Working Together?

Figure 1. Status of Asia Pacific in achieving the 2018 targets. Darker blue refers to progress. Dark red refers to regression. Light dotted blue and red have insufficient data. (Source: http://data.unescap.org/)

A quarter of the 15-year global goal has already passed. The current progress needed to achieve the global goals in 2030 seems to be lagging behind its targets.[1] In East Asia Pacific, several goals are even regressing particularly on SDG 6 (Clean Water and Sanitation) and SDG 8 (Decent Work and Economic Growth), crucial goals for a region which hosts 60% of the world’s population.[2] If this is the case, what needs to be done? How will the SDGs ensure that it will not leave anyone behind and not repeat the mistakes of past global agreements? The answer to these questions is already in the same Agenda 2030 document that countries already agreed upon in September 2015 (what needs to be done are made in bold font below). The world just needs to take it seriously and comply not just in meeting the targets, but also in accommodating the needed changes in the current system to make it effective.

The 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are presented as a comprehensive, far-reaching, and people-centred set of universal and transformative goals that aims to “leave no one behind”. [3] It aims to end poverty without compromising the ability of the future generations to provide its needs – sustainable development. The goals contain urgent plan for action by and for all countries – developed and developing – in a global partnership.[4] Similar to other environment-focused global agreements, the SDGs rely on peer-to-peer pressure to ensure that countries that committed are able to comply. The SDGs do not have sanctions or formal mechanism that will hold entities accountable, thus making it complicated to delegate responsibilities, and demand for action (Bowen 2017). The peer-to-peer pressure is helpful, in order to address the soft nature of the SDGs’ governance arrangements that makes it hard to direct and scrutinize stakeholders who do not comply (Underdal and Kim 2017).  Creating rules in a global governance setting with varying capacities, national interest, power levels, and history of conflict will not be the best way to achieve the goals. Instead of formal legal rules that can only make arrangements more unequal, the SDGs can use learning and socialization. First, it needs to have a genuine cooperation in implementation that treats every one across geographic, economic, and political categories as partners. Second, learning from each other and from previous experiences on the MDGs that state intervention is insufficient to achieve the goals, should be a reminder that old ways will not work on the SDGs.

One important component of the SDGs are its emphasis on “Working together” towards sustainable development. The Agenda 2030 resolution emphasizes that the achievement of the SDGs will be a collective movement, with “win-win” cooperation among states and stakeholders as its central strategy for global sustainable development. It emphasises the interlinkages of each SDG and of all the stakeholders (government, private sector, civil society, etc.) that must work together in order to achieve the goals at all levels (global, regional, national, local, individuals). The “working together” also suggest equal responsibility towards developing and implementing solutions towards development.[5]

In the recently concluded Asia Pacific Forum on Sustainable Development (APFSD) and Asia Pacific People’s Forum on Sustainable Development (APPFSD), the “working together” seems far behind the target as well. The quality and inclusivity of participation has been a recurring issue mentioned in both the APPFSD and APFSD. Various CSOs shared that meaningful engagement is still lacking in the Voluntary National Reviews (VNRs), a report that “aims to facilitate the sharing of experiences, including successes, challenges and lessons learned, with a view to accelerating the implementation of the 2030 Agenda.” The idea of the VNR is not to become an intruding instrument but to be a supporting mechanism that can help “mobilize multi-stakeholder support and partnerships for the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals.” The regional SDG progress and country progress reports are lagging behind the targets since its reference is mainly the information from the governments. SDG work in the countries is clearly not just a government endeavour; hence, it is important that initiatives and accomplishments of various sectors are also reflected in the VNRs.

In the various sessions during the APFSD, governments still dominate the discussions. There are even governments who still debate about the importance of targets such as gender equality and importance of biodiversity conservation in achieving climate change. Among governments – high income, middle income, and lower income – there were also obvious tensions on what needs to be done since the financing remains to be a contentious topic. Across levels, it is still the national governments that are able to share their experiences more than the local governments. However, the most striking observation during the forum is the lack of plenary negotiation on the APFSD report that will be forwarded to the HLPF in New York.

This article does not intend to undermine the hard work of the UN in trying to bring together various stakeholders. This is meant to call out the powerful stakeholders to allow changes in the current governance system. It is also a call for CSOs and other stakeholders to remain steadfast in pushing for a more participatory, inclusive and empowering SDGs. The APFSD is already one of the best venue that opens spaces for dialogue, learning, and collaboration among stakeholders. International organizations such as the UN has an important role to play in ensuring cooperation and empowerment of other stakeholders in the SDG process. The CSOs even recognize the UN as the go-to partner when their governments are not listening. “Sustainable development is the only social contract that the world has and everyone needs to work on that” (Mikic 2019, panel on Missing Link at APFSD).[6] Democracy is only frightening when the leadership is not strong enough to share the power and voice to the less privileged. Governance of the SDGs needs to be challenged. At the end of the day, the survival of the humanity does not rest on the few, but in the ability of every human being to be less selfish and become a person for others. There is still hope if we work together.


[1] United Nations. (2018). The Sustainable Development Goals Report 2018. The UN Sustainable Development Goals [online]. Available at: https://unstats.un.org/sdgs/files/report/2018/TheSustainableDevelopmentGoalsReport2018-EN.pdf [Accessed: 27 April 2019].

[2] Bertelsmann Stiftung and Sustainable Development Solutions Network. (2018). Global Responsibilities: Implementing the Goals. Sustainable Development Goals Index and Dashboards [online]. Available at: http://www.sdgindex.org/assets/files/2018/01%20SDGS%20GLOBAL%20EDITION%20WEB%20V9%20180718.pdf [Accessed: 27 April 2019].

[3] United Nations. (2015). Transforming our World: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. General Assembly 70th session. New York: United States.

[4] United Nations. (2019). Sustainable Development Goals [online]. Available at: https://sustainabledevelopment.un.org/?menu=1300 [Accessed: 27 April 2019].

[5] United Nations. (2015). Transforming our World: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. General Assembly 70th session. New York: United States.

[6] Mikic, M. (2019) Missing Link. Asia Pacific Forum on Sustainable Development. Bangkok, Thailand.

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