United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres started 2020 by warning that geopolitical tensions and mistrust in the political establishment are among the major global threats for the future. Secretary-General Guterres also said that the antidote to this mistrust lies in implementing the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Five years into its implementation, however, many policymakers agree that momentum towards achieving its goals is slowing down. What then is needed for the 2030 Agenda and its Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to be achieved and for mistrust and tension to be addressed?
Pushing Back Against Mistrust
At the core of any effort to tackle the growing levels of mistrust is the need for governments to build stronger connections with local populations and to decentralize decision-making and implementation structures. The 2030 Agenda provides the ideal opportunity to begin this process of localizing implementation, as the agenda’s goals will not be achieved if the conversation stays at an elite level. As Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed recently emphasized, localization in this context means “true ownership by all stakeholders” and an environment where the “aspirations of the SDGs become a reality for communities, households, and individuals, particularly those who are at risk of falling behind the most.” In this way, any achievements in development and peacebuilding will endure.
To achieve this kind of localization and ownership, it is important for governments and the UN to transform the way they usually work. The 2030 Agenda offers governments the main driving seat, with the UN providing critical support in many developing countries. The reality on the ground with this arrangement is that one country’s ministry takes primary lead on the implementation of the 2030 Agenda and, at best, an interministerial table is set up to receive general updates from other sectors. Civil society and the private sector are “consulted” principally when the national voluntary review (VNR) to monitor progress comes up and governments need to offer a statement to the UN in New York.
The 2030 Agenda meant to change this manner of business as usual. In many countries, these interministerial tables are transforming the way governments work into a more integrated manner, where, for example, gender equality and women’s empowerment advances are not championed only by a gender office or team, but are a concern embedded across all programs related to the SDGs. Up to now, engagement with civil society and the private sector on the part of governments remains ad-hoc in most cases and is often disorganized, with only a few privileged civil society organizations (CSOs) included in the process.
Community leaders and small, local civil society organizations also need to become partners in these efforts. Ownership at this level would guarantee that the 2030 Agenda matters not only as a unifying international framework, but also as a transformative document creating social cohesion and shared vision at the community level. City mayors and municipal authorities can also be, and are becoming, a driving force behind implementation, particularly outside capitals. At least 11 cities have already presented their Voluntary Local Review (VLR) to the UN, and the number keeps growing.
New Ways of Connecting the Global to the Local
To change the way governments and the UN usually work, mechanisms must be designed that allow for regular interaction between municipal authorities, community leaders, grassroots organizations, and the local private sector. The key to localizing the 2030 Agenda, then, lies in organizing these new models of engagement.
An example of such an initiative was the “Localizing the 2030 Agenda: Building on What Works” forum in The Gambia which brought together more than seventy participants from eight West African countries. The forum was intended to deepen discussion, identify good practices, and foster new ideas on how to accelerate progress on achieving the SDGs from the ground up. Participants included government officials from the central and municipal levels, and UN and civil society representatives. The forum was structured to put the local community at the center of multi-stakeholder engagement. By placing people at the center as called for in the 2030 Agenda, the process of defining implementation strategies engaged local authorities and community leaders more systematically.
Learning From New Approaches
The “Building on What Works” forum proved to be a unique and innovative model for accelerating the achievement of the 2030 Agenda. Designing such an approach, however, requires a change in mindset. There is a need to reflect on the overall approach to sustainable development, which is often a top-down process where strategies are defined at the international or national levels and implementation is expected at the municipal and local levels. It requires a shift from working in silos to working as an interconnected system from the bottom up and top down—both horizontally and vertically—while engaging in multi-stakeholder partnerships beyond the scope of traditional development actors.
Shifting mindsets allows for an environment to be created that provides space for local communities to demonstrate that they possess the solutions to their own challenges, and to present and build upon existing initiatives on the ground that are working. In SDG implementation thus far, there has been a tendency for external actors to create an agenda and specific priorities that are exogenous to the context and the needs of communities. Although well-intentioned, these efforts can be limited in their ability to bear sustainable results. If we are to learn from new approaches that empower local communities, external actors can bolster sustainable development by supporting national governments and local communities to sustain collaborative efforts and to thereby be more responsive to the reality on the ground over the long-term.
Ultimately, this shift in mindset rests on a whole-of-society approach, i.e., that achieving the SDGs will require all segments of a society at the local level. For it is only through a whole-of-society approach that the richness of knowledge, interest, and expertise that exists in all communities can be captured. By being a microcosm of the wide array of actors involved in sustainable development—from women’s and youth organizations, small business and entrepreneurs, faith-based organizations and leaders, art communities, political parties, media, and others—broad-based local efforts like the “Building on What Works” forum can help identify effective entry points for collaboration that can be taken to scale at the national level.
What Does This Mean for Accelerating the 2030 Agenda?
During last year’s SDG Summit, Secretary-General Guterres said, in relation to achieving the SDGs, that “we are far from where we need to be. We are off track.” There are only ten years left until the goals expire in 2030. Setting global goals of this kind has been an audacious experiment since the Millennium Developments Goals in 2000. The SDGs set ambitious standards, and if we are to get on track, the 2030 Agenda needs to become a new social contract between governments and people. It needs to be known, discussed, and shaped to fit local contexts. The goals need to act as shared aspirations that connect the different layers of society. In September, the UN will launch the “Decade of Delivery and Action,” which presents a valuable opportunity to build on momentum in achieving the SDGs. Engaging and empowering leaders from the bottom-up is fundamental to these efforts.