Last March 28 to 31, the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UNESCAP) held its annual Asia-Pacific Forum on Sustainable Development. The theme, “Building back better from COVID-19 while advancing the full implementation of the 2030 Agenda in Asia and the Pacific”, focused on the region’s recovery from the pandemic and the attainment of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) amid worsening development and climate crises. Echoing the messages from the previous APFSDs, UNESCAP provides inadequate solutions to long-standing challenges, as it tiptoes around the need for system change to address the deep-seated inequalities in the region. 

These are the three things inadequately addressed during the 9th APFSD:
1. Persisting corporatization of development

Lack of financing for sustainable development has further delayed the achievement of Agenda 2030. With its current pacing, the SDGs will only be met 35 years later, in 2065. While this financing gap is primarily caused by the failure of developed countries to uphold their historical responsibility in contributing 0.7% GNI for Official Development Assistance (ODA), leading to a lack of and imbalanced financing for the goals. On the other hand, this is also presented as an avenue for the private sector to further intervene in development processes. 

While the pandemic has exposed the ills of the current neoliberal order, the United Nations has further bolstered the role of multinational corporations and international finance institutions in multi-stakeholder partnerships, manifested in SDG 17 or Partnerships for the Goals. Not isolated in the APFSD, CSOs have raised concern over the corporatization of UN processes, as private sector actors are more visible and influential in policy arenas and partnerships. 

With their influence, they have persuaded multilateral institutions to adopt their false solutions for recovery, which include the monopoly of Big Pharma on vaccine production, large-scale digitalization involving multinational corporations, and green, sustainable bonds posing additional debt and environmental degradation. Promoting the private sector’s role in development neglects the role they have played in exploiting the environment, violating human rights, and hindering people’s development. 

Corporate capture exacerbates persisting inequalities, especially for the marginalized and vulnerable. In his intervention, Tirtha Prasad Saikia of North-East Affected Areas Development Society (NEADS) highlighted how “across Asia, development aggression and the plight of Indigenous Peoples are mounting in the form of land grabbing, extractive industries, large scale mining, large energy infrastructure projects, agribusiness, causing displacement of millions of Indigenous Peoples from their lands and territories.”

2. Promoting the role of CSOs, POs, and communities in pursuing Agenda 2030

In monitoring the region’s and countries’ progress in attaining Agenda 2030, an important role must be given to civil society organizations and people’s organizations as they know the realities on-ground. Multiple voluntary national review processes have excluded the civil society, making their conclusions inaccurate to the lived experiences of the people, especially the marginalized sectors. 

While SDG 17 emphasizes the need for accurate data monitoring, Jennifer Guste of the Council for People’s Development and Governance (CPDG) further calls for “governments to improve its data monitoring in consultation with civil society to include the actual needs of vulnerable sectors,” and to “review and revise accordingly its methods of measuring poverty and labor participation to ensure millions are not left behind.”

Despite the threats they face, CSOs are able to provide a holistic and inclusive response to provide immediate relief and recovery in the midst of the pandemic. Instead of increasingly disbursing aid to private sector actors, providing financial support to CSOs allow for the much-needed localization of aid. Removing barriers to access aid by civil society actors in the global South permits a more grounded, holistic and inclusive approach to development. 

As Sarah Torres of Reality of Aid-Asia Pacific (RoA-AP) mentioned in her intervention, “Localization allows for the democratic ownership of development priorities, and not of private sector interests. This also allows NGOs to respond to root causes of conflict and fragility, and help in mitigating the impacts of climate change for the disproportionately affected.” 

3. Need for system change and development justice

In the region, CSO members of the Asia-Pacific Regional CSO Engagement Mechanism (APRCEM) maintain that we should not continue to build on existing structures, but push for systemic change and development justice. Instead of “Building Back Better”, we must build inclusive systems that will preserve the environment, uphold human rights, and promote genuine development for all.

The prevailing order has also led to the multidimensional crises of the COVID-19 pandemic, development challenges and the climate crisis. The current system has caused delay in achieving the SDGs, having significant impacts on the lives, livelihoods, rights, and security of the marginalized and vulnerable.

We must not build back the previous system, as it failed us, our communities, our sectors and our environment. The Agenda 2030 must go beyond the calls for sustainable development, and espouse system change, which recognizes the needs of the people and pushes for a people-centered, rights-based and climate-resilient future for all.

As Beverly Longid of the International Indigenous Peoples Movement for Self-Determination and Liberation (IPMSDL) said in the opening session of the APFSD, “Development justice embodies looking back and learning, recognizing and solving structural barriers, becoming accountable, upholding human rights, and bringing in people’s participation. Let us build back better by collectively working for system change.”



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