In September 2023, world leaders gathered for a summit at the United Nations headquarters in New York to review the progress of member states toward meeting Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Marking the halfway point of the 2030 Agenda, the assembly of leaders—including governments, private sector actors, international organizations, and members of civil society—painted a disheartening picture: less than 15% of the SDGs are currently on track.
Major global disruptions triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic, ongoing and intensifying conflicts, and the climate crisis have exacerbated issues of poverty and inequality. Simultaneously, they have put human rights in jeopardy, with states adopting policies that place communities in conditions of increased political, financial, and social instability. It’s now more important than ever for governments, civil society, multilaterals, foundations, the private sector, and other development stakeholders to come together and work toward our common goals.
To address these pressing challenges and deliver on promises for inclusive, sustainable development that leaves no one behind, the global civil society platform CSO Partnership for Development Effectiveness (CPDE) has called for a radical change to the international financial architecture. CPDE asserts that this action must include a drastic increase in the financing developed countries give to developing countries, as well as improvements in the quality of aid, with provisions that prioritize equity, transparency, and the active participation of developing countries and civil society.
Outcomes of the SDG Summit
The need to scale up SDG finance emerged as a central theme during the summit. This concern was reflected in the political declaration that came out of the meetings, with several references to the importance of providing development finance to developing countries. Under the call to action section, the declaration states:
“We will ensure significant mobilization of resources from a variety of sources, including through enhanced development cooperation, strengthening the capacity to mobilize domestic resources and private sector investment in order to provide adequate and predictable means for developing countries, in particular the least developed countries.”
The declaration also addresses the SDG financing gap through the support of an SDG stimulus plan, pledging to “tackle the high cost of debt and rising risks of debt distress.” On paper, this call to action seems promising; however, it does not deviate much from existing commitments that have not been acted upon. For example, this financing gap was identified at the inception of the 2030 Agenda in the Addis Ababa Action framework for financing sustainable development in 2015. Yet, the annual funding shortfall required to achieve the SDGs remains at a staggering $4.2 trillion, underscoring the considerable ground to be covered.
Moreover, the language used is vague at times and does not align with the recommendations for progressive and tangible actions put forth by civil society organizations (CSOs). These encompass recommendations for making good on financial commitments that amount to trillions in undelivered aid, reforming the international aid architecture, and establishing a convention on development cooperation.
From a civil society standpoint, it’s profoundly disappointing that the declaration overlooks the vital role of CSOs and other non-state actors in propelling the next stages of the SDGs. It predominantly focuses on the deliverables of member states and the UN system, while the pivotal contribution of civil society in advancing SDGs, fostering transparency, and ensuring governmental accountability remains unacknowledged. Remarkably, civil society is mentioned only once in the document, tucked away among various stakeholders, within a commitment to enhancing local partnerships.
Civil society at the forefront of change
CSOs have consistently stood on the frontlines of every crisis response. Their invaluable contributions in maintaining the social tapestry at a local level, providing essential services, protecting natural resources, preserving historical memory, and spearheading endeavors to include women, girls, youth, and the most marginalized continue to be under-emphasized, if not ignored.
Top-down approaches to policy-making, insufficient consultation and data monitoring, and a troubling trend of shrinking civic spaces all significantly hinder CSOs’ ability to operate effectively as independent development actors. In recent years, governments exploited the COVID-19 pandemic as a pretext to further suppress and restrict people’s rights to organize and voice their collective concerns. The ramifications of such increased repression are far-reaching and present a major obstacle to achieving the collective ambitions embedded in the SDGs.
As evidenced in the 2023 edition of CPDE’s annual study on Voluntary National Reviews (VNRs), only 17 out of 109 CSOs are involved in their country’s VNR process, which assesses national governments’ implementation of SDGs and is presented at the UN High-Level Political Forum. The report finds that “decisions on how to implement the SDGs, from financing to monitoring, are made without proper consultation with and feedback from civil society and marginalized groups.”
Next steps: Urgent action that prioritizes inclusion
States and development actors must recognize and support civil society’s role in ensuring an effective, locally-led aid architecture focused on addressing poverty and inequalities. The CPDE effectiveness principles offer a blueprint for a more inclusive response to pressing global challenges, which can be aligned with human rights and feminist frameworks. CPDE’s message to the SDG Summit underscores the importance of employing the effectiveness principles. These principles, which include country ownership over development priorities, a focus on results, fostering inclusive partnerships, and promoting transparency and accountability, are essential in guaranteeing that devlopment cooperation, particularly official development assistance (ODA), contributes to the SDGs.
The issue of financing is central to the discussions on the 2030 Agenda. CPDE participated in the UN High-Level Dialogue on Financing for Development in the wake of the summit, advocating for increased aid levels, safeguards to protect current aid budgets to developing countries, and comprehensive reforms in the international financial architecture. These reforms must prioritize equity, transparency, and the active participation of developing countries and civil society.
The 4th Financing for Development conference is scheduled for 2025, presenting an opportunity for the international community to overcome pressing challenges impeding the SDGs. Civil society organizations aim to closely monitor the developments of this conference, along with the upcoming UN COP28 conference on climate change in November 2023 and the UN Summit of the Future in September 2024. CSOs will continue to demand urgent action to meet the SDGs in a way that leaves no one behind.