Politics of Poverty

To make the “people’s goal” work for the people, these two things are essential

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Event organised by LDDF and supported by AMAL regarding political participation. The event is to support and encourage women running for local election and getting people to vote. Standard awareness raising, held in small tent. Women speaks in to microphone and raises concerns about her lack of work experience out of the home. Rabat, Morocco Photo: Ellie Kealey/Oxfam

How can we make the so called “governance and people’s goal” live up to expectations?

Omar Ortez is Oxfam America’s senior policy advisor on active citizenship.

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) recently adopted at the UN General Assembly are expected to shape political and policy priorities worldwide for the next 15 years. The 17 goals embraced by world leaders set an ambitious agenda designed to end poverty and hunger, fight inequality and injustice, and combat climate change by 2030. For a great overview of what the SDGs are and why we should all care about them, read my colleague Laura Rusu’s post here.

We at Oxfam are cautiously optimistic about how instrumental the SDGs can become to effectively address these huge problems. Power imbalances rig the rules of financial flows for development against the poor and in favor of “economic development” driven by elite or corporate interests. Development investments don’t flow necessarily towards the most effective and inclusive education, health, and economic infrastructure programs but rather to those that accumulate the greatest political support. To tackle that fundamentally political problem, citizens need to be able to create countervailing power –through collective action, alliances with reformers within public institutions, and support of other national and international actors.

Of the 17 goals, one of them – SDG 16 – is set to address these issues head on. The goal seeks to promote ‘Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions’ and has been dubbed ‘the people’s goal’ because it aims to shift power back into their hands. SDG 16 recognizes that access to justice and the buildup of effective, accountable and inclusive institutions are at the core of peaceful and fair societies, and sustainable development. I believe, as we move from public declarations to actual implementation, this goal holds an important key to meeting all the rest of the SDGs.

So with all of that potential, what would it take for Goal 16 to live up to the expectations?

Greater expansion and protection of civil society space

The right of citizens to contribute to the shaping of institutions, laws, policies and public resources that affect their lives is not equally recognized worldwide. In fact, around the world, the space ordinary citizens and civil society need to engage political and economic elites, play their watchdog role, and hold them accountable is increasingly under threat. CIVICUS’ 2015 State of Civil Society Report documented significant attacks on the fundamental civil society rights of free association, free assembly and free expression in 96 countries – and that’s in 2014 alone.  When not directly cracking down on CSOs – such as trade unions and news outlets – for criticizing them, governments in many countries are eroding the ability of CSOs to operate through restrictive legislations on citizens associations and NGOs –as happened in Cambodia recently; policing freedom of speech (including internet freedom), and modifying election laws to ban critical voices during political campaigns.

In the coming years, citizens, civil society groups, parliamentarians, journalists and others will need that civic space to monitor the use of resources toward the SDGs. To discuss ways of addressing this worrisome trend, Oxfam and several country partners will be joining International Center for Not-for-Profit Law on a panel entitled “Innovative Strategies to Increase Civic Space: A Critical Condition for the future of the Open Government Partnership and the SDGs.” at the upcoming Open Government Partnership Global (OGP) Summit in Mexico. The summit will bring together all of the actors critical to addressing these worrisome trends. And we hope to stir up a conversation about commitments that countries can incorporate into their OGP National Action Plans to not only protect civil society, but better deliver on the Sustainable Development Goals.

Concrete political commitments from governments and international institutions to  support citizen oversight

Civil society space is not easy to measure, but current efforts are underway to improve it at both the global and country level.  For example, consider CIVICU’s Civic Space Monitor and Civic Pulse and the Transparency & Accountability Initiative’s proposed improved measures of civic space. While these measures are promising, to be effective they need an incentive structure, legitimized within the international community that rewards countries as they show improvements in civil society space, while it discourages countries that close the space. This could be done, for example, by incorporating strong requirements on protection of civil society space in the guidelines of public (e.g. bilateral and multilateral donors and regional banks) and private financing towards the SDGs.

Such an incentive system is still far from being formalized, but nevertheless several countries are starting to show leadership regarding their work with civil society as they implement the SDGs. A High-level Support Group for the SDGs has been created lead by Brazil, Colombia, Germany, Liberia, South Africa, Sweden, Tanzania, Tunisia and East Timor – and others continue to join. In the global south, the Government of Colombia has suggested the need to pursue a ‘sandwich strategy’ that will pressure governments from the top and bottom by increasing channels for dialogue with civil society to improve service delivery at subnational levels in areas like education and healthcare. Among donor countries, Sweden is setting up a National Committee that is tasked with both communicating with society and building linkages between the government and civil society in order to create an approach to SDG implementation that looks at domestic and global policies from the same sustainable development angle. Specifically on Civil Society Space, the Swedish Government is supporting the Civic Space Initiative (CSI), a program that will address troubling trends on civic space closure by focusing on improving legal environments and encouraging the creation of spaces for citizens, communities, and civil society organizations to meaningfully engage with government and other power holders.

These are great examples of how countries can take on the challenge of policy coherence around the SDGs, and I would challenge others as their action plans begin to take shape, to do the same.

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