by Christopher Dekki
Despite many obstacles, we have come a long way
The achievements of the international community over the past few years have been extraordinary. As much as conflict has taken centre stage in the media, and the “failures” of the United Nations have become a rallying cry for many, in reality, the world has much to celebrate. Thanks to the hard work of so many engaged in advocacy and diplomacy on the global policy stage, we have now entered the era of sustainable development, a phase in our collective human development that recognises that we live within the confines of a planet with finite resources. It is a time when so many understand that business as usual, especially in terms of our production and consumption habits, is simply untenable.
The policy processes that led to the adoption of frameworks like the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, the Paris Climate Agreement, the New Urban Agenda, and others, were not without their obstacles, conflicts, or problems, but they are proof that multilateralism is alive and well. These frameworks, which are the culmination of tense intergovernmental negotiations, are the very essence of the transformation needed to ensure a more sustainable future. Simply put, we now have all the tools we need to build more sustainable societies, cities, and communities.
After the agreements have been adopted, they now need to be implemented
The adoption of these agreements though is only just the beginning. The proverbial ball is now in the court of national governments to act upon what so many have struggled to create. The technology needed is available, the financing is attainable, and the hunger for change is palpable. The next step is to continue the partnerships that helped create these frameworks and bring them down to the level of implementation. To their credit, people from all sectors of society, including subnational and local authorities, played a central role in the formulation of these sustainable development frameworks. Certainly, their drive to promote a sustainable future was obvious at every moment in the negotiation processes. Local authorities organisations like ICLEI were consistent agents of the transformation needed to achieve sustainable development, and showcased the work of their member cities to provide real examples of implementation. Meanwhile, academics and activists, as well as the diplomats representing their countries, were keen on successful outcomes.
All of these forces are hungry for the collective next steps in this sustainable development journey. Political will on the part of national governments is now sorely needed, despite the political shifts taking place in many countries. Thus, if a state is serious about its international commitments, its national implementation plans should make room for continued engagement with subnational and local authorities and other stakeholders. One of the core values of the UN System, subsidiarity, must be a central feature of these plans. Any plans developed without the participation and cooperation of cities and regions, or other key stakeholders, is a departure from the precedent set in the negotiation process, where subnational and local authorities and major groups and other stakeholders were not only allowed access to meetings and informal negotiations, they were able to make interventions and influence the outcome.
Vertical partnerships for a sustainable future
Already, many governments are reaching out to cities and regions and other groups in society because they understand that success requires a new approach to policymaking, an approach that is less top-down and more the result of vertical cooperation. Many of these countries are making progress around their sustainable development and climate change commitments, and are reviewing the results of their efforts in fora like the High Level Political Forum (HLPF), the intergovernmental UN body that reviews the implementation of the 2030 Agenda.
In the context of these review processes, states must also remember to include subnational and local governments and other stakeholders in the monitoring of their implementation of these agreements. Sustainable development frameworks like the New Urban Agenda already have within them paragraphs on the engagement of stakeholders in the review process. Engaging these groups, especially subnational and local governments, provides states with a wealth of data and expertise around progress being made. National Statistical Offices oftentimes do not have the capacity or the knowledge to really dig deeply into the realities of their populations and how key policies affect them. Meanwhile, stakeholders on the ground, especially regional and local governments, have information that can supplement the data collected by national governments. This outreach can also foster an exchange of ideas and best practices that can strengthen the data collection of all parties involved, and ensure that overall monitoring of commitments is improved.
African countries on their way to success
On this front, a number of lessons can be learned from Africa, where several countries have already volunteered for the HLPF Voluntary National Review (VNR) both last year and for the upcoming forum in July. Uganda, which underwent its VNR process in 2016, has mainstreamed the SDGs into its National Development Plan (NDP), while working with subnational authorities to make sure their development planning is also in line with this effort to bring sustainable development to the people1. In partnership with the UN system, Uganda has organized trainings for technical staff at the local level around the development planning and is working to ensure that sub-national budgeting processes are in line with the national plan2. This means that Uganda is building on the progress made during the MDG era to further realign its priorities around critical commitments made both at the UN and regional organisations. Botswana, a country that many consider to be one of sub-Saharan Africa’s great success stories, has moved at lightning speed to reorganise its policies, programmes, and plans around the SDGs. Each agency of the state, subnational authorities, and other stakeholders, have come together around the implementation of the SDGs. Like in Uganda, the National Development Plan has mainstreamed the SDGs and the government has conducted outreach and consultations with stakeholders to ensure their voices are heard in the review process as preparations are made for its VNR at the 2017 HLPF.
The efforts to nationalise the SDGs are also taking place in post-conflict African states like Liberia and Somalia. Recognising the absolute importance of the 2030 Agenda, both countries have launched initiatives, working with partners like UNDP and others to help localise the SDGs into development planning3. In Somalia for example, this has included the establishment of government committees (including sub-national authorities), which are meant to work on improving government functioning towards service delivery and monitoring of progress4. This engagement of stakeholders and subnational authorities shows the commitment of so many African countries, including least developed countries (LDCs), to the success of the 2030 Agenda.
A profound paradigm shift is needed
Once again, the tools for success exist, the energy is building, and the urgency is real. Political will on the part of national governments is now needed to take sustainable development policy out of the halls of the UN and into the streets of our cities, towns, and villages. It is promising that many countries have already blazed ahead with implementation plans for the SDGs and serve as examples to others. This includes a number of African countries, which are building upon the momentum created by the many partnerships formed in the negotiation processes. National implementation of the 2030 Agenda, the New Urban Agenda, and other global agreements requires a paradigm shift in all behaviour by all sectors and actors in society, including in governance structures. As much as it seems as if the world is moving in dangerous directions, it is important to remember the commitment to diplomacy and multilateralism that birthed the sustainable development frameworks. Certainly, the efforts of so many will not be swayed by changes in how the political winds blow. Together, national governments, subnational and local authorities, and all stakeholders can live up to the commitments made as part of our collective transition into the era of sustainable development.