This July the UN ECOSOC hosted the 2020 High-Level Political Forum (HLPF), a moment for nations to share progress updates on the implementation of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and discuss challenges and ideas for reaching the Agenda for 2030.
While delegates announced important milestones like decreasing poverty rates, expanded social protections, and greater food security, they also acknowledged that COVID-19 had weakened their state’s capacities. Speakers universally called for global solidarity and multilateralism, particularly in light of the public health and economic crises posed by the pandemic.
Despite many points of consensus, important distinctions emerged between representatives’ policy priorities, attitudes toward outside partnerships, and visions of the best pathway to achieve the SDGs. Five key takeaways from the forum are presented below
1. A focus on peace and security, but little attention to state-led violence or racial justice.
Government representatives addressed SDG16’s objectives of peaceful societies and universal access to justice, condemning domestic violence, gang violence, torture, and armed conflict. While indisputably important, the conversation overlooked state violence against civilians accompanying global surges in autocracy. Since racism is built into many justice systems, this structural violence poses a disproportionate threat to the physical wellbeing and rights of historically marginalized populations like people of color and indigenous groups.
A racial justice lens was strikingly absent from many SDG16 conversations. During the HLPF Opening Address, one United Nations representative identified the world’s “vulnerable” to be women, disabled people, and youth. In a later presentation, a Kenyan delegate emphasized domestic security as a development priority, accompanied by a striking infographic of cartoon soldiers and tanks.
These race-blind overtures were especially glaring in the wake of the recent public lynching of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement, which has had global reverberations. When deployed against civilians, state security forces threaten SDG16’s tenets of justice for all and institutional accountability, particularly for those who face racism and discrimination.
2. Emphasis on equity, but a missed connection with justice.
Speakers frequently called out rising global inequality, and the disastrous impact of the COVID lockdown on people living in poverty. Their timing is impeccable: the World Food Program predicts that by the end of 2020, 130 million people will be pushed into conditions of starvation by COVID-induced disruptions.
But proposals to reduce inequality (SDG10) varied widely amongst presenters. Some delegates framed equity as a project of state beneficence, highlighting programs to support people living in poverty. Other representatives stressed participation of vulnerable populations in governance processes.
While social investment and public participation are important components of equity, these methods must be complemented by a justice-oriented approach. This recent Pathfinders report examines COVID-19’s dire economic impact on the world’s most vulnerable populations, and the resulting increases in justice needs. By strengthening access to justice, governments can ensure both SDG10 and SDG16 objectives stand at the forefront of recovery efforts.
3. The value of data to understand progress towards SDGs.
Many presentations emphasized the need for reliable data to inform evidence-based policymaking. By identifying information gaps and improving data collection, governments and other stakeholders aspire to more effectively diagnose population needs and evaluate SDG implementation.
Simultaneously, other speakers advocated for governments to integrate non-official data sources (including research institutions, civil society organizations, and other grassroots sources) with the work of National Statistics Offices (NSOs), or risk missing important nuances. In one representative’s words, “it’s not just about GDP and other such metrics. It’s also about vulnerability and local issues.” In order to build trust between communities and government, it will be key to put official and non-official data sources in conversation.
4. Tension over the private sector’s role in the SDGs.
Speakers sharply diverged on the role of the private sector in achieving the SDGs. While some delegates upheld the role of business in sustaining economic progress, others voiced their skepticism about the global trend towards privatization.
On one side, an African Union representative praised public-private partnerships as key to a sustainable and inclusive economy. During an event on human trafficking, advocates of microcredit praised sustainable finance to end modern slavery by assisting vulnerable people. This Pathfinders briefing discusses the private sector’s potential to extend access to justice through technological solutions, like increasing access to online legal information and safeguarding privacy rights.
Others argued that COVID-19 opens a window for private profit at the public’s expense. Examples of COVID-era disaster capitalism include India’s Prime Minister Modi supporting efforts to open a privately-owned coal mine despite risks to indigenous groups and the environment, farmers in Asia experiencing illegal encroachment by loggers, and land grabs in Brazil’s Amazon rainforest causing deforestation rates to increase 64% in April. By disenfranchising communities and threatening environmental harm, these private sector projects impede the SDG16 goal of peaceful, just, and inclusive societies.
5. SDGs as a roadmap: but towards resilience, or transformation?
Speakers agreed that the SDGs must serve as a roadmap to “Build Back Better” from the COVID-19 pandemic. But in one speaker’s words, “will it be business as usual? Or will we move forward?” This question evokes two opposing crisis responses: fortifying the existing order by increasing resilience, or building radical, systemic transformations into recovery processes.
Some delegates approached Build Back Better as a project of resilience, promoting circular economy initiatives that insulate global capitalist consumption, extending microcredit by supporting global financial institutions, and bolstering national security forces. Unfortunately, resilience leaves no room to dismantle existing structural injustice. By fortifying the institutions that stand, the international community will fail to meet the SDGs.
Others called for a transformative approach to recovery, advocating that global actors re-examine unsustainable patterns of resource consumption, economic inequality, and state-sponsored violence against civilians to meet the Agenda for 2030. The roadmap already exists: this report provides a blueprint for transformative approaches to SDG16, including legal empowerment at the local level, equitable resource distribution, and enlarging civic space. By advancing this project of social justice and transformation, leaders can make institutional changes necessary to achieve the SDGs.
By Suzanne Caflisch, Global Advocacy Fellow, Namati