Vibrant civil society key to achieving sustainable development goals

Fiscal policies must target inclusive growth
Empirical studies have shown that supportive fiscal policies, globalisation and free trade are key to achieving strong, sustained and inclusive growth.

By John Samuel

Civil society and SDGs: The core value and vision of Sustainable Development Goals are well articulated in the resolution passed by the United Nations General Assembly on September 25, 2015 — Transforming our World: The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. The ethical commitment of the Agenda 2030 is captured by the pledge at the very beginning of the document. “As we embark on this collective journey, we pledge no one will be left behind. Recognising that the dignity of the human person is fundamental, we wish to see the goals and targets are met for all nations and peoples and for all segments of the society. And we will endeavour to reach farthest behind first.“

This pledge is a recommitment of the talisman of Mahatma Gandhi: Recall the face of the poorest and the weakest, and ask if the step you contemplate is of any use to him/her. The collective commitment of the nations of the world to reach ‘the farthest behind first ‘easier said than done. ‘Leave no one behind’ is the call to action to the governments and all stakeholders to reaching out to the most marginalized and excluded people. At the core of this commitment are the principles of inclusion, participation, and human dignity.

The real challenge of making these principles work at the local level is the increasing gap between the people and the policy process. Despite all the good intentions and the lofty ideals of inclusive participation, the fact of the matter is most of the government policies are made by the senior civil servants, policymakers and experts at the corridors power in the capital cities of countries. The gap between policies and people are due to number reasons, including the language, accessibility, high technical content and a rational knowledge framework not necessarily in consonance with the real lives and livelihood context of the most marginalized people.

Most marginalised people live in rural hinterlands and urban slums with less access to resources, language and process of power-relations in the policymaking process. Hence, ‘leave no one behind requires’ an active and deliberate effort to reach out to the most marginalized people. Reaching the ‘farthest first’ requires a commitment for inclusive participation and space for the most marginalized people to voice their issues, demands and perspective.

This requires a deliberative effort to go beyond the bureaucratic confines of the government to include civil society organisations to ensure the voice and participation of the poorest and marginalised included in the process of implementing SDGs.

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Sustainable development goals and governance

The realisation of Agenda 2030 requires concerted efforts by the respective governments and all other stakeholders to commit financial resources, implement SDGs at the national as well as the local. While 15 SDGs are about basic human development, economic development and environmental sustainability, the SDG 16 and SDG 17 are about the enabling conditions to realize all other SDGs. The role of civil society is well articulated in the SDG 16 and 17. The participation of civil society is important to ensure effective implementation of all SDGs. The involvement of civil society is imperative from the perspective effective and accountable governance and inclusive institutions at all levels.

The governance aspect of SDG is well articulated in the SDG 16: Promote Peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels. It is indeed difficult to realize SDGs without peace, stability, strong institutions, justice, peace, human rights and the rule of law.

The 12 targets of SDG 16 include ‘substantially reducing corruption and bribery in all forms ‘; effective accountable, transparent institutions at levels ‘; ensure responsive, inclusive participatory and representative decisions at all levels. None of the 12 targets is possible without the effective participation of civil society organization both in terms of effective implementation and monitoring of SDGs.

The SDG 17 is about ‘Strengthen the means of implementation and revitalize the global partnership for sustainable development ‘. The Goal 17 to is important enabling governance conditions in relation partnership, financing, technology and capacity development, trade and multi-stakeholder partnership and accountability in relation to the implementation of SDGs. A Multi-stakeholder partnership is crucial for the effective implementation of SDGs. The multi-stakeholders are well defined in one of the targets: Encourage and promote effective public, public-private and civil society partnerships, building on the experience and resourcing strategies of partnerships.

Despite the Systemic power and resources, the government alone will not be able to realize SDGs at all levels. The participation of the private sector, civil society and other national and international non-government actors are crucial to the realization of the Agenda 2030. Such a multi-stakeholder partnership approach requires a governance perspective.

Governance is the arena of how power is exercised, decisions are made, policies are developed and implemented within the interface of various actors and institutions in a given context. The active participation of civil society is one of the important aspects of democratic governance. With the paradigm shift in digital technology, social media and information flow, the dynamics of policymaking and practice changed dramatically as more and more people respond and participate in the policy and political discussions.

The digital civic spaces and the participation of civil society through social media network further strengthened the role of civil society in governance This also broadens the scope of governance that include digital freedom, social media, and platform economy. To realise the pledge of ‘leaving no one behind’ requires an ethical commitment and political will to make it happen. This requires for conditions:

  • Civic space, civic rights and civil society to enable and empower the participation of people, particularly marginalized people, at all levels in promoting, implementing and monitoring SDG
  • The active role of local governance in localizing SDGs to ensure that no one is left behind
  • Allocation of financial resources to ensure SDGs are realized for the most marginalized and excluded people
  • Participation of women and marginalized people in implementing and monitoring SDGs
  • A multi-stakeholder partnership where government work closely with the private sector, civil society and international institutions to realize SDGs
  • Transparency and accountability at all levels to ensure resources are used with integrity, effectiveness and efficiency at all levels.

It is in the broader context of the all the SDGs, and with particular reference to SDG 16 and 17, the role of civil society and civil society organizations become crucial in realizing SDGs at all levels.

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Civil society and SDGs

The character and politics of civil society organizations are determined by the civic rights, civic spaces and civic values in a given country. The rights and responsibilities of citizens shape civic values. At the core of civic rights is the freedom of expressions, freedom of association and commitment to human rights for all. Hence, Civil Society is more than an arena of associations or organized space beyond the state and market. Civil Society too is very varied and influenced by politics, economy and laws and regulations within country.

Civil society and civil society organizations are by definition heterogeneous, reflecting the dynamics of context, culture, language, economy and politics. Civil Society can’t be effective or active without civic spaces and civic rights within the national context of country.

Civil society organizations can play very important roles in realizing the SDGs. Following are the specific roles of Civil Society organizations

Civil society can strengthen demand side through public education

One of the challenges of Sustainable Development Goals is to translate them in a way people can understand and relate with their lives and experience. The most important stakeholders in the process of implementing SDGs are the people. However, the reality is that most of the people are simply not even aware about what constitutes sustainable development, what is meant by Sustainable Development Goals and how they will improve the lives and living condition of the people, particularly the marginalized people at the grassroots level.

In a context where most of the marginalized people have relatively less access to education, health as well as government information, there is a significant challenge in reaching out to the farthest. This is partly due to the fact that ‘technical language’ of SDGs often becomes a hindrance for people to understand and appreciate the relevance of SDGs.

The researches and case studies in different parts of the world indicated that public awareness and demand for services immensely improved the effective delivery of government services.

Effective public awareness and education require not only translating the language of the SDGs but also relating to the experience of the people within a given context. In the context where people are not literate, it is essential to adopt innovative and creative means of communications, in consonance with the culture and language of the community.

The participation of young people, women and marginalized communities in public education often helps to develop people develop more awareness about their own modes of living, lives, conditions and context. For example, the public education and awareness initiatives of the Institute for Sustainable Development and Governance in Kerala included public art, songs and state-wide cultural presentations to make young people and marginalized communities aware about SDGs.

This also resulted at the grassroots level people demanding about services from the local government institutions and also made people more about how they contribute to the budgets and why the services are the legitimate rights of the people rather than favours given by the government or a political party or leader.
The public awareness and education also help to democratize information and knowledge where people are enabled and empowered to participate, to claim and to realize SDGs in the context of their lives and livelihood.

Civil society can foster inclusive participation

We live in a world with multiple levels of active and passive discriminations and marginalization based on gender, caste, creed, race, religion and language. Hence, marginalization is not an accident, but is a function of how the dominant power-relations operate at the subnational and local level.

Often the political economy of unequal and unjust power-relations reproduces existing inequalities and injustice in the society. Despite all the intensions to reach out the farthest, the reality is that public policies are largely influenced by the dominant power relations negotiated between political elites, bureaucratic elites and economic elites. Often the mainstream media and civic elites to confirm to the dominant power-relationship within in a given national context.

Civil Society organizations working at the grassroots level and at the level of local governance can play a very significant role in fostering inclusive participation. This is due to the fact most of the community based civil society organizations, involved in poverty eradication, livelihood development and delivering services work directly with the most marginalized. Hence, such civil society organizations not only have direct domain experience and knowledge but also a more significant level of trust at the local level.

Civil Society also brings perspectives of women, LGBTs, Dalits, Adivasis and poor people that help the government to design and implement SDGs in ways sensitive to the issues, contexts and demands of the marginalized people.

Civil society plays important role in public advocacy

Public advocacy is a process of making a public argument, influencing the formulation and implementation of public policies and influencing peoples and social attitudes that strengthen democratic society. Public policy can be done on behalf of the people or marginalized of by the people by themselves. Transformation often happens when the advocacy is people-centric. People-centred advocacy is a set of organized actors aimed at influencing public policies, society attitude and socio-political process that enables and empower the marginalized speak for themselves.

Civil Society Organizations across the world played a very crucial role in shaping the SDGs. It is in the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development in 2012 that the demand for SDGs emerged. Civil Society organizations from different parts of the world contributed to the making of the Goals and targets of Agenda 2030. There have been around 1200 civil society consultation from 2012 to 2015 that influenced the process and outcome document of SDGs.

Though civil society organizations played a vital role in shaping the SDGs, the real challenge remains at the level of implementation of SDGs, particularly in reaching the most marginalized people.

While most of the countries have begun to use the language of SDGs and made them a template for the public policy discussions, the real challenge is the lack of political will to allocate adequate budget and ensure the effective implementation on the ground. The official rhetoric of SDGs has increased, and policymakers claim to have included SDGs as a priority. However, there is not adequate budget allocation for realizing SDGs, and a significant part of the budget often doesn’t reach the people.

Delay of services and quality of services and entrenched corruptions and lack of accountability often leads to a big gap between the rhetoric and realities of realizing SDGs. Within the context of India, this often results in SDGs not reaching out to the ‘farthest ‘. The largest number of poor and hungry people are in India.

It is precisely due to this a people-centred advocacy is crucial to realize SDGs at all level. People-Centred advocacy involves public education, the participation of people, and evidence-based policy asks and consistent follow up of all aspects from the national to the local level. This is due to the increasing gap between policy promises and policy performance in many countries.

Civil society can play a role in localising SDGs

Sustainable Development Goals become real at the local level. Urban and local governments are the government agencies working closest people. In the context of India, the 73 and 74th amendment of the constitutions of India ensured a very important role for the local government institutions in relation to the governance and development. Almost all SDGs have direct relevance to local government as the local government is responsible for delivering many services and also reaching out the most marginalized.

Over the last two decades, the capacity of the local government institutions has significantly increased everywhere. In countries, like India, active women’s political participation made a qualitative difference to the process of local governance. The budgets of local government too increased many folds.

However, there are a number of major challenges in localizing SDGs. Some of these challenges are systemic. For example, the local government institutions get the financial resources often at the last quarter of the financial year, leading to delay of the implementation of the social security provisions to the poor. Another systemic issue is the varying degrees of the capacity at the local government level. While some of the local governments have a relatively better capacity, most of the local government institutions have less capacity and resources to deliver.

In many parts of India, dominant caste /religious power dynamics often hampers the equitable delivery of the services. Marginalized and excluded communities often do not get the benefits of the programme specially designed for them. For example, special funds for Scheduled tribes or scheduled castes often get underspent or diverted.

Civil Society Organisations can play an important role in improving the capacities of the Local government to deliver government projects. Apart from the capacity development of Local Self Government, civil society organizations also can contribute to the empowerment of local communities to demand services and seek accountability.

Localisation of SDGs requires the prioritization of SDGs within a given context of the local area. While some of these SDG targets are related to the government, a large number of SDGs targets are to do with human behaviour. For example, gender equality can only be achieved when there is a shift in the attitude and behaviour of the people.

A case in point is the basic lack of civic attitude wherein waste is dumped in water bodies or roadside, resulting in affecting the health of local communities. Violence against women has increased significantly in many parts of India. Communal violence and the sense of fear at the local level too have increased. There is a sense of erosion of rights among minority /migrant communities in many communities across the world, and active and passive discriminations also play a role in undermining the localization of SDGs.

In an entrenched patriarchal society, the real change with regard to SDG 5 requires attitudinal change. This involves continuous community education and awareness building and reports when there is violence against women and children. Likewise, the realization of SDG 16 requires significant work at the local level. In many countries, corruption to is decentralized. As a result, considerable amount of money meant for housing, education, health or infrastructure development gets siphoned off by the corrupt vested interest at the local level.

This also requires more efforts for ensuring transparency and accountability at the local government level and monitoring budget at the level of local government.

Civil society organisations in service delivery

Civil Society organizations have played a very crucial role in reducing poverty, injustice and rights violations in many contexts and countries. Governments of many of the least developed and developing countries don’t have adequate budget resources to deliver basic development in the respective countries.

Lack of financial resources and capacity resulted in the lack of progress of SDGs in many countries. There are significant evidences from the least developed countries and countries in transition that civil society organizations contributed significantly to the realization of some of SDGs and many of the targets. This is evident in the case of Bangladesh and many of the countries in Africa.

International and national civil society organizations often raise financial resources locally, nationally and internationally to work at the grassroots/community level to work with marginalized communities. Such delivery of service in relation to nutrition, food, access to education and health helped these communities to better equipped to realize the SDGs. Civil Society organizations also helped to build more gender sensitivity, human rights education and empowered people to participate in the sustainable development.

In the post-disaster situation and during the COVID 19 pandemic, civil society organizations played an important role in India and in different parts of the world to provide basic service delivery of food and nutrition and health facilities. In the post-disaster context, CSOs play a very critical role in strengthening the livelihoods and economic and social resilience of communities.

Civil society can bring in accountability

The significant challenge to the realization of SDGs is that the lack of political will to allocate financial resources and to enable governance conditions to deliver on SDGs. Governments tend to highlight SDGs in a customary manner and make policy promises and rhetoric to deliver SDGs. However, adequate budgets are not allocated to achieve SDGs. Even when the budget is allocated, the general tendency is underspending budget meant for the most marginalized communities or diverting the money for some other purpose.

Budget promises and allocations often not get translated into practice. Many governments provide aggregated data, and the devil is in the disaggregated details. More often poor people from socially and economically marginalized communities fail to get out of the vicious circle of poverty and injustice.

Unless people are empowered with information, knowledge, participation and confidence to seek accountability, many of those in power positions in the government cease to be accountable. Accountability needs to be demanded, and transparency needs to be asked. Right to information played a crucial role in promoting accountability, transparency and public argument on democracy and development in many countries.

Monitoring of SDGs requires context-specific indicators. Any governance assessment or monitory of SDGs need to consider context, culture and political dynamics. Tools and framework for monitoring SDGs become effective when they are relevant to the local context.

Civil Society organizations alone can’t deliver sustainable development. A multi-stakeholder partnership framework is vital for realizing the SDGs. This is due to the fact the scope and ambit of SDGs are relatively very high in relation to MDG. It is not easy any of the actors to deliver 17 SDGs with 169 targets. The Agenda 2030 requires a joint partnership effort. When it comes to the realization of SDGs., civil society can play a strategic constructive engagement with the government without compromising the autonomy and agency of the civil society organizations.

While civil society organizations are more innovative with grassroots experience and domain knowledge, the private sector has financial resources as a part of their corporate social responsibility. In many countries, civil society organizations and the private sector joined hands to work with government in a strategic manger.

As indicated earlier, civil society organizations are not homogeneous. Civil society organizations have different kinds of budget, organizational size and budget. Hence it is important to make a distinction with a community-based organization with more volunteers and less funds and a big international NGO with corporate structure and thousands of highly paid employees. These two civil society actors are as different as chalk and cheese. Their priorities and politics are not the same. While big corporate international NGOs are overtly pre-occupied by their ‘brand-equity’ and ‘market-share’, it is often smaller community organizations that make a big difference.

It is essential to realize and recognize the fact that within the civil society too, there is an unequal power-relations, very different priorities and a diversity of political perspective. The very diversity and pluralism are the strengths of civil society organizations tend to create unequal access to power. Hence it is important to go beyond the framework work of elite civil society organizations working with big corporates and bureaucratic elites.

Most of the multi-stakeholder partnership happens at the macro level and at the level of capital cities of the countries. However, the challenge is the realization of SDGs in marginalized communities in remote villages or in the labyrinths of urban slums. It is at the local level, and it is at the level of the most marginalized communities where the partnership with local government and private sector can make a real difference.

(John Samuel is a policy and governance expert, social entrepreneur and development economist)

1. Samuel, John (2002), What is people-centred advocacy? PLA Notes, 43:9-12
2. Samuel, John. “Public Advocacy and People-Centred Advocacy: Mobilising for Social Change.” Development in Practice 17, no. 4/5 (2007): 615-21. Accessed August 25, 2020.
3. Samuel, John (2018) “Leave No Behind: Human Rights Based Approach to Sustainable Development”, Forum-Asia Working Paper Series No. 4
4. Hyden, Göran and Samuel, John (2011), “Making the State Responsive: Experience with Democratic Governance Assessment, United Nations Development Programme