Observations on the Quest to Build Back Better
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Five years since the passage of the SDGs, the impulse in many quarters is still to scale up existing approaches, rather than to push for fundamental changes in how our societies and economies function to better realize rights.

In addition, there are worrying signs that COVID-19 emergency restrictions could be used as a smokescreen for a broader crackdown on dissent, which would undermine accountability for the 2030 Agenda.

Countries that appear to have done better are ones that have empathetic leaders who have been inclusive in their policy responses and have involved civil society in decision making.

The SDG Knowledge Hub spoke with Mandeep Tiwana, Chief Programmes Officer at CIVICUS, about his assessment of responses to the COVID-19 pandemic and impacts on the 2030 Agenda. Tiwana highlights the persistence of “MDG mindsets” and an increase in censorship and surveillance. He also suggests five ways to build a better post-pandemic world.

What have you observed about the SDG community’s responses to the pandemic?

Significant attention is being focused on the negative impacts of COVID-19, especially on impoverished and excluded communities. Important issues such as debt relief and financing for development have come to the fore. For example, the IMF announced immediate debt service relief for 25 countries in April, and further efforts are underway.

Yet, across the board, “MDG mindsets” remain stubbornly prevalent. The MDGs were weak in their comprehension of development by focusing on a small sub-set of rights. They were also charity-oriented in their approach, and reinforced top-down aid in the Global South.

The SDGs, on the other hand, are universal and underpinned by a range of interdependent human rights and social justice values, which gives them transformative potential. However, five years since the passage of the SDGs, the impulse in many quarters is still to scale up existing approaches. A lot of the emphasis remains on “soft” communications and feel-good actions, rather than to push for fundamental changes in how our societies and economies function to better realize rights.

What impacts do you expect the COVID-19 crisis to have on the achievement of the 2030 Agenda?

COVID-19 could be a turning point. I have guarded optimism that we could overcome the paucity of ambition that has held us back from making transformative shifts.

COVID-19 has exposed and accelerated existing problems in our societies. Inequality, exclusion, and lack of voice were already marring progress on the 2030 Agenda. With COVID-19, the worst impacts are being felt by the disadvantaged as hunger and deprivation abound. Violence against women and excluded minorities has spiked. All of this is undermining the commitment to leave no one behind. Recent protests against racial injustice in the US and around the world highlight the importance of people’s participation for overcoming structural inequities and getting States to discharge their responsibilities to ensure proper health care, education, and access to justice for those most at risk. Thus, a silver lining has been renewed purpose among activists and civil society organizations to demand radical shifts to ‘leave no one behind.’ 

However, a less constructive trend has emerged as well. As public safety has taken center stage, censorship and surveillance have ramped up along with official propaganda. Many governments have sought to control the narrative about their pandemic response by clamping down on civic freedoms. Even before COVID-19 struck, only three percent of the world’s population lived in countries where the fundamental civic freedoms of expression, peaceful assembly, and association were adequately protected, according to the CIVICUS Monitor, our participatory research platform that measures civic space around the world.

There are worrying signs that COVID-19 emergency restrictions could be used as a smokescreen for a broader crackdown on dissent. The negative legacy of COVID-19 could last as long as the wave of dubious security measures passed in the wake of 9/11. This would undermine accountability for the 2030 Agenda.

Have any new lessons emerged that can inform plans and strategies to “build back better”?

Our vulnerabilities stand exposed by COVID-19. However, as we begin this Decade of Accountability for the SDGs (a multi-stakeholder campaign to hold duty bearers to account for their commitments to sustainable development), we still have an opportunity to build better forward by creating greener and fairer societies. In our recently released State of Civil Society Report 2020, we highlight five areas of focus to create a better post-pandemic world.

First, civic freedoms and democratic rights are essential as our leaders are making life-or-death choices that could define the fate of generations. Concerned citizens, the media, and civil society organizations must have access to credible information and be able to exercise fundamental civic freedoms, in order to shape decisions in people’s best interests and hold decision makers to account. In a positive example in Paraguay, the government has set up a website that allows the public to track COVID-19 expenditure and engage directly with public officials. 

Second, now is the time to rethink how our economies are structured. This means avoiding harsh austerity policies or market fundamentalism that prioritizes the interests of big business in recovery. To make a dent in inequality we need radical shifts such as progressive taxation and reinforcing the state’s responsibility to directly provide quality essential services. State funding for military infrastructures and repressive state apparatuses should be repurposed towards social safety nets.

We also urge better protection of worker’s rights. Towards this end CIVICUS has put in place a social security protocol to  ensure job security, and to protect the mental and physical well-being of our co-workers.

Third, the needs of the most excluded people should be placed front and center. Reconstruction efforts should adopt a human rights approach and reach the most disadvantaged first. Steps must be taken to safeguard the rights of women and the health and wellbeing of older people and children, and to prevent violence against them. Economic stimulus plans should target those who are most vulnerable. For example, Spain has taken steps to introduce a basic monthly income for about a million of the country’s most impoverished households. We encourage other countries to adopt a similar policy.

It is also important to protect civil society organizations from funding shifts. CIVICUS is urging funders to exercise flexibility and listen to their partners as they navigate disruptions in programme activities and planned convenings. We also call for a greater proportion of funds to be delivered to organizations directly serving people on the ground.

Fourth, international cooperation remains vital. Multilateral institutions need to be adequately resourced and supported by governments in the spirit of multilateralism. Responses to the pandemic must strengthen and uphold the autonomy of international institutions, not only the World Health Organization but also institutions that promote human rights, peace, and sustainable development. Like pandemics, major contemporary challenges such as conflict, poverty, and environmental degradation have spillover effects beyond their borders. Strong international institutions and cooperation are needed to realize initiatives such as the UN Secretary-General’s call for a global ceasefire.

Fifth, now is an opportune time to ramp up action on climate change. The healing of nature seen in so many places should be nurtured. New ways of working introduced during the crisis that reduce carbon footprints should continue where possible. The Paris Agreement must receive new life to ensure that greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are reduced and rises in global temperature are kept to a minimum. Recovery plans are an opportunity to invest in employment that advances the transition to a green economy.

Human rights cut across many of your proposals, for example in the need for transparency, protecting workers and the most disadvantaged, and strengthening human rights institutions. Why are human rights so relevant during COVID-19?

Countries that appear to have done better are ones that have empathetic leaders who have been inclusive in their policy responses and have involved civil society in decision making. This is all part of a human rights approach. In April this year, over 650 civil society organizations from around the world co-signed a letter calling on world leaders to respect human dignity and rights in responses to the COVID-19 pandemic.

We can’t turn the corner towards transformation after COVID-19 without a human rights approach.

Mandeep Tiwana is Chief Programmes Officer, CIVICUS.

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