From Local to Global: Building on What Works to Spur Progress on the 2030 Agenda

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Despite advances in some areas of sustainable development, countries around the world are still not on track to achieve the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and implement the 2030 Agenda. As the world grapples with the COVID-19 pandemic, it becomes more and more important to renew the multilateral cooperation around the SDGs, but a major challenge to doing so is the disconnect between the local, national, regional, and global levels.

On July 16th, the International Peace Institute (IPI)—in collaboration with the government of The Gambia and the United Nations Trust Fund for Human Security, along with the governments of Japan, and Switzerland—addressed this question with a virtual interactive discussion and launch of a report on how to design locally led strategies for the 2030 Agenda entitled Localizing the 2030 Agenda in West Africa: Building on What Works (available in French and English).

The meeting followed up on one held last October in Banjul, and Mamadou Tangara, the Gambian Minister of Foreign Affairs, said that the Banjul Forum had made clear the importance of inclusive engagement and multilateral cooperation around the SDGs. “The process must include actors at various levels of the development process. As the famous African proverb goes: if you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”

Mr. Tangara praised UN Secretary- General António Guterres for his “build back better” pledges to go beyond just restoring the UN in the post-COVID period but making sure it was more effective than before. “If there could be anything like a bright side to the pandemic, it is that it has shown us the resilience of the UN spirit in the face of adversity,” he said. “If we are to succeed in localizing the 2030 Agenda, we must possess this spirit of resilience. Better communities make better countries. Better countries make better regions. And better regions create a better world. It all starts with our communities.”

Read his full remarks here.

Munyaradzi Chenje, UN Development Coordination Office (DCO) Regional Director for Africa, said the word “local” was key to successfully implementing the 2030 Agenda and the SDGs and to combating the effects of the COVID-19 virus. “We build from the ground up and not the other way around,” he said. “Local means data and information on where everyone is, knowing those who have been left behind, those at risk of being thrown back into poverty and vulnerability because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the vulnerable, the marginalized, the young adults… Our success will hinge upon empowered communities as a driving force with national, regional, and sub-regional partners.”

Also emphasizing the importance of building up from the local level was Tamba John Sylvanus Lamina, Minister of Local Government and Rural Development in Sierra Leone. “Sierra Leone is in the midst of a pandemic, and that speaks to the issue of how we should use home grown methods to help achieve the goals. The more we focus our attention on the issues and ensuring that people have buy-in, especially at the local level, then the more progress we’ll make as a nation.”

He said that in the aftermath of its civil war, Sierra Leone had created a “People’s Planning Process ” which it is now taking forward in implementing its national development plan. “Consultations were done all over the country to formulate that document, and after that, we moved around the communities for validation of that document to find out what the communities wanted to prioritize.” One of the priorities that emerged from that consultation was an emphasis on education, and particularly secondary school courses in science for girls. “Moving forward, the people’s participatory framework is a social mobilization tool where people sit together and discuss issues together as we would in our traditional homes around the fireplace.”

Georges Ki-Zerbo, World Health Organization Representative in Guinea, spoke about the localization of the response to the COVID-19 pandemic in Guinea. “Two days ago, I was in the municipality of Kaloum in Conakry, and the Kaloum mayor, who was with us at the Banjul Forum, the Minister of Communication, and religious leaders from Conakry joined in to discuss how to best strengthen community engagement in stopping COVID-19. I learned from that discussion that by engaging communities at the district level, the Kaloum municipality was able to reduce the number of COVID-19 infections from 380 to five cases in just a few weeks. This amazing local success was possible through engaging the elders, religious leaders, and women’s and youth associations who went around with the medical teams, promoting face masks and helping families with food, hygiene kits and other commodities. This is a success story, and it shows that we can leverage community networks for responses to scale up the COVID-19 responses and improve social protection and development.”

Noting that as part of commemorating the UN’S 75TH birthday, this year had been designated a year for “listening,” he declared, “Listening will be key for localizing the SDGs and leaving no one behind. In addition to listening locally, we need to work better across borders, not only geographical borders, but also cultural, religious, gender, and age group borders to rebuild after COVID-19 so that we can have the unique ability to innovate.”

“With the added challenge of COVID-19, it is evident that we must consider the decade of acceleration towards the SDGs with the highest possible level of humility, gravitas, and resolve,” Mr. Ki-Zerbo said.

Raheemat Omoro Momodu, Head of Human Security and Civil Society Division, ECOWAS (Economic Community of West African States) Division, said that in reaction to the COVID-19 crisis people would be expecting more from their states and governments. “And that’s how ECOWAS will become more relevant,” she said. “We are going to see greater relevance of intergovernmental organizations.”

As a consequence, Ms. Momodu said, ECOWAS had mainstreamed its response to the COVID-19 pandemic. “ECOWAS will need to re -strategize, innovate, and reform to be a better fit for a redefined course in a post-COVID world. We need to reexamine our approaches, listen more and get more connected to the local community. We need to start the local transformation in such a way that we are informed by what the local needs are.” As part of that transformation, she said, ECOWAS was promoting community-based economic growth “so that people at that level can survive day by day.”

Dominique Favre, Deputy Permanent Representative of Switzerland to the UN, noted that in his country the 2030 Agenda was applied at both the federal and cantonal level. “At the international level, Switzerland is promulgating the same approach regarding all levels of actors for implementation of the agenda, including the local level, civil society, and public authorities. Local partners are priority partners. It’s indeed at the local level that solutions are lived. It’s at the local level that leaving no one behind seems most personal and applicable. ”

Nérida N.M. Batista Fonseca, CEO of Innovation, SARL, in Guinea- Bissau, said that the greatest needs in her country were upgrading the health and education systems and thereby helping young people, who make up 64% of the population. She said that civil society organizations and the private sector could help in several key areas like agriculture. “Our country relies on agriculture mainly so we need to create new entrepreneurs who can collaborate and work within certain areas to meet the needs of the population.

The biggest problem was political, Ms. Fonseca said, because there were frequent changes of government and consequently little stability in the country’s institutions. Also, there was little interaction between the private sector and the UN. Accordingly, she said, “we will only be able to continue the work if we create a commission on sustainable development with innovators from all sector of society that remains a constant platform that withstands the political upheavals.The training of people is crucial because it helps their inclusion in the work force. And we need to support the female entrepreneurs as well if we really want to achieve the 2030 Agenda.”

The authors of the report are Jimena Leiva Roesch, IPI Senior Fellow and Head of the Peace and Sustainable Development Program, and Masooma Rahmaty, IPI Policy Analyst for the Peace and Sustainable Development and Women, Peace, and Security programs.

Citing highlights of the report, Ms. Leiva Roesch said it contemplated a more “people-centered and context specific” approach to putting the SDGs into effect. “We can’t think that we’re going to parachute the SDGs into a local context and just think that municipalities will follow. The 2030 Agenda needs to be perceived as a flexible format that allows for greater inclusion and participation. It’s like opening a door so we can all speak a common language, the SDGs language.”

She also questioned approaches taking up the SDGs in a siloed manner. “The SDGs were designed as a tapestry of connections, so once you focus solely on a specific SDG, the tapestry falls apart and you lose the complexity of the framework. If you’ve ever seen the movie Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, shrinking the SDGs from the national to the sub-national level makes it less overwhelming to tackle the SDGs from a local level, but it hopefully becomes less overwhelming when it’s beyond the national level to the subnational but still keeps the holistic nature of the framework.”

Ms. Leiva Roesch recalled that at last year’s Banjul Forum, the seating was designed to be “non-hierarchal,” with ministers mixed in with local leaders and municipal figures. “What happened there is that national representatives had an ‘aha’ moment where they realized that they had so many resources at home, that there were so many initiatives happening within. We should become aware that there’s a lot more inside than we originally thought. For international actors, it has to be a more humbling process. When you’re trying to localize the SDGs, there’s already so much inside that we have to build on what’s there already.” With COVID-19, this way of working becomes more relevant and urgent than ever.

In brief comments, Alex Konteh, a municipal authority leader from Sierra Leone who participated in the Banjul Forum, asserted that “we must prioritize local cultures as the yardstick of measurement for the realization of the SDGs.”

In concluding remarks, Toshiya Hoshino, Deputy Permanent Representative of Japan to the UN, said the SDGs were “widely promoted” in his country and embodied Japan’s commitment to the “human security agenda,” something he said had become even more relevant with the COVID-19 pandemic. He termed it “politically important to include the concept of human security in the process of localizing the SDGs.”

Ms. Leiva Roesch moderated the discussion.