democracy levels achieved over the past 35 years has been erased, according to V-Dem Institute’s Democracy Report 2023. In addition, around 70% of the world lives in closed or repressed spaces, according to CIVICUS’ 2023 report on civic space. While the reasons for democratic backsliding vary, there is an overwhelming sense that democracy is failing to adequately deliver on society’s biggest challenges – including gross economic inequality – resulting in mistrust and recourse to alternatives models. The consequences of this are broad human rights regressions including deteriorating freedom of expression in 35 countries and worsening repression of civil society organizations in 37 countries.

The causes of the shrinking civic space phenomenon go beyond the widespread disenchantment with liberal democracy and the rise in populist and authoritarian regimes. For example, the attacks of 11 September 2001 sparked a worldwide proliferation of counterterrorism measures, which have been used to repress civil society. Most recently, some countries have used anti-money laundering laws to falsely charge non-governmental organizations (NGOs) with terrorism financing, as a way to close down their operations and activism.

Technology is also increasingly enabling repression, including through the expansion of digital surveillance systems and powers during the COVID-19 pandemic and the unregulated use of artificial intelligence. Our world now mostly communicates and organizes online. Restrictions to this next frontier of civic space limit the information and innovation needed to help advance the SDGs. The deepening “splinternet” – that is, the fragmentation of the global internet into several smaller, closed networks – also presents considerable risks to information sharing and collective action.

Furthermore, access and partnership by civil society with the UN to advance Agenda 2030 is sporadic. NGOs have played an important role in delivering the agenda to date, helping launch and design the SDGs, especially those goals with people-centered commitments. However, while NGOs have access via the United Nations Economic and Social Council and official consultations, they are not being prioritized in the implementation, and are only being involved in an ad-hoc way.

What can be done?

If the engine for the SDGs is under constant attack, how can it have an active role?

The importance of civil society is that it fosters a strong connection with communities that are first in line to be impacted by the SDGs. Efforts in recent years to contain the world’s growing “polycrisis” have diverted resources and attention away from the implementation of the SDGs, placing even more onus on civil society to help. Ensuring that civil society remains an active force and engine for progress therefore demands bold and innovative solutions.

A good first step is to provide the platform and space for action, a bigger tent for civil society to drive progress. Integral to sustainable development is the concept of participation. Accordingly, SDGs 16 and 17 acknowledge, respectively:

  • the importance of fostering an inclusive and open society
  • the necessity for collaboration among all stakeholders to realize the 2030 Agenda

For example, over the past two years, a highly consultative mechanism was developed for people of African descent through operationalizing a Permanent Forum. The forum is effective in bringing together civil society and UN members to develop and advance key priorities on racial discrimination. Supported by a Working Group, this is a good example of how civil society can drive progress when provided the platform.

Second, as civil society is already active in implementing many of the SDGs, these efforts should be tapped into as part of the next phase of acceleration. After all, the domain of the SDGs is the responsibility of everyone, not just UN members. For example, over the last five years there has been an effective regional campaign in Africa, Asia, and the Caribbean to decriminalize laws (often colonial era) that target poor and marginalized people because of who they are, not what they have done. These laws treat poverty, status, or activism as a crime – offences such as vagrancy, loitering, or being idle that are often used against homeless and poor people. Repealing them has helped contribute to an enabling environment to advance SDG 1 (end poverty).  

Third, civil society’s influence should be strengthened through specific roles that will enable participation from closed and repressive countries. A practical way to consider this is to have a Special Envoy for Civil Society, connected to the Secretary-General’s office. This role would be tasked to support inclusive participation by civil society across the UN. It would require close collaboration, advancing conditions that allow civil society to meaningfully participate, and ensuring that civil society is consulted within countries and forums that restrict access. In addition, we should consider an annual “Civil Society Action Day” in the margin of the High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development or the UN General Assembly. This could serve as a space for accountability and stocktaking of ongoing efforts to strengthen the role of civil society at the UN. It would be action-oriented in how civil society can help advance the acceleration needed on the SDGs.

Conclusion

In the face of considerable challenges, civil society organizations continue to have tremendous impact on progress towards the SDGs. Civil society has shown how it can be an engine for progress by:

  • incubating novel solutions
  • holding institutions to account
  • highlighting societal issues
  • partnering with governments and multilateral institutions
  • delivering crucial services to meet societal needs

Access by civil society to the UN must be addressed in meaningful and practical ways to deliver on the SDGs. The threats facing civil society must also be countered. Achieving Agenda 2030 will require a robust and active civil society – so let’s get to work.

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