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The 2030 Agenda’s commitment to peaceful, just and inclusive societies – making it count

2030 Agenda, post-2015

The 2030 Agenda makes ‘peaceful, just and inclusive societies’ a global priority by including peace as a cross-cutting issue as well as a dedicated Goal. But these are only words on paper. How can we ensure that the new international framework, signed up to by all Member States in 2015, actually makes a difference to people’s lives, especially those living in conditions of conflict and insecurity? Saferworld is still exploring and learning how to translate the promise into practice, but drawing on our experience of engaging on the 2030 Agenda in a range of countries - including Bangladesh, India, Myanmar, South Africa and Kenya - we have identified six conditions that can help ensure the 2030 commitment brings about real change on the ground.

Political as well as technical support

Building more peaceful, just and inclusive societies is not a technical or process-based exercise – ultimately it comes down to power and politics. So we need to understand better how change actually happens in different contexts, and work up from there. Processes such as the integration of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) into national action plans or strategies can be helpful, but all too often existing national policies are not properly implemented in the first place. Often this is due to limited capacity and scarce resources at the national level, but sometimes an equal obstacle is that those in power are not really committed to change as they have a vested interest in the status quo. In such contexts, technical and process-based approaches will be fruitless. However, domestic change makers – dissatisfied with the status quo - exist across every state and society. These may include, for example, a reformist parliamentarian, a network of human rights defenders, or a business coalition that wants to improve the climate for investment by strengthening the rule of law. The SDGs can serve not only as a framework for brokering financial and technical support to these actors, but also as a legitimate basis for providing political support. As South Africa’s experience during apartheid shows, international support and solidarity can play an important role in sustaining civil society during times of isolation and oppression.

Relevance and utility for national actors

Research into the influence of the MDGs shows how international frameworks open up a new political opportunity structure that civil society can use to secure legitimacy, mobilise coalitions and hold governments to account. It also suggests that such frameworks have most impact in countries undergoing transition processes where the issues concerned are being contested – so a relevant and applicable framework can help tip the balance. The 2030 Agenda affirms issues of peace, justice and inclusion as international norms, and governments have committed to achieving the specific targets – this gives change makers something to mobilise around. But for this to happen requires that the SDGs are translated from abstract global concepts into the language and discourse of what is currently being contested in a particular context. In Bangladesh, civil society actors are using Goal 16 to give new impetus to their work on access to justice, ensuring that it speaks to citizens frustrated by an expensive legal system beset by corruption and back-logs. They also plan to use the SDG framing as a basis to engage with officials and parliamentarians on these issues.

Space for civil society engagement

Civil society actors can play a critical role by mobilising action and holding governments to account for the international commitments that they’ve signed up to – especially when these commitments will be monitored with indicators and reviewed at national and global levels. They can also help ensure that national priorities reflect the views of all citizen groups, especially those in conflict-affected areas who would otherwise find it difficult to have their voices heard.  Evidence shows that co-reporting by government and civil society can add credibility and legitimacy to international commitments, encouraging officials to take such processes more seriously. But unless there is safe and sufficient space for civil society to operate, they won’t be able to capitalise on the Goal 16 agenda for change. Worryingly,  many states are actively closing down civil society space and in some cases targeting civil society actors financially, politically and physically. For example, the governments of Ethiopia and Sudan continue to severely restrict the space for civil society and others such as Kenya and India are increasingly closing down previously dynamic state-civil society dialogue.  It is imperative that civil society actors operating in such challenging contexts get political backing and solidarity from the international community.

Effective accountability mechanisms

We shouldn’t downplay the significance of international reputation in motivating member states to deliver on their international commitments. In the words of one Kenyan government official: ‘the outlook and image we form to the outside world are important drivers of compliance’. The effectiveness of the SDG monitoring and review processes – the High-Level and Political Forum (HLPF) and the global indicator framework – will influence member states’ willingness to advance this agenda. But such processes can be both used and abused by governments. They may pay lip-service to Goal 16, or co-opt elements of the agenda rather than advancing it as a whole. Civil society should call out governments that engage in ‘SDG window-dressing’ instead of demonstrating how they will address social, economic and environmental challenges. This will require the HLPF to go beyond business as usual by ensuring that civil society’s accounts of national progress are given space and a fair hearing. The new data generated as a result of the SDG indicators has the potential to become the currency of accountability processes. However, more data does not necessarily mean more accountability: there needs to be access to the data, and the means to disseminate the implications beyond the circle of SDG-watchers. 

Connecting across siloes

Transformative change won’t be brought about by a single ministry or new government policy. Because peace, governance and justice issues are embedded in complex systems, and transformative change often comes at the intersection where multiple issues – like gender, power and violence - come together. These ‘sweet-spots’ won’t be found by working alone; they will be found by coalitions working across society and state. In the post-apartheid transition to democracy in South Africa, women’s organisations had a far-reaching political influence by joining forces with other actors to push for one of the most progressive constitutions for gender equality in the world. The ‘peaceful, just and inclusive societies’ agenda provides a platform to bring together a range of stakeholders to collaborate on interdependent issues through knowledge exchange, lesson learning and joint strategising. For example, by demonstrating the interdependence between Goal 16 and Goal 5 on gender equality, civil society and government actors can address gender inequalities in access to justice, security and political participation.

Staying true to the spirit of Goal 16

Goal 16 lays out a developmental approach to preventing conflict, inclusive governance and access to justice, an approach that is long-term and holistic. It provides the basis for an alternative to the top-down, crisis-driven and securitised approach that has characterised much of the recent international response to conflict and insecurity.  International actors – especially those governments that invested so much to get the goal included in the first place – need to stay true to this vision and need to protect it. For example, recent EU initiatives and frameworks to ‘train and equip’ security forces in third countries in order to ‘manage’ migration explicitly reference Goal 16, and specifically target 16.a on strengthening state capacities to combat terrorism and crime. But initiatives like these that seek to prevent migration by supporting authoritarian governments are fundamentally incompatible with the overall achievement of Goal 16. Ultimately such initiatives will only lead to less peaceful societies, more displacement and long-term instability.

Read about our work on peace and the 2030 Agenda.

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Building more peaceful, just and inclusive societies is not a technical or process-based exercise – ultimately it comes down to power and politics.

Anna Moller-Loswick

The opinions expressed in articles or comments on this blog do not necessarily reflect the opinions or policies of Saferworld. Saferworld is not responsible for the accuracy of the information in blog articles written by guest contributors.

Please note that comments on blog posts are moderated, and anything offensive or threatening may be removed.

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