The space for civil society in the Sustainable Development Goals negotiations

30 march 2015

Guest blog by James O'Brien*

Just when you think the Post-2015 process has simplified into one streamlined process, it reveals itself to have new and challenging depths, complexities and acronyms.

Things became a little clearer in January. We know that the agenda will have four component parts –

  • A Political Declaration
  • Sustainable Development Goals, Targets and Indicators
  • Means of Implementation and a New Global Partnership
  • Follow-up and review

We also know that the content of these components will be decided through a series of monthly intergovernmental negotiations at the UN. Ireland and Kenya, have the unenviable task of co-facilitating these negotiations and reaching agreement between 193 member states between now and the UN Summit in September that will launch the new agenda.

Last month in New York I was at the intergovernmental negotiations on the Political Declaration. One of the questions I had going into the negotiations was around how much of a role civil society would have in the decision-making process. It’s one priority that all NGOs have been able to agree on, and that the Dóchas Beyond 2015 Group has been pushing strongly for. 

James O'Brien and Esther Mkamori

I had heard David Donoghue, Ireland’s Ambassador to the UN, speak at a conference in Dublin earlier this year, where he said that civil society is a vital ingredient in the process, that engagement with civil society worked well in last year’s Open Working Group process and would continue to work in this year’s intergovernmental process. From what I saw in my short time in New York, this view has been borne out in the negotiations. 

I was part of a steering committee set up by the UN Non-Governmental Liaison Service (UN-NGLS) and Division for Sustainable Development (DSD). The committee was made up of eighteen representatives of civil society (‘Major Groups and Other Stakeholders’), and our job was to channel the views of civil society into the negotiations. 

This meant putting together a summary of stakeholder reactions gathered before the negotiations (including one from Dóchas). This document was shared with the co-facilitators, and with Member States, during the negotiations. 

The steering committee was also tasked with organising an interactive dialogue with Member States.  For three hours on Thursday morning, as part of the negotiations, there was and back and forth between member states and NGOs, plus a speech by Amina Mohammed, Special Advisor to the UN Secretary General 

It’s hard to say at this point how widely the summary was read, and to what extent the statements made in the interactive dialogue will impact on the content  of the Declaration, but both were well received by member states, and it is certainly positive that these formal channels exists for civil society to feed a statement into the negotiations.

For the March and April negotiations, at least, this steering committee structure will stay in place. At some point the curtain is going to come down on civil society participation in the negotiations, and member states will decide that they have heard enough from civil society. At the moment there are encouraging signs and noises that suggest that this will not happen in the short term, and that civil society will have a role up until the last formal negotiating session in July. 

The job for civil society now is to keep this space open, and the best way we can do that is by using the space well. 

To find out more and get involved, sign up for updates from UN NGLS.  

*James O’Brien is VSO Ireland’s Research and Advocacy Advisor - @JJ_OBrien


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