At the midpoint of the Agenda 2030, only 15% of the targets are on track. In the Asia-Pacific, this translates to compounded impacts of the pandemic on health and economic systems, debt burden on the poorest, worsening conflict, deterioration of social protection systems, violation of basic human rights, and incapacity to address the climate crisis. Recognizing that the world is nowhere near in achieving its sustainable development targets, the SDG Summit is convened by the United Nations (UN) to accelerate action towards the goals with solutions outlined in Our Common Agenda. However, civil society has noted that these frameworks continue to purport a business-as-usual approach as it fails to address the presence and need to address the systemic barriers to people’s development.
The SDG Summit, just like other fora on sustainable development led by the UN, continues to be a talkshop of states and multilateral institutions regarding the urgency to meet Agenda 2030, but with no concrete actions and accountability from them. People on the ground, who experience the impacts of the lack of concerted response for development, are also excluded from these conversations. The NGO Constituency of the Asia Pacific Regional CSO Engagement Mechanism (APRCEM) raises alarm on the lack of outcomes and commitments on financing and partnerships from the SDG Summit, despite the worsening inequality and crisis the region faces. The need for development justice is pronounced now, more than ever.
Running out of fuel
The UN Secretary General likens financing as the fuel required for the sustainable development engine. An additional USD 500 billion a year is being mobilized by the UN, with a prominent role being given to IFIs and banks, as a stimulus for development initiatives. The engine is also in need of upkeep, as the UN calls for the reform of the international finance architecture in order to be fit for purpose in meeting the demands of the world today. However, the UN continues to give IFIs and the private sector a prominent role in development financing, despite their historic role in sowing inequality, violating peoples’ rights and destroying the environment.
Putting profit over sustainable development outcomes, the existing international financial architecture has enabled donors to abandon their development and climate finance commitments, for corporations to plunder resources of the global South, and for developing countries to be burdened with increasing debt. This existing system allows for the further exploitation of the marginalized, such as women and girls, Indigenous Peoples, workers, farmers, fisherfolk, youth, and urban poor, among others.
According to APRCEM Co-chair Ajay Jha Kumar, for the past 50 years, the USD 5.7 trillion that donors failed to provide as aid could have eradicated poverty many times over. Policy conditionalities and austerity measures from banks’ debt bailouts, such as in Sri Lanka, further impede peoples’ access to goods and services. Marginalized sectors are also the most impacted from development projects that have adverse impacts on communities and the environment. Private sector financing, mobilized through traditional and innovative means, have only contributed to increasing debt and lack the necessary safeguards and accountability mechanisms. As long as the sustainable development engine remains profit-driven, unequal and exploitative of resources and peoples of the global South, it will not contribute to genuine development for the poor and marginalized.
Broken engine and missing parts
An engine can only be as good as the sum of its parts, the exclusion of gears, nuts and bolts would entail its breakdown and malfunction. These parts would also have to work together in order for an engine to work seamlessly. However, it can be seen that states have sacrificed cooperation and solidarity as they compete for influence and resources. There is also concern that the prioritization of other issues, such as the Russian invasion of Ukraine, dismisses the other pressing issues faced by the global South. Development processes have also increasingly privileged partnerships with the private sector, and excluded the voices of marginalized communities, sectors, and civil society.
Even in the SDG Summit proper, it can be seen that demands and solutions of marginalized communities are sidelined. However, civil society from around the world has forged their own space outside these processes to amplify people’s voices, which can be seen in the Global People’s Assembly that called for a collective vision for a human-rights centered, gender transformative, intergenerational change, and the Climate March to End Fossil Fuels, exacting accountability from Northern countries and corporations for fueling the climate crisis.
There is a crisis of multilateralism that threatens the effectiveness of development cooperation to address the intersecting crises and challenges that the world faces. Development actors are working towards rebuilding trust in the multilateral system with the United Nations at its core. The high-level advisory board is also forwarding a framework for effective multilateralism. Other than forwarding other frameworks for cooperation, there is a need to strengthen existing multilateral spaces, enabling civil society, communities, and sectors to participate in these discussions for them to forward their own development needs and priorities and exacting accountability from governments to meet their own commitments and responsibilities.
This would entail reversing the trend of shrinking civic space and allowing for people’s democratic ownership of their development priorities. In the region, civil society in 25 out of 26 countries face attacks, threats, and restrictions in voicing out their demands and doing their work. Recognizing the crucial role of civil society as development actors, governments and institutions must ensure they enjoy an enabling environment where they can further contribute in responding to people’s needs. Furthermore, processes led by the UN, states and multilateral institutions should provide for people’s inclusive and meaningful participation, countering the top-down approach of existing SDG processes.
Urgent need for engine change
The existing development paradigm has only caused despair and crises. The sustainable development engine urgently needs an overhaul, as systemic injustice and inequality have ruined its parts. Progress towards the SDGs can only be attained if the systemic barriers are addressed in a just and accountable manner. Along with the rest of APRCEM, the NGO Constituency continues to forward development justice as a framework that can effectively shift the power to the people and deliver effective solutions for the crises we face.
For financing, this means canceling all debt and putting an end to the provision of loans that lead to onerous debts, putting primacy on public finance, and urging donor countries to meet their aid and climate finance commitments. The private sector should not be promoted as the main solution to the financing gap and IFIs must stop imposing policy conditionalities that contribute to the reversal of the progress on the goals. All forms of development finance must be anchored on a human rights and feminist-based framework, as well as development effectiveness principles.
It is essential that the richest countries honor their environmental debt and undertake a complete, equitable, and sustainable transformation of the financial architecture, dating from the end of the Second World War and the colonial period. In light of this reality, we urgently need bold decisions in order to achieve the SDGs and deliver effective climate and biodiversity action in line with the Paris Agreement and Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework (GBF). Furthermore, development actors need to ensure an adequate level of public funding and move away from a top-down approach to a model where community-led and human rights-based operations are the norm, not an exception.
To foster effective partnerships for the SDGs, shrinking civic spaces must be reversed and communities, sectors and civil society must be given space in development processes for meaningful engagement and participation. Effective multilateralism entails the participation of women, Indigenous Peoples, workers, farmers, fisherfolk, urban poor, youth, LGBTQIA+, disability groups and other members of civil society, as primary agents of change and of genuine sustainable development.
The Asia Pacific Regional CSO Engagement Mechanism (APRCEM) is a civil society platform aimed to enable stronger cross constituency coordination and ensure that voices of all sub-regions of Asia Pacific are heard in intergovernmental processes at the regional and global level. One of the platform’s sub-groups is the NGO Constituency, which is composed of hundreds of CSOs from the region that collectively tackle issues of partnerships and civil society engagement in sustainable development processes.
The NGO Constituency is currently coordinated by Jahangir Hasan Masum of Reality of Aid-Asia Pacific. For correspondence, kindly email firstname.lastname@example.org.