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All talk, no action? Disrupting the way the UN reviews the SDGs

13 August 2019 Jordan Street and Alexandra Azua Hale


With the end of another High-Level Political Forum, Jordan Street and Alexandra Azua Hale reflect on how the Voices of SDG16+ collaborative campaign to bring more civil society voices into policy discussions provided a small but significant insight into the experiences that the multilateral system is missing out on.

Every year, diplomats, civil servants, activists and practitioners brave the sticky July weather of New York City to descend on the United Nations headquarters for the High Level Political Forum (HLPF). The two-week forum, where delegates review progress on delivering the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), is useful in bringing together people from around the world, but has fallen far short of expectations that many once had.

“The role of civil society is really to remind people at the high level what’s happening on the ground, bring real people and real stories and their realities to the theories and the reports that they see. Because when you’re in New York, or Geneva, or any other headquarters, when the information and the data comes to you, it's just another essay or another report.” - Arlyssa Bianca Pabatoy – Center for Peace Education (CPE) - Miriam College, Philippines

Since the Forum began to review the SDGs in 2016, there has been a growing sense of disillusionment – with many feeling that it is just another platform for clichéd rhetoric, clever soundbites and empty promises. Those who follow proceedings with an eye on SDG16  and the peaceful, just and inclusive societies agenda (as we do) will also lament its failure to highlight real challenges and gaps in implementation, with many country-specific reviews either failing to mention SDG16 entirely or being unaware of conditions in the countries.

After last year’s HLPF, Saferworld wanted to try something different. We knew that this year’s event would be the first time that SDG16 was going to be reviewed, so we asked ourselves how we could support those who are using SDG16 in their everyday work to make the world a bit safer and more secure. We wanted to hear the real lessons and challenges they face, and listen to some of their ideas – informed by real experiences in different contexts around the world – with the hope that it could lead to some practical change at the UN.

The idea – Voices of SDG16+ - was born on a chilly November morning in New York with our colleagues from the TAP Network and the International Peace Institute – we would run an open campaign for civil society activists from around the world to submit a short video documenting their work to implement SDG16 in their country, and bring the best, most innovative examples to the United Nations. There, they would have the chance to share their work and bring to life the SDG16 review in a way not done before. We thought that short videos would be the best way to introduce new voices and ideas.

What followed was an arduous two months of pushing the campaign out as widely as possible, with the help of 11 campaign partners.* But at the end of it, we had almost 200 videos from over 70 countries.

After reviewing a host of impressive and inspiring submissions ranging from efforts to raise awareness of SDG16 in Iraq, to post-conflict reconciliation efforts in Colombia, partners selected 13 inspiring peacebuilders, justice defenders, and SDG16 champions from Afghanistan, Canada, Cameroon, Guatemala, India, Kenya, Nepal, Nigeria, Pakistan, Philippines, and Somaliland, whom we invited to represent the campaign and bring their stories to the HLPF.

Soon enough, the two weeks of the HLPF arrived. Those who attended the Voices of SDG16+ events said they were like a breath of fresh air. Winning video submissions were screened and participants were provided an opportunity to share their inspiring work to reshape narratives, provide legal aid services, support young people through education, create safe spaces for female community leaders, and promote dialogue with authorities. These collective testimonies brought to life the rich experiences of civil society and highlighted some of the ways in which SDG16 is being implemented in practice.

For those who could get into the packed room, it was a space where participants and attendees could share, learn and build connections. “As a young woman, these opportunities are not easy to find,” said Umulkheir Harun Mohamed, one of the participants from the Kesho Alliance in Garissa, Kenya. “Being part of this platform has impacted my growth and in turn will positively affect the work that I do at the grassroots.”

The team at ImageThink, a graphic recording agency, captured the major themes with beautiful illustrations that presented a visual and engaging accompaniment to the discussions.

Participants said the campaign provided a space for their experiences to be heard and allowed for meaningful opportunities to advocate to those making decisions that affected their lives. This wasn’t only an opportunity for the participants, but for us international organisations to work together better and ensure that collaboration is at the heart of our approach. Too often, we compete for limited space when a collective effort can be so much more impactful.

By the time the next HLPF rolls around, the review process might look entirely different, given the discussions on a new HLPF format for the coming years. States that speak about protecting civic space and the importance of civil society must champion a HLPF that lives up to these ideals. The hope is that a genuine platform for civil society voices and experiences will be created through an official mechanism. If this cannot be achieved, then those championing the SDG16+ agenda will need to find a way to support parallel spaces - like the Voices of SDG16+ campaign - in the future.

Ultimately, the 2030 Agenda is an agenda for people, not just governments, and the review process must make sure that this is reflected moving forward. There is a clear need to support initiatives that are diversifying global policy discussions and pushing to change the way the UN does business. After all, that is what the 2030 Agenda and the SDGs are about.

*Saferworld; International Peace Institute; Transparency, Accountability, and Participation (TAP) Network; Conciliation Resources; Civil Society Platform for Peacebuilding and Statebuilding (CSPPS); The Global Partnership for the Prevention of Armed Conflict (GPPAC); Article 19; Life & Peace Institute; Pax Christi International; Peace DirectWorld Vision International and Namati.