Revitalizing Progress for SDG 16 on Peace, Justice and Inclusion

Internally displaced children from the camp in Juba are seen standing at the gate during the visit of the Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator Valerie Amos and UNESCO Envoy for Peace and Reconciliation Forest Whitaker. (UN Photo/JC McIlwaine)

In a global environment increasingly reflective of the deep interlinkages between governance, security, and development, the implementation of 2030 Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 16 remains paramount for the achievement of sustainable peace and development. Yet six years into the SDGs, global progress on implementation of Goal 16 is uneven, stagnant, and at its current pace of implementation, unattainable by 2030. At a time when the global health crisis has laid bare the existential importance of effective and inclusive governance, the way forward for realizing SDG 16 will continue to depend on states’ ability to effectively navigate holistic policy coherence and the purposeful integration of local development actors.

In formalizing peace, governance, and justice as prerequisites for sustainable development, SDG 16 has accentuated both the primacy of positive peace in conflict management processes and the need to address structural drivers of violence. The pivot toward a more expansive iteration of SDG 16 has further affirmed its function as an enabler for the SDGs’ cross-cutting agenda. Since then, a community of broad-based initiatives, global partnerships, and countries has grown to facilitate its implementation. 

Yet in spite of such collaboration, global progress on SDG 16 has been steadily backsliding. In 2019, the Global State of Democracy Indices found significant declines in 12 of the 18 aspects it used to measure progress on SDG 16, including a reduction in all forms of violence (target 16.1), estimated to intensify by 10-46 percent by 2030. 

This is in line with IEP’s findings in 2021 showing steadily deteriorating global peacefulness over the past thirteen years, as the world faces record numbers of human displacement, limited expansion of human rights institutions, and a surge in protracted violent conflicts globally. The capacity to meet SDG goals was especially off-track in the majority of fragile and conflict-affected countries, which are expected to house 85 percent of those living in extreme poverty conditions by 2030 and will represent the principal focus of future development interventions. 

These challenges have been further exacerbated by the global health pandemic, which has effectively stalled, and in some cases reversed, gains on SDG 16. COVID-19 has disrupted global patterns of violence, aggravating incidences of sexual and gender-based violence, extremism and conflict, while also raising the risk of increased trafficking, and organized and interpersonal violence. It has also engendered a slowed pace or temporary suspension of access to information laws and deteriorating conditions for press freedom across the world. At the same time, institutional constraints born of an onslaught of new demands, closed public offices, and depleted financial resources as a result of the economic downturn have significantly strained burgeoning institutional capacities and diverted attention away from the SDGs. This is particularly the case in conflict or post-conflict states where there is a growing concern of reduced support for peacekeeping and development aid, as focus narrows on public health needs. 

Upcoming recovery efforts represent an opportune moment to redouble efforts for peace, justice, and good governance, and recommitment to SDG 16 can mobilize action in this direction. The pandemic has made unavoidable the reevaluation of resilient governance structures as a fundamental driver of development and security. Recovery initiatives will thus inevitably need to tie directly to sustained delivery of SDG 16’s promise of peace, justice, inclusion, and strong institutions. This framework has been at the root of the SDG16 Plus community’s urgent call to action, and the upcoming High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development can offer a convenient platform to start reframing the role of the SDGs in local recovery efforts and reinforcing the centrality of SDG 16 targets specifically in national strategic plans.

This new momentum will depend on several factors, key among them the mutual reinforcement of national policy coherence and bottom-up integration of local development actors to accelerate comprehensive nation-wide strategies for the implementation and tracking of goals. States will need to prioritize multi-stakeholder engagement and localization to leverage the perspectives of community-based organizations and associations and elevate development strategies that directly respond to regional political and socio-economic drivers of conflict. These partnerships will help ground national policy approaches within local experiences and create a greater sense of ownership and accountability. 

Community-based actors can also assist as critical interlocutors and pivotal leverage points in both negative and positive peace measures, from citizen-based early response systems and conflict mediation training to intracommunal social cohesion and equitable services delivery. Such practices have been used to effect, for example, in West Africa and parts of Southeast Asia. Similar efforts were undertaken as part of Mauritania’s SDG implementation plan, which uses socially inclusive village committees to mediate security and human rights-related issues and interpersonal conflict prevention, as well as in the Solomon Islands, where community officers and village peace wardens are used to strengthen grievance management and public trust in government authorities. 

As national statistics offices endeavor to build up statistical capacities, development actors will also need to support more robust and pluralistic data ecosystems. The broad expanse of targets—despite inconsistent access to reliable or complete data or a systematic state-led process for data generation and collection, made worse by COVID restrictions—have challenged states’ ability to adequately quantify both the challenges and policy interventions instituted in response. Cross-sector partnerships can offer a cost-effective, parallel data source as a means for supplanting fragmented and depleted state systems, as well as addressing formal methodological and conceptual data gaps, including in fragile areas or where government access is limited. 

Civil society organizations (CSOs) face comparatively fewer internal political and bureaucratic hurdles in collecting and publishing data—especially where governments might be reluctant to report insights on sensitive issues such as conflict deaths, gender-related violence, and human rights abuses—thus allowing for more transparency and credibility of captured data, in addition to greater innovation in data methodologies and a faster rate of data production. The diversification of non-official data providers also contributes greater granularity of data on nation-wide conditions as they relate to marginalized or underrepresented communities, and makes it easier for states to pair national data targets to SDG indicators. Such partnerships, where enforced, have demonstratively enhanced state capacity to collect and analyze disaggregated and place-based data on SDG 16 targets and indicators. 

Strengthened cross-sector partnerships will need to be complemented by institutionalized structures to guide SDG coordination mechanisms across a network of government and nongovernmental actors, and through institutional policy silos. Given the interdependence of the SDGs, national governments can take the lead in defining a broader policy agenda that enshrines SDG 16 and then translates it into interoperable policy frameworks, information sharing and data collection processes, and collaborative working methods. Policy coherence would also have implications further downstream. The SDGs themselves offer little context-based guidance or capacity support for integrated implementation. Institutional and cross-sector engagement thus remain inconsistent, segmented into niche policy areas or within specialized agencies and ministries. 

Greater “whole of government” coordination can help better streamline the holistic integration of development actors and reinforce lateral links in strategic priorities, performance mechanisms, and data integration processes. The government of Denmark is an early leader in this regard, utilizing multi-stakeholder inclusion and state coordination across national ministries to incorporate SDG 16 implementation and monitoring targets across national frameworks (e.g. its foreign policy strategy), as outlined by its National Action Plan. Steps toward national implementation mechanisms for policy coherence have also begun to take shape in Mongolia and Georgia

Moving forward, such efforts will need to be significantly expanded to ensure both the systematic and comprehensive application of all goal indicators. This could introduce a potentially larger role for donors to facilitate institutional reform on SDG implementation across sectors. Ensuring normative change might necessitate donors to find new ways to incentivize the standardized integration of CSOs and non-state actors, for example, utilizing conditional funding and management strategies or incorporating peace into performance frameworks. Advocacy and political engagement can likewise be pursued as a means of opening political space for cooperation with local actors. 

Here, deeper alliances among development actors can also be useful to consolidate disparate operational capacities and policies, and so expand their political influence. Strategic partnerships with subnational governments can be leveraged to open space for dialogue within and across local stakeholders, in order to incubate localized solutions that can be built out at a national scale, as was suggested in the United Cities and Local Governments’ 2018 report and the Ulaanbaatar Declaration on peaceful, just, and inclusive societies.

Nine years is a short timeframe by which to enforce the institutional changes necessary to achieve SDG 16. However, as the past year has underscored, we no longer have the luxury of putting it off; with no shortage of global engagement on the centrality of SDG 16 for peace and development, states will need to reinvest in its implementation in order to rebuild. 

Yulia Shalomov is an intern in the Center for Peace Operations at the International Peace Institute. Her research focuses on multidimensional peace operations, multilateral cooperation, and international development.