After the Fanfare, What Progress Will Be Made?
So, after all the rhetoric and fanfare and marches and celebrity appearances, when the presidents and prime ministers have all gone home and the Sustainable Development Goals have been formally approved, what will have changed for the world’s three billion people living on less than $2.50 per day?
Whatever the limitations of the SDGs, the real challenge now is to support and promote their implementation. To succeed, progress needs to be scrutinized and governments held to account for the commitments they have made to the very communities and people whose lives they affect.
On this front, there are reasons for concern. The mechanisms for monitoring and reviewing the post-2015 agenda are “vague and entirely voluntary,” according to one expert closely involved with the process.
How could they be improved? Start by including a regular, global review of progress on SDGs similar to the Universal Periodic Review of the United Nations Human Rights Council in which every government has to present its human rights record for scrutiny by other governments every five years. That can be supplemented with comprehensive reporting by governments, civil society groups and the UN system to ensure the most complete and credible analysis of progress.
But just as importantly, holding governments to account depends on open participation by civil society – at the local, national, regional and international levels. As the recent report of the special rapporteur for human rights defenders noted, those “promoting and defending rights relating to land, the environment and corporate responsibility” are the most vulnerable to attacks, intimidation, forced disappearances and other threats. These are the very people working on issues of just and sustainable development. Human Rights Watch’s own work has found that the World Bank has “done little to prevent or dissuade governments from intimidating critics of the projects it funds, or monitor for reprisals.”
For the SDGs to have a chance to reach their lofty targets, governments and major international institutions, including development donors, both need to recognize that a vibrant civil society, a free media, genuinely democratic political processes, and an independent judiciary are essential for the impoverished and marginalized to be able to demand accountability for progress made - and not made. Ultimately, development has to mean enhanced freedom – especially for those at greatest risk.