Bringing Words to Life: How Are the SDGs Supporting Peace, Justice, and Inclusion?

Event Video

The United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development offers a framework to strengthen and transform preventative action to build peaceful, just, and inclusive societies. A July 12th expert-level event, co-organized with Saferworld, was held at IPI on the margins of the UN High Level Political Forum (HLPF) to surface observations from those working to put the SDGs into action at the local and national level, and to discuss how the UN and member states can learn from these experiences. With more than 20 participants, the expanded roundtable provided an innovative format to include greater audience participation showcasing how the 2030 agenda can promote positive peace and inclusion.

Sandra Pellegrom, Head of Development at the Permanent Mission of the Netherlands to the UN, recounted how inclusive decision-making has helped her country reimagine its response to dealing with the threat of flooding. She explained that the Netherlands had in the past adopted a “top-down, very regulatory approach of public institutions” for water and added, “We have very strong institutions, which, “is not always the best approach.”

Flooding of several Dutch rivers prompted relevant government authorities to build a new policy that, based on the 2030 Agenda’s focus on “capacities of institutions to drive inclusive types of processes,” would respect each other’s needs. And that led to a policy where, she said, “we create spaces where the river can go if it starts to threaten to overflow, and it has really benefited all the stakeholders in different ways.” Tradesmen, farmers, and government actors, set up water boards to ensure that water was pumped out of the flooded lowlands and that the country was protected with dikes. She said the “very democratic” system influenced “the multi-party type of democracy where you really realize you always have to make compromises and you have to respect the interest of all the different stakeholders.”

Abdijalil Afqarshe, Program Manager and Head of Somaliland Office, Saferworld, discussed how to ensure coherence between policy at the UN and its application in local settings. He said that “UN frameworks do not always, necessarily, translate into local action. Therefore, Saferworld has tried to work out how best to make this agenda stick at the national and local level.” Saferworld’s commitment to turn the 2030 Agenda from agree to action has been seen in a new piloting of a project in the Horn of Africa on peace, justice, and inclusive societies that aims to bridge this gap.

Zainab Hassan from the Somaliland Non-State Actors Forum, shared insights into how the 2030 Agenda is leading to meaningful change. She recounted how two years of sustained raising awareness on the SDGs, together with targeted advocacy, has led to the adoption of a new National Development Plan that is based around the 2030 Agenda. She noted some early successes for Somaliland civil society groups—who are collaborating on many issues related to SDG 16 and SDG 5—which include a new quota for women’s political participation in upcoming parliamentary elections, new action to end the practice of female genital mutilation (FGM), and the signing of a new Sexual Offenses bill.

Dr. Abdulhammed Suliman, of the Peace Research Institute at the University of Khartoum, mentioned four key challenges to meeting the SDGs in Sudan: fostering multi-stakeholder dialogue; raising awareness of people at local level; helping many stakeholders to set actions as SDGs priorities; and building capacity of civil society organizations to be more active with the SDGs.

Toshiya Hoshino, Deputy Permanent Representative at the Japanese Mission to the UN, spoke about how “one of the basic concepts of the SDGs are to leave no one behind. But,” he added, “the human security issue has become: what to do to help people who are left behind?”

Jairo Acuña-Alfaro, Policy Adviser at UNDP, brought up the question of trust in institutions. “It’s easier for citizens to know what is not working than to appreciate what is working,” he said. “How do we help governments to do more of what is working?”

Mehrnaz Mostafavi, Chief of the UN Human Security Unit, spoke on how to effectively implement people-centered approaches. “At the end of the day it’s about capacitating national staff,” he said. It is necessary to look at the needs and vulnerabilities on the ground. “The entrypoint and central priority remains people,” he said.

Elaborating on that point, Gay Rosenblum-Kumar, UN Representative of Peace Direct, described a survey of local peacebuilders that asked their views of sustaining peace. The findings were similar to those that Mr. Mostafavi had mentioned, she said, about fostering interactive dialogue, raising awareness of people at the local level, and building capacity of local civil society. Asked their opinions of the relevance of the SDGs to their work as peacebuilders, four topics stood out in the answers—first, poverty alleviation; second, gender equality; third, unemployment, income generation, and youth work; and fourth, reconciliation and social trust.

To address these concerns, she mentioned three possible solutions: encouraging grassroots civil society to get more involved; strengthening partnerships with those local stakeholders; and allowing the communities to own the process. “It can’t be that the international community kind of sells the ideas and they are bought, but really they have to form local civil society and so their visions are empowered about what a sustainable peaceful solution would look like,” she said.

Coco Lammers, Campaigns and Advocacy Officer at Namati, pointed out that a barrier to achieving the SDGs is the lack of financing to support the realization of the goals. She said that this is particularly true for those working to advance grassroots access to justice and legal empowerment.

This is happening in a shrinking of civic space, which is further hindering groups abilities to advance access to justice. According to Ms. Lammers, 68% of respondents said that they were threatened for carrying out legal empowerment work in the past year. “Unfortunately,” she said, “the SDGs just have not helped yet turn this narrative around.”

Continuing the discussion around financing, Alejandro Calderón, from Impact 2030, mentioned the gap in funding SDGs in his home country, Colombia. To confront this problem, he looked to the private sector. “In the case of Colombia,” he said, “we’re talking about a 30 to 40 billion dollar gap…The country doesn’t have 30 to 40 billion dollars, so the private sector needs to jump in, and it needs to be in a public-private alliance way.” Mr. Calderón also emphasized the importance of organizations that focus on preservation of art and culture, arguing that they are contributors to positive peace.

David Yardley, Political Counsellor at the Permanent Mission of Australia to the UN, said that the challenge of the SDGs is not about creation of new goals, but rather about their implementation. “We need managers and accountants now, and not philosophers,” he said.

Elizabeth Ampairwe, Director of the Women and Leadership Program at the Forum for Women in Democracy, gave the example of how the government in her home country, Uganda, should be held accountable for realizing the SDGs. She explained that while Uganda’s systems, policies, and frameworks appear democratic, “What happens is that, in essence, there is a lot of shrinking space for civil society. There’s a lot of abuse for human and democratic rights. And yet our governments sit in these spaces and make it appear like all is rosy,” she said. “So,” she remarked, “I wonder if this framework actually provides a window for holding governments accountable, because they have committed to this global agenda, but what happens in-country is actually the opposite.”

Catherine Howell, Innovative Finance Specialist in the UN Peacebuilding Support Office (PBSO) echoed Mr. Calderón’s call to engage the private sector, describing the gap in communication and comprehension of the SDGs. She asked if there is any common language between the private sector and the development sector, and said that SDG 16 was one of the least measured SDGs in the private sector.

SDG 16, which promotes good governance, posed a particular challenge for measuring achievement, she said. But while conceding that governance is difficult to measure, Ms. Howell reiterated the value of involving the private sector in achieving the SDGs. “The private sector don’t understand it, necessarily, and they don’t know how to measure it; they think it’s too political; they don’t know how to get involved,” she said. “And I think as part of these debates, it is really important to think about how we can properly engage the private sector. How can we look to them for solutions?”

In a final comment on how to hold national governments to account, John Romano, Coordinator of the Transparency, Accountability, & Participation (TAP) Network asked, “Do we necessarily want governments to self-report on their effectiveness or the inclusiveness of their institutions and how they are doing on those fronts? And I think for us, I think the answer would be ‘no.’” He said instead it would be an “opportunity to use additional sources of data and expand the scope of how we measure progress against these issues.”

Other participants included:

  • Cristina Diez, Director of Advocacy, ATD Fourth World
  • David Steven, Associate Director, New York University Center on International Cooperation
  • Marianne Loe, Special Envoy on the Post-2015 Agenda, Permanent Mission of Norway to the UN
  • Michelle Breslauer, Program Director, Americas, Institute of Economic and Peace
  • Omar Castañeda Solares, Deputy Permanent Representative of Guatemala to the UN
  • Laurie Mincieli, UN Liaison Officer, Global Partnership for the Prevention of Armed Conflict
  • Jordan Street, Policy and Advocacy Coordinator, Saferworld

Jimena Leiva Roesch, IPI Research Fellow, moderated.