Implementing the Sustainable Development Goals: A Global Call To Increase Civil Society Space (Fall 2015)

By Lindsay Coates, Executive Vice President, InterAction

This September, leaders from 193 countries gathered in New York City to formally adopt the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). As we move from the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) to the SDGs, it’s critical to acknowledge how they differ. The MDGs rest on an older model of development – richer nations provide development assistance to poorer countries. But over the past 15 years, our thinking has shifted – the role of local agency and self-determination has become central to the policy discussion. The SDGs rely on individual citizens and civil society organizations to help build resilient societies and effective institutions.

Goal 16 of the SDGs calls for societies to advance freedom of expression, association, and peaceful assembly – all of which are critical to civil society organizations – while Goal 17 encourages governments and the private sector to form effective partnerships with civil society organizations. Initiatives such as Global Partnership for Social Accountability and Making All Voices Count work to bolster civil society across the globe. The world is also monitoring the space organizations have in member states through the Enabling Environment IndexNGO Law Monitor, and Freedom in the World Survey. This aligns with the NGO alliance InterAction’s goal to promote the ability of civil society to thrive worldwide.

InterAction believes an enabling environment allows nonprofits, religious institutions, and social enterprises to provide basic services, such as healthcare, education, and food assistance to people in areas typically out of government and private sector reach. It also enables these groups to hold governments and businesses into account while advocating for the rights of people often overlooked.

Civil society’s critical role in successfully achieving the SDG agenda cannot be ignored. Member states will now select indicators to measure success, and civil society must help shape what the world considers “progress.” There are many questions to consider. Will key development initiatives result in a more equitable distribution of wealth? How will the agenda affect small-scale farmers, displaced people, and gender equality? To achieve our ambitious goals over the next 15 years, we must actively engage citizens and civil society organizations in all countries.