How United Nations reform can support a reimagined democracy

By Chantal Line Carpentier[1]

Global Sustainable Development Goals for people-centred economies and democracies

Just three years ago our world leaders committed “to working tirelessly” for the full implementation of a “comprehensive, far-reaching and people-centred set of universal and transformative goals and targets” (para 2). The 2030 Agenda for sustainable development, also commonly referred to as the Global Goals, is made up of 17 powerful and, some say, overly ambitious Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Taken as a whole, Agenda 2030 envisions a world free of poverty, hunger, inequalities, sickness and war, and the lasting protection of the planet and its natural resources, by 2030.

The SDGs have at their core the commitment to leaving no one behind and reaching the furthest behind first (para 4). Indeed, reviews of efforts over the 15 years of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which focused on eradicating extreme poverty in developing countries, reveal that the poorest and most disadvantaged, because of sex or gender, age, disability, ethnicity, or geographic location, were being left behind. Gender inequality persists and gaps are growing between the poorest and richest, rural and urban, and digitally connected and digitally unconnected households, in developing and developed countries alike.

Based on these trends, and in large part due to the relentless and coordinated efforts of civil society stakeholders, and support from the governments of Brazil, Denmark and Norway, the SDGs include a standalone goal on inequality within and between countries (SDG 10). The goal is an achievement in itself. But its political implications are magnified by its comprehensiveness, because the goal includes not only economic, but also social, environmental and political aspects, as well as the ambition to achieve equality regardless of age, sex, disability, race, ethnicity, origin, religion, or economic or other status. Equally important, based on the principle of equality of opportunity, SDG 5 establishes a strong link between women’s economic empowerment and access to economic resources.

Policy implications are further strengthened by the determination to “leave no one behind” as reflected in the use of the word “inclusive” to qualify five other SDGs:

  • SDG 4: Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all;
  • SDG 8: Promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all;
  • SDG 9: Build resilient infrastructure, promote inclusive and sustainable industrialisation and foster innovation;
  • SDG 11: Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable;
  • SDG 16: Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels.

Recognising the level of ambition, “Governments as well as Parliaments, the UN system and other international institutions, local authorities, indigenous peoples, civil society, business and the private sector, the scientific and academic community – and all people” are called upon to engage on the journey toward Agenda 2030 (para 52). This call for all to get involved lends itself towards democratic participation.

Democracy in the process of developing the SDGs

Agenda 2030 resulted from over two years of inter-governmental negotiations supported by an unprecedented level of public consultations and engagement with civil society and other stakeholders around the world. Efforts were made by the United Nations (UN) to bring in the voices of the poorest and most vulnerable. The result of this participatory democracy is an agenda that calls for the empowerment of vulnerable peoples, including all children, young people, persons with disabilities, people living with HIV/AIDS, older persons, indigenous peoples, refugees and internally displaced persons and migrants. The Global Goals also have legitimacy beyond politics because of the unprecedented participatory process and the crowdsourcing of ideas, based on information communication technologies (ICT), from so many different groups. As a result, various sectors of society all around the world are taking ownership of the SDGs and aligning their activities with them, especially in developing countries where they see the value of this overarching framework to leap forward. These goals can thus be thought of as the compass for globalisation and development. They provide a vision of where we want to be and several routes by which we can get there.

Civil society contributions to the SDGs

From the first Earth Summit in 1992 to the second in 2012 (Rio+20), progress on sustainable development within the UN was followed up by the Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD). As a result of the Earth Summit, nine designated Major Groups bringing together different actors in the global non-state actor community – Women, Children and Youth, Farmers, Indigenous Peoples, Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs), Workers and Trade Unions, Scientific and Technological Community, Business and Industry, and Local Authorities – were granted several “entry points” for participation in CSD processes by the UN General Assembly (UNGA). These entry points evolved over time, and often served as a model to other UN-led processes. The process and the sustainable development agenda benefitted greatly from a high degree of interaction with these Major Groups.

In the run-up to Rio+20, other groups, such as educators, persons with disabilities, older persons, parliamentarians and volunteers, expressed interest in adding their collective voices to the debate. At the same time, more and more actors – including the High-level Panel of Eminent Persons created by the UN Secretary-General – called for the intergovernmental process to develop a set of goals to bring the environmental and development agendas together under a universal agenda. This led development and social justice groups, usually focused on the MDGs agenda, to claim a seat at the sustainable development negotiation table. By joining together their analysis and lobbying capacities, environmental, humanitarian and development groups had a significant impact on the agenda. Several of us deeply involved in the engagement of non-state actors in the negotiations estimate that approximately 30 per cent of the targets and goals resulted from their proposals. Even the co-chairs of the negotiations expressed surprise and delight at the value of crowdsourcing ideas from all stakeholders around the world.

The inequality goal, a concrete example

The Major Group Coordinator within the Secretariat and the coordinator of the UN Millennium Campaign cooperated to foster greater synergies between the various Post-2015 processes – consultation process on what should succeed the MDGs when they expired in 2015 – and SDGs processes, and inform each other’s constituencies on opportunities to contribute. The voice of the Major Groups was augmented by two online consultations, the World We Want and the MY World Global Survey that brought the priorities of millions of global south groups and citizens as inputs to the negotiations. These voices were amplified by several national and regional in-person consultations and training sessions organised by the coordinators, various coalitions and the UN Non-Governmental Liaison Service (UN-NGLS).

For instance, the Initiative for Equality – a global network of 1,415 activists and partner organisations in over 130 countries working to build more equal and participatory societies around the world – asked more than 500 of the most marginalised and poorest communities in 80 countries “what they want and need” so that their voices could be represented in the Post-2015 and SDGs process. Most communities identified environmental degradation, corruption, economic insecurity, social problems and conflicts as well as worsening socioeconomic inequality among key problems. On inequality, the Initiative for Equality thus recommended a standalone goal on equality, with strong supporting targets, and to:

  • incorporate inequalities into all the other goals and targets;
  • break down all monitoring by groups and populations to ensure the equitable attainment of targets.

In large part because of advocacy by civil society organisations (CSOs), and support from Brazil, Denmark and Norway, co-chairs of the negotiations held a session dealing explicitly with promoting equality, including social equality, gender equality and women’s empowerment. The session resulted in widespread support by member states for a standalone goal on gender equality and women’s economic empowerment, and moderate, but sufficient, support for the inequality goal to be part of future negotiations. However, in the penultimate co-chairs’ document the inequality goal was merged with SDG 1 on poverty eradication. Civil society had to mobilise again, this time sending a letter endorsed by more than 161 organisations from 60 countries, asking to bring back the standalone goal on inequality. It is thus fair to say that participatory democracy and organised and coordinated CSO actions led to the standalone goal on inequalities within and among countries to be first proposed and gavelled as one of the 17 goals in July 2014.

CSOs also contributed to developing a new social compact, including social protection with a focus on those left furthest behind, in the Addis Ababa Action Agenda (AAAA), which is an integral part of Agenda 2030, supporting, complementing and helping to contextualise its means of implementation with concrete policies and actions.

Democracy under attack and implications for achieving the SDGs

Given recent trends in isolationism, xenophobia and nativism, it is now very difficult to imagine that such ambitious goals could be agreed upon through unprecedented and powerful participatory processes just three years ago.

Democracy is under attack in several countries with an accompanying growing restriction of space for civil society and other stakeholders to voice concerns and critiques. The World Economic Forum’s Global Risks Report 2017 findsthat “a new era of restricted freedoms and increased governmental control could undermine social, political and economic stability and increase the risk of geopolitical and social conflict.” This is not only a threat to civil society, but to social and economic stability, multilateralism and the achievement of the SDGs.

The state of inequalities

Inequalities were high at the beginning of the 20th century, followed by sharp decline between the 1920 and the 1970s. Canada, China, India, Russia, Western Europe and the USA all had a relatively low level of inequality between the end of the Second World War and 1980, with the share of income earned by the top 10 percentile reaching 30 to 35 per cent in China, Europe, India and North America, and only about 20 to 25 per cent in Russia.[2] Income and wealth inequality started increasing again in almost every country since 1980, especially for the top one per cent. The bottom 50 per cent of the world’s income earners captured 12 to 14 per cent of total income growth since 1980, while the top one per cent captured 23 to 27 per cent.[3] The poorest half of the global population has seen its income grow thanks to high growth in Asia. However, income growth has been sluggish or non-existent for the lower and middle-income class – those in percentile 50 to 99 – of North America and Western Europe, squeezing out the middle class. Highly unequal income growth at the top leads to greater savings and greater savings command higher returns, mechanically driving wealth inequality, which in turns fuels greater income concentration at the top. This is exacerbated by the financialisation of the economy, in which wealth is increasingly gained through capital rather than labour.

Using a combination of sources, since no official statistics exist for all countries, the World Inequality Report 2018also offers a picture of global inequalities between countries, which increased until the late 1970s, but declined since the 1980s, mostly due to huge income growth in Asia, and in particular in China, and slower growth in Western Europe. Yet disparities remain high in average national incomes, with North Americans having per capita incomes that are three times the global average of €16,100 (approx. US$18,700). Europeans have twice the average, while Chinese average incomes are slightly below the global average. Meanwhile the average income for Africans stands at only €2,900 (approx. US$3,300).

The impact of raising inequalities

Over the last two decades, the expansion of trade has fuelled economic growth, created jobs and increased household incomes around the world. It is a key factor behind the rise of the global south, where dozens of developing countries have experienced strong economic growth and positive societal change, giving rise to a middle class and a fall in global inequality between countries. And it made possible one of the most remarkable achievements in human history: one billion people lifted out of poverty in the space of just two decades.

But trade expansion has not benefited everyone equally. During the same period, the US and European Union (EU) middle classes have been shrinking and wages have stagnated, while those at the top of the income bracket have captured increasing shares of wealth and income everywhere. This concomitant trend of a reduction in inequalities between countries but growing inequalities within countries has flipped by 180 degrees the way trade and globalisation are perceived by the public, especially since the 2008 financial crisis and intensifying in the last few years.

Workers whose jobs have been offshored and those with stagnating or decreasing living standards feel abandoned and ignored by their governments and institutions and are more likely to support populist governments that blame trade and globalisation and promote inward-looking and protectionist policies supported by nationalism, isolationism and xenophobic rhetoric. Once elected, these populist governments have put in place measures to shrink the space for citizens to voice concerns and critiques and to be able to pursue their own agenda. Thus not only the multilateral system but also democracy is under attack in several countries.

The causes of raising inequalities

Today, a spirited debate rages on about whether trade and globalisation – characterised by the freer flow of goods, services and, to a much lesser extent, people between countries – has resulted in inequitable economic growth. More clearly, the question is whether some people and nations are benefiting at the expense of others. But blaming trade, globalisation, or automation is a fallacy. People have not been left behind by trade and globalisation or rapid technological changes; they have been left behind by a lack of national and international policies. Even entry-level trade classes acknowledge that trade results in economic growth but benefits accrue unevenly. We know that trade can:

  • polarise the gap between low and high-skilled workers;
  • suppress wage growth for workers facing overseas competition;
  • create hardship and displacement for those who lose their jobs.

Trade agreements are generally devised to reduce trade frictions across borders, while paying little attention to the distribution of the costs and benefits of trade. We learn in our economics classes that redistributive policies and flanking policies to support displaced workers should be put in place to counter these effects. However, our trade negotiators tend not to emphasise these needs, as it would make it more difficult to get trade agreements through our government legislative bodies, and workers’ and other stakeholders’ voices are not represented in the negotiations. From the late 1980s to the financial crisis in 2008, the idea that government interventions are inefficient and the market will allocate resources in the best way has become predominant. And as trade has intensified, fostered by trade and investment agreements with provisions that increasingly limit the ability of governments to intervene in their national markets, many states not only lack the required policies to support displaced workers and sectors but have also reduced social services, reversed trends of progressive taxation and introduced austerity measures. All these measures affect women and poor people the most, and exacerbate inequalities.

The fact that government policies, not trade or globalisation per se, are to be blamed is supported by the different rates of increase in inequality, across countries, regions and time. Countries that have maintained smart protections and mobility measures have seen much lesser increases in inequalities. For instance, in Canada and Sweden, social policies such as universal access to healthcare and free education have helped maintain the middle class.

Further evidence that policies matter is the explanation provided by the World Inequality Lab for the egalitarian phase between the end of the Second World War and the 1980s.[4] It points to nationalisation policies and government control over economies (in addition to the destruction of human and physical capital by the war and the Great Depression). UNCTAD also calls that period the golden age, when the Marshall Plan, considerable debt forgiveness and the institutional rules and arrangements established at Bretton Woods helped to combine global macroeconomic stability with sufficient policy space for national governments to also establish a period of unprecedented growth of output and international trade in that period.

Democracy deficit: why don’t we have policies to stem raising inequalities?

Knowing that our international economic systems need flanking policies, one has to wonder why these policies are not systematically put in place. One reason is that citizens, organised labour and other stakeholders, unlike large multinational corporations, are not invited by their governments to take part in the negotiation of their countries’ trade and investment agreements and thus have limited awareness of which sectors are exposed to job losses and do not have their voices represented to demand flanking policies at the same time that the agreements are negotiated.

Another reason might be found in recent studies demonstrating that inequalities themselves contribute to the lack of social and redistributive policies. Studies suggest that under the current economic and political system, owners of capital, large multinationals and the leading digital platforms can extract oligopolistic and monopolistic rent and power, which in turn allows them to influence policies to their advantage. How so? Wealth concentration creates a vicious cycle where money is used to gain political power and support, and then political support is used to gain money, as a recent Economist article describes. The article cites studies in the USA and the EU giving evidence that as inequalities increase governments become less likely to institute redistributive policies. In the USA, for instance, citizens with US$40 million or more in net worth are more politically engaged than typical US citizens, are much more likely to have regular personal contact with elected officials and give money to political campaigns and are overwhelmingly in favour of cutting spending on major social-safety-net programmes (supported by the majority). In Europe, as wealth inequality has increased, the rich have had a greater ability to press politicians to bring bills to parliaments that focus on crime and immigration at the expense of economic justice issues. These findings are troubling, suggesting that, through a loss of democratic accountability, it is becoming less likely that inequality will be reduced even as it becomes more urgent.

UNCTAD found that from 2009 to 2015, surplus profits for the top one per cent publicly listed firms represented 55 per cent of all recorded profits, while wages have not improved since the 2000s, which also contributed to rising income inequality. The concentrated power of these large transnational corporations may influence national policies and international treaties to include policies and clauses in their favour. These may allow unimpeded competition between workers around the world and between governments to lower corporate tax rates, and enable corporations to shift profit to lower tax jurisdictions and make strategic use of intellectual property rights, subsidy schemes and privatisation schemes. These not only increase poverty but also reduce the political space for governments to enact policies to support the creation of decent jobs and the fiscal space to provide social services.

The search for fulfilment and increased profits is intrinsic to capitalist markets. Adam Smith made this concept popular and as a result changed the social norms. We started viewing the selfish human urge to increase private profits as the basis for an increase in collective wealth and prosperity. Indeed Adam Smith’s reasoning was that when the rich use their profits to open new factories, invest in research and development and develop new products, they create jobs and employees can buy more products, thus increasing the size of the pie for all. But this requires that profits be reinvested in the real economy rather than in complex financial instruments, be sent offshore or used to buy back companies’ shares.

United against polarisation

In the end we need regulations to protect us against ourselves. Currently the system is geared towards maximising returns to wealth and is not necessarily aligned with the collective well-being. Creative use of tax loopholes by the one per cent strips our governments of the tax revenues necessary to achieve inclusive economic development by investing in health, education and infrastructure, among others. At the same time weaker labour voices and greater competition across jurisdictions put downward pressures on wages. In the end, income is increasingly derived from capital as opposed to labour and income and wealth inequality are rising in most countries in a self-reinforcingmanner.

The resulting excessive inequality increases people’s sense of unfairness and often erodes social cohesion, leading to social unrest and political polarisation, chipping away at our democracies, and the global order. We need to stop the vicious cycle where money is used to gain political support and then political support is used to acquire more wealth through pushing an agenda that favours the one per cent at the expense of the majority.

New multilateral institutions were created after the Second World War to bind powerful nations, discourage unilateralism and bilateralism, and give small countries a voice and influence that they could not otherwise exercise. Blaming trade and globalisation contributes to isolationism, particularly in the West, challenging long-established democratic traditions and principles, and risking a further weakening of the multilateral system. Many of the global challenges demand global solutions and international oversight is needed over spillover effects that national and regional policies may have, especially on the smaller and less powerful countries. This requires strong multilateral institutions such as the UN and World Trade Organization that set out soft or hard laws to protect smaller and less powerful countries, and foster global solidarity to achieve the SDGs. But institutions need to be reformed to ensure they are SDG-compatible. Fighting against poverty, inequality, biodiversity loss and climate change requires changing the rules of the international economic system to make it more ecological and fairer for the majority of the world’s population. We need a New Global Deal!

And there is an unprecedented opportunity to reform the international economic and trade system to align them with the SDGs. Reforms are already underway, supported by UNCTAD, of international investment treaties. The renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) includes talk of weakening the Investor-State Dispute Resolution mechanism that CSOs have been advocating against for years because it enables supranational arbitration to override national laws and in many cases, allows multinationals to sue countries they have investments in. We can only achieve these reforms by empowering grassroots, community and labour organisations at the national, regional and international levels. Their participation will ensure greater accountability in negotiated agreements and in domestic legal systems. Empowered civil society stakeholders should have a seat at the table to voice their concerns and have them included in negotiating positions, just as business representatives have a seat in these negotiations, and not unlike participatory decision-making processes at the city level. This would afford our governments the policy space to invest in health, education, water, energy, sanitation access, food security, the environment and poverty goals without the fear of being sued.

Opportunities offered by the UN reform for Agenda 2030

“We the peoples” are the first three words of the UN Charter. Since the UN’s founding conference in San Francisco in 1945, the global civil society community has been increasingly active in the work of the UN. At the UN headquarters in New York alone, around 7,000 representatives of civil society and other non-state stakeholders participate in multilateral discussions annually. Civil society is not a homogenous group. It is important to ensure that the voices and perspectives of various organised groups of society are taken into account in the work of the UN system. With attacks on democracy and multilateralism on the rise, the UN needs the support of non-state actors.

The ongoing UN reform process, which aims to restructure the UN to support member states in the implementation of Agenda 2030, also offers an opportunity to enhance the space for non-state actors at a time when they are seeing their space shrink at the national level, and at the same time to gather more support for strong reformed multilateralism.

The UN’s reform agenda

The UN Resolution that established the High-level Political Forum (HLPF) on sustainable development recognised the increased interest and need of non-state stakeholders by:

“…Encourag(ing) the major groups identified in Agenda 21 and other stakeholders, such as private philanthropic organizations, educational and academic entities, persons with disabilities, volunteer groups and other stakeholders active in areas related to sustainable development, to autonomously establish and maintain effective coordination mechanisms for participation in the high-level political forum…”

In response to this resolution, the HLPF Major Groups and other stakeholders Coordination Mechanism was created to help CSOs self-organise. Major Groups and other stakeholders, including business and industry, local authorities, indigenous peoples and CSOs, are given the opportunity within the HLPF to speak at roundtables and respond to member states’ Voluntary National Reviews (VNRs) of progress on implementing the SDGs. Though important, this level of participation is limited and does not include a space for CSOs to share their shadow reports, report on their mandates to support implementation of the SDGs, or have a thorough debate with member states and other partners on addressing priority issues at the country, regional and international levels. It does not enable the co-creation of solutions with member states, UN officials, the private sector, local authorities and other partners.

Examples that exist of enhanced participatory processes and forums to implement the SDGs with the private sector, local authorities and youth groups could be replicated for groups of CSOs. For instance, the UN Global Compact (UNGC) and the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC), a business organisation with observer status to the UN, with the support of the UN’s Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA), organise an SDG Business Forum annually during the HLPF for the private sector to present on and discuss with member states their contribution to implementation of the SDGs. The UNGC also convenes private sector focal points across the UN system several times a year, at least once a year face-to face. This support and the provision of predictable entry points into the UN, combined with an entity to channel and coordinate within the UN, allows the private sector to prepare a report documenting the contribution of business to implementing the SDGs, and showcasing its best practices. The UNGC is also supporting a UN system-wide due diligence process for the UN to leverage the capacity of the private sector, while minimising risks of mandate deviation from the pursuit of the public good and reputational risks to the UN. Finally, board members of the UNGC also have an opportunity to meet with the UN Secretary-General to have strategic discussion on implementation.

Similarly, Local2030, a multi-agency initiative that works across the UN system, brings together the UN system, local authorities and national governments to develop and implement solutions that advance the SDGs at the local level. The initiative is overseen by the UN Deputy Secretary-General (DSG) through a focal point in her office that works directly with the United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG)’s Global Task Force of Local and Regional Governments.

The Secretary-General has also reappointed a Youth Envoy at the Assistant Secretary-General (ASG) level to help guide the UN system in stepping up support for the empowerment of young people, while ensuring that the UN’s work fully benefits from their insights and ideas, including through a UN Strategy on Youth: a UN-wide strategy addressing the needs and rights of young people, bringing the work of the UN closer to them. Working with the Children and Youth Major Groups, this role has significantly amplified the voice of young people and their empowerment around the world.

Reforms to take full advantage of and keep CSO voices accountable

To ensure successful implementation of the SDGs by 2030, it is important that UN reforms strategically enhance CSOs’ contributions to the follow-up and implementation process. The HLPF review scheduled for 2019-2020 provides a critical opportunity to institutionalise their enhanced engagement. Based on the above examples, along with a report prepared for the UN Major Groups programme following Rio+20 and the HLPF resolution (see annex), the following proposals should be considered.

A high-level UN champion for CSO voices

There needs to be an equivalent structure for CSOs to the UNGC or Youth Envoy on the UN side, the ICC on the private sector side and UCLG on the local authorities side. While the Major Groups and other stakeholders mechanisms include all non-state actors, a specific mechanism for CSOs does not exist and during the 2018 HLPF, CSOs could not agree with the business and industry group on a joint statement. The loosely coordinated CSO champions behind the UN Development Programme (UNDP)-led Millennium Campaign, the Open Working Group (OWG) on SDGs processes and UN-NGLS have all moved on to other positions. In addition, UN-NGLS resources have shrunk and its mandate has been narrowed. The DESA ASG in charge of, and champion for, the engagement of non-state actors, who took it upon himself to coordinate the UN CSO focal points, has also not been replaced.

The reform should aim at institutionalising this important role by including it in the ASG’s title or by creating a position in the DSG’s office to champion the role of CSO voices, advocate for and coordinate the engagement of CSOs within UN processes, and keep CSOs accountable on their support for SDGs implementation. It is also important to value the richness of voices instead of trying to collapse voices, such as those of women, workers, farmers, young people, indigenous peoples, scientific and technological communities, volunteers, academia, parliamentarians, older people and various civil society groups into one CSO voice. This would at same time help to give renewed value to the functions of CSO focal points within the UN and send a clear message to CSOs that the UN values their role, helping to counter the growing perception that the UN favours contributions from the private sector and local authorities over CSOs – a perception that has been reinforced by the growing number of focal points for partnership, while CSO focal points are not being systematically replaced, or support to CSOs is only one part of their multiple functions.

This champion could coordinate a UN-wide strategy for the various engagements with CSOs at the country, national and UN levels to support enhanced engagement in the global UN SDGs follow-up processes – the HLPF, Financing for Development (FfD) and Science, Technology and Innovation (STI) forums. As part of this reform, a network of CSO focal points from the UN regional commissions, country teams and various headquarters would help facilitate the inputs of CSOs to the processes and hold CSOs accountable for their contributions.

The champion would help coordinate this network and provide key secretariat functions, similar to those provided by the UNGC, including by helping to:

  1. facilitate processes of democratic selection of CSO organising partners that are as inclusive and representative as possible;
  2. advocate for and communicate engagement opportunities, such as a standalone CSO day within the HLPF to report back on and showcase CSO contributions and share best practices, and, to complement the Business Forum, review progress on SDGs, the VNRs and the means of implementation;
  3. coordinate activities and support the development of joint positions, not only among those present in New York, but around the world through online consultations;
  4. actively reach out to the most marginalised people and provide training and capacity building to ensure that their voices are included in language that can achieve impact in UN intergovernmental processes;
  5. conduct due diligence on, facilitate and bring up-to-speed the engagement of CSOs and match them with agencies, funds and programmes that could best use their skills;
  6. commission inputs on progress and bottlenecks, and crowdsource innovations, partnerships and policies for furthering the implementation of specific SDGs;
  7. collate inputs, including on VNRs, post them online and share them with appropriate UN entities, including agencies, funds, programmes, regional commissions and UN country teams, the governing bodies of UN processes, such as bureaus, co-chairs and boards, and UN high level officials;
  8. organise briefings and discussions with them to build reciprocal trust and convene constructive dialogues. This would build on the successful experience of the CSD multi-stakeholder dialogue segment, which lasted for two full days and was organised jointly by the UN Secretariat, the Major Groups organising partners, and the Bureau of the CSD. This unique participatory mechanism, first introduced in 1998, enabled direct interaction between Major Groups and governments on specific topics and with ample time, space, substance and importance given.

This will require that the reform of UN country teams necessitates the inclusion of at least one person with experience with stakeholder engagement in addition to engagement with the private sector. This would facilitate support for people-centred partnerships, as focal points hired to manage engagement with the private sector mostly come from the private sector, and may not have the skills and experience to engage with and gain the confidence of CSOs.


The time to act is now. We have a short window of opportunity to deliver on the SDGs and maintain the enthusiasm they created among all stakeholders. Agenda 2030 has paved a course for unprecedented opportunities to create wealth, balance systemic inequality and maintain stability. The rise of isolationist attitudes and the weakening of democracy in specific geographies, however, is a major obstacle to securing the multilateralism and engagement necessary to achieve the SDGs. Failings in policy, not multilateralism itself, have caused many to become disillusioned with the international system. Despite this, it is indeed this very spirit of international cooperation that has previously been instrumental in alleviating worldwide poverty and discord. By seizing the opportunity to reform the international system, foster cooperation, by lowering the barriers for civil society and other stakeholders to contribute, we can take the first steps to unlocking enthusiasm and support for achieving the ambitious goals we have set for ourselves and restore faith in multilateralism. In this, it is increased efforts to enhance democratic and inclusive participation that will be key to delivering on the SDGs.

To succeed in implementing Agenda 2030, we need these concerted efforts for the private sector and local authorities, youth and other non-state actors, including workers. We cannot achieve the needed changes in policies without all of them and without social debate among liberals and conservatives, poor and rich, urban and rural, women and men.

Agenda 2030 and its 17 SDGs provide an unprecedented map of opportunities to create wealth. Governments, corporations and non-state actors are expected to spend an estimated US$4.5 trillion per year to achieve the SDGs and end hunger and poverty, fight climate change and provide access to quality education, good healthcare and clean water. Many women, young people, indigenous peoples, micro, small and medium enterprises, and other groups often marginalised by macro-level policies, have a deep understanding of the unmet needs and problems of the poorest, and are uniquely positioned to help create solutions to help achieve the SDGs. By supporting them, we can help ensure that the wealth created between now and 2030 is better distributed among the population. This redistributive potential can be unlocked by enhancing democracy and participatory processes.

Partnerships are no doubt important, but people-centred multi-stakeholder partnerships are needed to help them flourish and build on and maintain existing enthusiasm. If not, such momentum may be waning as stakeholders frustrated with their lack of opportunities to engage substantively with the UN will eventually move on to something else. We are already feeling scepticism increasing.

But there are also signals that herald a change of orientation. For instance, HSBC, the large international bank, has found that the new generation of global entrepreneurs is going into business motivated by purpose rather than just profit. Similarly, over the next 30 years there will be an unprecedented transfer of inherited family wealth of an estimated US$30 trillion to millennials who are more likely to favour impact investments. These are people inspired by new motivations who can more easily align with Agenda 2030.

The year 2020 will also mark the 75th anniversary of the UN. As this milestone approaches, there is a widely shared sense that the sustainability of a rules-based international order cannot be taken for granted, and that multilateralism is under threat. At the August 2018 67th UN DPI NGO Conference, over 1,000 CSOs called on member states to, “Advance people-centered multilateralism by developing proposals to revitalize the United Nations on the occasion of its 75th Anniversary in 2020.” With growing questions regarding the role of the UN in a changing geopolitical environment, the 75th anniversary will provide another opportunity for the system-wide stocktaking, review and strengthening of the organisation that is needed if Agenda 2030 and the Paris Agreement on climate change are to be achieved.


Learning from the experience of the SDGs process: why did CSO groups and social movements succeed?

In the midst of the increased demand for organisations and groups not traditionally involved in the sustainable development process, the Major Group coordinator commissioned a paper to review current practices, and recommend how best to include the voice of these groups in the remits of the UNGA’s mandate. After months of consultations and research, the working paper, published in 2013, concluded that for interventions of CSOs in UN processes to be successful, they must be provided with the following:

Timely access to information

To ensure meaningful contributions of CSOs to UN processes, CSOs should be provided with timely and appropriate information. The effective participation of civil society and stakeholders will not happen if they are not given the agenda for meetings ahead of time so they can see when they can and should engage. For the SDGs negotiations in the OWG, the co-chairs published the schedule of meetings and areas to be addressed a year ahead of time, which allowed CSOs to fundraise, prepare, consult and develop joint positions.

In addition, timely access to relevant information should be provided in a language accessible to their targeted constituency. The UN Environment Programme (UNEP) guidelines for Participation of Major Groups and Stakeholders in Policy Design offer excellent benchmarks for information sharing.

Access to all processes

The participation of non-state actors in the work of the UN is most effective if they are provided access to all of its processes, including preparatory meetings and informal consultations. At Rio+20 in 2012, Major Groups and other stakeholders had access to all negotiations, including the preparatory meetings and consultations. Biannual meetings of countries in preparation for the presentation of their progress reports on implementing the SDGs – the VNRs – should also be open to all relevant stakeholders for these countries as well as those that work on documenting best practices.

Agenda 2030 is the first intergovernmental agenda that is human-rights based. At a time when civil society’s space is being restricted in several countries, the UN must find ways to give civil society and stakeholders more space with enhanced participation in the HLPF, which replaced the DSD and where progress on Agenda 2030 is reviewed and VNRs presented, the FfD Forum, where progress on the AAAA is reviewed, regional commission meetings and the work of the UN country teams where such teams exist.

Speaking rights

The meaningfulness of participation of CSOs increases with speaking rights, which should be on par with those of other participants, including member states and private sector representatives. The Universal Periodic Review process of the Human Rights Council is an excellent example of a process that provides equal speaking rights to all participants. Even when events are intergovernmental in nature there are ways to engage CSOs. For instance, during the negotiations on the SDGs, morning hearings were held between the co-chairs of the process and Major Groups. These hearings were also open to other stakeholders specialising in the thematic areas to be discussed that day with member states. In order to allow for a constructive dialogue, member states were also invited to attend these meetings. The co-chairs sometimes gave an official summary statement from these morning hearings during the official meetings with member states so that issues raised were included in the main record. Other times, the co-chairs used points mentioned in a morning hearing to challenge member states to think of some issues or targets they might not have considered or consider them from a different angle.

Recognition of the diversity of expertise

UN expertise would benefit from expanding information sources beyond official and traditional sources, to include information gleaned from people living on the ground. People on the ground often offer advice on issues that could be considered as expert-level input. The practice of listening to farmers, individual practitioners, children and young people, indigenous people and others has become increasingly popular in the UN system. During the morning hearings with the co-chairs in the SDGs process, having all of these voices giving their views on a common subject proved to be an extremely rich experience and helped ensure that no one was left behind when discussing targets and goals. In addition, the costs associated with gathering disaggregated statistics that would help us understand how to “leave no one behind” could be reduced by crowdsourcing data from a wider community in a controlled way, by exploring ways to certify or accredit CSO, private sector and local authority data sources.

Recognition of civil society’s contribution in official documents

The UN could improve the way CSO contributions are taken into consideration in outcome documents to ensure continued high quality inputs. More importantly their support to this ambitious agenda may falter if they do not feel their input is valued. Of course, it is more powerful and useful when CSOs succeed in getting consensus views through active coalitions and using ICT tools such as Google Docs. But even when there is no consensus, the UN should continue to reflect these inputs, especially online. For instance, during the Rio+20 and SDGs negotiations, all inputs from Major Groups and other stakeholders were collated into an “alternative” zero draft that was posted online. Several member states stated that they had consulted this draft to develop their positions.

Capacity building

Civil society representatives newer to the process would benefit from capacity building or training in advance of an engagement with the UN. If people understand the rules of the game and how to participate efficiently, it helps ensure they make relevant inputs at the right time of the process, and in a manner most likely to be taken up by member states. During both the Rio+20 and SDGs negotiations, EU funding helped provide capacity-building workshops for regional CSOs alongside consultations by regional commissions. The UNDP and the Millennium Campaign did the same at the country level. The result was resounding, with more engagement than ever before. Using ICTs to provide webinars and other training proved also to be highly effective. The UN needs to continue providing these capacity-building activities.


The UN needs sufficient, predictable and timely funding to enable the effective engagement of Major Groups and other stakeholders. As funding for the UN systematically decreases, temptation to cut support for their participation and coordination is natural. Funding at the international level may be needed even more than before to stem attacks at the national level. Innovative funding is needed too. The recommendation of the 2001 report by the Secretary-General to make support for CSOs mandatory, just as it is for participants from the governments of developing countries, clearly did not have political traction.


Finally, the UN could more effectively reach out to civil society members not aware of UN processes but who have an important stake in such processes, especially as CSO space shrinks at the country level. Given the broad scope of the SDGs, all non-state stakeholders are either affected or could be key actors in implementing them. Recognising their role could strengthen their standing and legitimacy. There are thus compelling arguments for the UN proactively to identify such stakeholders and empower them. ICTs should also be used more actively in engaging participants outside UN headquarters.


[1] Chantal Line Carpentier, Chief, New York Office, United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD). The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the United Nations.

[2] Most Middle East, Latin America and Sub-Saharan Africa countries never went through this golden age and their top 10 per cent of income earners command 55 to 60 per cent of total income. The heads of the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) and Oxfam found that in 2014 the richest 10 per cent of people in Latin America owned 71 per cent of the wealth, and if this trend continues it is expected that after six years the richest one per cent in Latin America will have accumulated more wealth than the remaining 99 per cent.

[3] The figures of 12 per cent and 23 per cent relate to Canada, China, India, Western Europe and the USA, for which data are available. The figures of 14 per cent and 27 cent relate to global income using assumptions for countries for which data are missing.

[4] The World Inequality Lab is a collective of more than 100 fellows that combines available sources such as national accounts and fiscal and wealth data to map trends over time and across and within countries to develop a World Wealth and Income Database, which is also the basis for the World Inequality Report.

Source: 2018 Reimagining Democracy. CIVICUS.

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