SDGs bound to fail without civil society, access to information
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SDGs bound to fail without civil society, access to information

The growing trend of shrinking civic spaces around the world is likely to end or reverse progress towards reducing inequality, ensuring inclusion, and achieving a sustainable future for all, a research by the Institute of Development Studies (IDS) has concluded.

The study, Development Needs Civil Society– The Implications of Civic Space for the Sustainable Development Goals, was published in conjunction with ACT Alliance, of which WACC is a member.

The UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development is highly likely to be violated by closures of civic space, said the report.  The Agenda identifies 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and pledges to “leave no one behind” and to “reach the furthest behind first.”

Shrinking or closing civic space generates “more unequal and exclusionary development policies and practices, with a significant risk of not only leaving the most vulnerable behind, but also of their dispossession and loss of fundamental rights and voice in relation to the development process,” said the report.

It noted that in the last 20 years, many states around the world have used political, administrative and extra-legal means, including violence, to restrict civil society activities and undermine their human rights, such as the Right to Freedom of Expression, the Right to Free Assembly, and the Right to Free Association.  There have been well-documented cases of human rights defenders, NGOs, civil society organizations, independent media, scholars, and activists who have silenced by their governments, it noted.

The report recommends that governments hoping to gain “performance legitimacy” by achieving the SDGs have no alternative but to build constructive partnerships with civil society. It also recommends that international donors use SDG 17 (Strengthen the means of implementation and revitalize the global partnership for sustainable development) as a platform to push back against civic space closures, by “generating evidence about how civil society impacts on development in particular countries, policy domains and settings.”

The report identifies the impact shrinking or closing civic space has on the SDGs. For example, without civil society activism, inequalities and exclusionary patterns of economic growth will only become more entrenched, and SDG 1 (End poverty in all its forms everywhere) will not be achieved, it said. Economic crises that affect the poor and marginalized are more common where civil society is unable to hold governments to account, it noted.

Changes in civic space affect development, the report says, because of the actual and potential contributions of civil society in areas such as accountability, empowerment and inclusion, protection, partnership, institution-building, and communication and information.

WACC General Secretary Philip welcomed the findings of the IDS report.  He also underscored WACC’s perspective that the SDGs will be extremely difficult to realize unless all citizens have the communication platforms and resources to express themselves, are able to gain access to information and knowledge, and can participate meaningfully in decision-making processes related to development. Grassroots communities, for instance, need to be able to “critically engage with media in order to challenge stereotypes that contribute to their social exclusion and to help influence public agendas,” said Lee.

People’s inability to have access to communication tools “translates into communication and information poverty, which in turn undermines civic engagement and sustainable development,” said Lee.

Since it is no longer possible to suggest changes to the 2030 Agenda, WACC has been taking a more active advocacy role, including promoting the missing SDG 18, Communication for All. Its aim is to “expand and strengthen public spaces through equitable and affordable access to communication technologies and platforms, media pluralism and media diversity.”

SDG 18’s targets include ensuring, by 2030, the existence of spaces and resources for men and women, in particular the poor and vulnerable, to engage in transparent, informed, and democratic public dialogue and debate.

Expanding civic spaces demands investment at a time when governments and civil society are focused on other political and economic crises,” said Lee. “However, it is a challenge that cannot be ignored if genuine social progress is to be brought about.”


Photo above: Women march together in celebration of International Women’s Day on
March 8, 2016,  in Dhawa, a village in the Gorkha District of Nepal. The banner reads, “106th International Women’s Day” and “Implement the Constitution and Guarantee Women’s Rights.” By Paul Jeffrey/ACT Alliance

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