A changing World or Just an ego trip by the UN?
Never in recent history has a Secretary General of the United Nation (UN) been given the opportunity to shape development and peace in the world in the manner that outgoing Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon has. By design there are at least eight major processes that have the potential to change the landscape of development and with it the United Nations, forever. And they are all going to be concluded in 2015!
Many of us are familiar with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which are a culmination of a 23-year process that begun way back in 1992 as the Rio process. That process has now been linked to at least five others – the post-2015 agenda that has its roots in the MDGs, the Reform of ECOSOC to make it more responsive to the development and global political realities, the formation of a UN Development Monitoring Framework known as High Level Political Forum (HLPF) to replace the Commission for Sustainable Development, conclusions of discussions on Financing for Development that begun in Monterrey, and the Climate discussions under the UNFCCC.
But this is only the more visible side of what is going on in the United Nations. Unknown to many, there are two other major reforms involving peace and security in the world. The Peacebuilding Commission and Peacebuilding Architecture is undergoing its 10-year review, while the review of UN Peacekeeping Operations is expected to be concluded by June 2015.
These multiple reviews have left many wondering whether the UN simply wants to confuse the world by making it impossible to track and hold them accountable in implementing all these proposed changes, or whether the Secretary General, who has set up a record number of panels to review these processes just before the curtains fall on his term, is simply looking to leave a legacy of what he did; or if indeed the UN is now fit for the purpose of serving “We the Peoples”, as outlined in the preamble of its Charter, and is committed to change how the world is governed and how we conduct development.
Looking at the SDGs/Post-2015-Success or set up for failure?
The SDG agenda is perhaps the most far reaching and ambitious of any undertaking ever attempted by member states, not just because it has developed seventeen goals that effectively cover all the other processes, but that it has also shown the world that with all its weaknesses and structure, the UN can be a platform to forge agreements on areas that are complex and highly political. From Trade to Human Rights, AID to Peace, Gender to Human Development, Climate Change to Private Sector, the SDG agenda appears to be such a complex mix of menu that no one knows how Kenya and Hungary managed to shepherd member states to an agreement that led to just 17 Goals.
And this is the first major achievement of the SDG agenda. It has changed how the world views the United Nations convening and negotiating potential, how the member states view each other, and how the United Nations interacts with other actors, especially the civil society. The goals are themselves complex, and many have concerns that they cover broad areas that will become cumbersome for the UN to track over the next twenty years. Some argue that the goals are too difficult to communicate to ordinary citizens, and will therefore be hard to monitor at national and local levels. But there is agreement on one thing: with one process, the UN has brought an agreement on issues of Trade, Climate, Development, Equity, Peace, Finance and Partnerships; issues that have divided the world for decades.
The successes of the SDGs have also been seen in how the SDG agenda and process has brought a political shift to the world. For the first time African governments found themselves negotiating over so many issues with such far-reaching ramifications that they had no option but to form a common front for their entire negotiations. And so after an agreement on the Common African Position on the post-2015 (CAP), on January 30 2015, Africa member states made the rare decision of forming one joint negotiating team led by a chief negotiator to ensure CAP and SDG agreements favour the continent. Europe was not left out either. On February 5, it developed its own negotiating position on the SDGs. Other regions have also been forced to look beyond their current challenges and agree on a common position. The SDG process has therefore brought a new phase of forward thinking that was rare with governments, especially those who rely on external support for development. The SDG agenda therefore stands out as having given regions and countries momentum to think long term beyond traditional development and democratic goals that have driven us over the past fifty years. Africa has even asserted that it will implement the CAP even if the SDGs fail. This has in effect shifted power relations between Africa and developed states, including China. By asserting its right to chart a path irrespective of whether donors or other regions agree, Africa has told the world that it can follow its own radar to development and democracy. How this will translate to practical terms will be the subject of tests and reviews during the coming years.
And Africa is not alone; Brazil emerged as a strong and independent power taking on the powerful UN Security Council on what it said was a deliberate attempt to bring Security Council issues into the SDGs. Even the tiny young island of East Timor became a strong voice on Goal 16 in the UN, managing to team up with Liberia and Sierra Leone to mobilise and galvanise support that even mighty America, Russia and Canada could not stop! This is the liberating power of the SDG process. It has also shown them that they are stronger together, and can stand even the strongest global powers if they speak as one voice and resist the attempt to wait for donors to dictate development and governance priorities.
However, as the negotiations draw to a close over the next five months, there are still major concerns over whether the SDG agenda will be the UN Magic Bullet, or if indeed the UN has simply set itself up for failure. The entire SDG agenda is voluntary and is in fact non-binding to any member state. This is perhaps it’s Achilles heal. Secondly, it’s not clear how member states are going to monitor their performance on areas that are considered the domain of other platforms. Trade, for example, is considered as a WTO issue, AID and Partnerships remain difficult issues under the Global Partnership for Effective Development Cooperation, while climate discussions are yet to be concluded under the UNFCC conference in December 2015. The many targets have raised concerns over implementation, contextualization and resourcing to meet each of them. It is also not clear if indeed there will be any agreements on indicators and a monitoring framework on some of the more soft issues that are hard to measure such as Peace and Governance. It is also worth noting that member states have refused to have open dialogue on an accountability framework that is linked to citizens; preferring instead to have peer reviews and light processes that put them under little pressure.
For organizations and governments engaged in peace and human security, the challenge is even more daunting. Member states remain sharply divided on whether Goal 16 should have been included in the SDG agenda, considering that even before the SDGs, the greatest fear has been to be placed under what is known as the Security Council Watch list; a term referring to being at the mercy of the five permanent members for being perceived as a threat to the peace and security of your own citizens. Japan tried unsuccessfully to add Human Security discussions to those on peace, Africa failed to add Global Security to the agenda, the US could not persuade members to include governance as a pre-condition for peace while India and most middle east countries tried to dilute the implications of the goal by asking that it be included as cross cutting issues in other areas of development. Even the Africa High Level Panel that developed CAP was forced to beat a hasty retreat and include Peace and Security as a pillar under instructions from the heads of states. The biggest threat, therefore, is ownership of this goal by member states. The other major challenge is on how to integrate the other on-going reviews, especially that of the PBC and the Peace Keeping Operations, into Goal 16. It does not help that a similar agreement on peacebuilding and state building, known as the New Deal, has also become a cropper after over 40 governments and the UN signed it during the Busan High Level Forum on AID Effectiveness (BHLF).
What does all this mean for Civil Society and citizens?
First, the world has changed, forever. The SDG and its related processes have shown us that it is possible to get the UN to dream and aspire beyond its traditional area of comfort. It has also taught us that CSOs who refuse to move beyond traditional donor driven development, challenging the power relations, will soon find themselves isolated by the UN, member states and society. Our engagement with the UN and member states has changed, forever. Never in the history of the UN have so many CSOs had so much unfettered access to discussions that are primarily seen as the domain of member states. Over 5,000 CSOs have engaged in some way in both the SDG and the post-2015 agenda, and currently about 2,000 are still engaged in the Finance and Climate discussions. The collaboration witnessed among CSOs has also been unprecedented, and it will be impossible for CSOs to ever work in isolation again when addressing global issues affecting the world on such a large scale. The SDGs have also made CSOs prioritise in ways they have never done before. Many never knew that several issues related to development could be seen through larger lenses than projects and service delivery. The SDG agenda has taught CSOs that unless we look beyond the manifestations of poverty we will never get to address its roots that extend to inequality, injustice, poor governance, skewed partnerships and imbalanced business and trade relations that favour those who already have. It has also opened new partnerships with governments, some businesses and even with communities.
There are also implications for citizens. The SDG agenda has given us hope that the UN can agree! Yes, if member states push harder and are nudged and urged by global citizens, they can agree on issues that seem impossible. Citizens have also known that they can engage with power, high power. With over 7 million votes, MY World Survey of global citizens has seen the highest number of ordinary citizen engagement with the UN. This means that there is a possibility of greater accountability by citizens over the coming years.
Whether the SDG Goals are finally adopted or not, the process has shifted power relations and ambitions in the world that will never tilt back.
The Global development and political axis has changed, forever. Governments have seen that there is power in one voice, power in persistence, power in staying principled, power in not succumbing to threats. The UN has experimented and found that it can agree on areas that they have considered taboo for decades. States and regions have seen that they can plan and dream about the future, and that future does not depend on donors or on the nod of other perceived powerful allies.
Civil society have learned that beyond projects and funding there are structural barriers that if implemented twenty years ago, would have rendered the MDGs too simple to pursue as goals. They have learnt that collaborations can shift powers in ways never seen before. On peace and security the world has learnt that this is not just about non-violence or absence of conflict, it is the heart of development itself. Citizens have seen that they can believe and push the giant United Nations out of inertia.
If you have engaged in the SDG agenda and it has not transformed your thinking about your own potential, power and the ability to shift the world, then perhaps you are the reason we have been static for so long!
Paul Okumu Heads the Secretariat of the Africa Platform (ACP), a Pan African Platform working with societies, governments and businesses to rebuild the Social contract and re-establish the society as the source of state legitimacy and the final. He has engaged and written extensively on the post-2015/SDG process and was among the first two Global CSO leaders to be selected to address the inaugural engagement of the UN High Level Panel on post-2015. Paul sits on the Global UNDP Civil Society Advisory Committee, the UNDP Regional Program Advisory Board for Africa