Image source: Agenda 2030 - Photo: 2024

UN’s Lagging Development Goals Need a Sense of Urgency

By Simone Galimberti*

KATHMANDU, Nepal | 6 March 2024 (IDN)—The latest Asia Pacific Forum on Sustainable Development (APFSD) was recently launched in Bangkok. As usual, it was a mix of official interventions by ministries from the whole region and a wide-ranging array of exciting side events organized mainly by civil society in partnership with United Nations agencies and programs.

In its 11th edition, the Forum was the major platform for discussing the implementation status of Agenda 2030. As per tradition, the event also coincided with a new regional progress report on the SDGs.

Once again, the Asia Pacific SDG Progress Report confirmed the abysmal status of the region’s quest to achieve a more sustainable, just, and resilient future.

While there have been some improvements, especially in terms of the number of people living in poverty (Goal 1) and enhancing sustainable industry, innovation, and infrastructure (Goal 9), the vast majority of goals and indicators are off track.

This appalling situation warrants an immediate call for action from governments and civil society. Unfortunately, this sense of urgency is absent.

With some hindsight, even the SDG Summit, held last September with its Political Declaration, needed to meet the high expectations many hoped for. While not so explicit, it is clear that a rethinking of governance, on how power is exercised and shared between people and the state, is paramount.

Different forms of policymaking must become a central aspect of the conversation on the transformations that Agenda 2030 would bring about, with real, consequential and positive impacts on our lives.

Assuring implementation of the SDGs

How can we start discussing the required changes in governance that would ensure the implementation of the SDGs?

Could regional forums like the APFSD contribute to such rethinking not only in terms of the contents covered and discussed, but also in terms of the formats that are normally designed and delivered? In a way, the Asia Pacific Forum on Sustainable Development could become a platform itself to demonstrate that policy innovations in governance are going to be the most important enablers of Agenda 2030.

The Forum’s conception and implementation should be analyzed and re-examined. It is fair to say that its organizers have been trying to make it more accessible and inclusive.

Undoubtedly, there have been more side and associated events year after year, even though there needs to be a clear differentiation between these two modalities. Most are also accessible online, making it easier for regional stakeholders to be involved.

The so-called “associated” events are more closely aligned with the official agenda of the Forum and are, at least, on the paper, feeding into it. Instead, the programs and workshops falling in the “side” event category are more independent and only loosely attached to the official program of the Forum.

Are there ways to make these two distinguished categories of programs more closely associated with and integral to the Forum? Can the official program, mostly dominated by dry, pre-arranged statements delivered by ministers and senior bureaucrats, do a better job mainstreaming and including the side and associated programs that, in practice, stay at the margin of the official discussions? Can some “pushbacks” be allowed to these always ‘rosy’ speeches?

Would it be possible for the representatives of the governments participating in the Forum to be in a position to better interact and dialogue with other stakeholders who are now participating but only from the sidelines?

Rather than having participants of these latter sessions talking and debating only among themselves through what, de facto, have become “echo chambers”, are there ways for a total immersion of these stakeholders in the official deliberations?

For example, the APFSD Youth Forum and Peoples’ Forum, which technically fall under the “associated” events category, could be fully merged with the main Forum itself. At the moment, though, there is a tenuous link between these events and the official, formal APFSD.

For example, a representative of the APFSD Youth Forum and one from the People’s Forum addressed the opening with a formal remark. This is welcome and positive, but much more should be done.

Yet, for example, The Asia Pacific Regional Youth Call to Action ahead of the APFSD 2024, the primary outcome of the APFSD Youth Forum that positively builds on nations’ driven declarations, still needs to be explored.

It is an excellent, bold document that does not count, even from a symbolic prism. Year after year, it is generated and then trashed away without anyone noticing it. What could be the ways to start changing the current status quo?

The simplest solution would be to enable the representatives of the APFSD Youth Forum and the People’s Forum and the participants of the side events to fully participate and speak in the different sessions of the Forum.

The second way would be to move the sessions and programs from the official schedules into the “main” Forum. The Forum’s sessions remain too rigid and have become the exclusive domain of high-ranking government representatives.

Instead, civil society stakeholders, including youths, should be able to interact and present their opinions and ideas so that any so-called “Call to Action” is fully and wholly discussed and analyzed within the Forum itself.

More can also be done at the country level. Each member state participating in the APFSD could, in partnership with the local UN Country Offices, organize national-level discussions in preparation for the main event in Bangkok.

These consultations become national forums linked and integrated with the Voluntary National Reviews, which help governments track their implementation of the SDGs.

Not just a talking show

The changes proposed in this piece could be implemented incrementally, but we need a vision. Bringing them into reality would undoubtedly require a major shift in the way that APFSD has worked so far.

Making it far more inclusive, accessible, and relevant to the region’s citizens will entail not only more resources but also a shift in mindset, something that cannot be underestimated given the conservative mindsets prevailing in the Asia Pacific.

Governments must ultimately approve a radical rethinking of the Forum, which could become a real platform for exercising accountability for governments’ actions and commitments in implementing Agenda 2030.

But even without their full buy-in, the UN-ESCAP Secretariat, thanks to its convening powers, could do quite a bit on its own to bring about some refreshing changes in the Forum’s format.

A profoundly different APFSD would also pave the way for experiments in more participatory and bottom-up decision-making, where youth and other members of society have a real chance to influence the policymaking process.

Indeed, no one should be satisfied with how the Forum is currently implemented. As it is now, it remains just a talking show.

While sharing best practices is always useful, the daunting challenges humanity is facing—challenges that can only be overcome if Agenda 2030 is fully implemented—require many different forms of deliberation.

The APFSD and similar regional UN forums could do a much better job of discussing and analyzing what governments are doing to realize the SDGs through more meaningful and deliberate discussions.

It should also become the premier Forum where ideas from civil society on implementing them are discussed and taken seriously rather than tokenized as usual.

*Simone Galimberti writes about the SDGs, youth-centered policymaking and a more robust and better United Nations. [IDN-InDepthNews]

This article was produced as a part of the joint media project between The Non-profit International Press Syndicate Group and Soka Gakkai International in Consultative Status with ECOSOC on 6 March 2024.

Image source: Agenda 2030

IDN is the flagship agency of the Non-profit International Press Syndicate.

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