DESA Paper Recommends Maximizing Civil Society Reporting on SDGs
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A technical paper authored for UN DESA’s Division for Sustainable Development identifies ways in which civil society organizations can report on the SDGs.

The author finds that there is scope to align CSOs’ existing reporting practices with the 2030 Agenda.

DESA can support alignment via guidance, toolkits, strengthening existing channels, and facilitating reviews, the paper suggests.

4 May 2018: A technical paper authored for the UN Division for Sustainable Development (DSD) discusses ways for civil society stakeholders to report their contributions to SDG implementation. The paper reviews the content, guiding principles and process for civil society reporting, and options for incentivizing participation.

UN Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed and others have called for a “whole-of-society approach” as the norm for implementing the SDGs. In response to paragraph 89 of the 2030 Agenda, which calls on the major groups and other stakeholders (MGoS) to report their contributions, the DSD paper looks at the means by which civil society organizations (CSOs) can do so.

Civil society is not an “untapped resource,” as many CSOs already work on topics that could be expressed in terms of the SDGs and targets.

The paper titled, ‘How should civil society stakeholders report their contribution to the implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development?, is authored by Graham Long, Newcastle University, UK, for the UN Department of Economic and Social Development’s (DESA) DSD. It identifies multiple roles for CSOs in implementing the SDGs, including: on regulation, as watchdog entities; on representation, to give voice to those at risk of being “left behind;” and on service delivery. The author posits that civil society should not be considered “an untapped resource” for SDG implementation, as many already work on topics that can be expressed in terms of the Goals, targets or design principles.

Long suggests that CSO reporting on their own work is less straightforward than it is for Member States, arguing that the “accountability demand” is lower for CSOs than for countries. On the other hand, he observes that there are limits to some CSOs’ independence, as they operate in spaces that are largely constrained or enabled by state actors, and public funding sources often finance a significant portion of their budges, especially for larger, development-oriented CSOs. Therefore, there may be increasing pressures to report on activities and outcomes in a manner that aligns with state objectives. A positive aspect of this pressure, Long notes, is that this may lead to increasing reporting along the SDGs, as funders rely on recipient NGOs for information about SDG-relevant activities.

Many CSOs already report, be it to a tax authority, their donors, themselves internally, those seen as beneficiaries of their work, or the broader public. Some of these types of reports can be utilized in the SDG context. Long identifies eight uses for CSO reporting: coordination in the global partnership; mutual accountability; mutual solidarity and trust; data provision; regional, national and local cooperation and coordination; awareness and profile raising for the SDGs; peer learning; and internal learning and organizational change.

The author suggests that any mechanism that facilitates SDG reporting by CSOs must account for their diversity of size, capacity, focus and level of engagement with the 2030 Agenda. On guiding principles that should underpin CSO reporting systems, the paper identifies four elements that should be respected: the distinctive nature of the 2030 Agenda; the diversity of civil society and existing reporting commitments; the many ways in which CSOs can contribute to the SDGs; and the multiple purposes of, or uses for, CSO reporting. To maximize CSO reporting, the paper recommends focusing on the multiple existing levels of SDG review, rather than aiming to create a new global-level process. Long cautions against offering incentives to increase or enhance CSO reporting, as doing so can reinforce or exacerbate current gaps and inequalities. Instead, there is a need to communicate the benefits associated with SDG reporting, which is voluntary and, when dealing with civil society, fully independent and citizen-driven.

Long highlights current examples of CSO contributions to the SDGs. At national level in Kenya, a civil society coalition published a voluntary review report that was both integrated into the country’s Voluntary National Review (VNR) for the UN High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development (HLPF). In Finland, an online portal allows CSOs to register commitments and contributions to “the Finland we want by 2050.”

However, Long writes that there does not appear to be any large grassroots movements mobilized around the SDGs. Further, many CSOs that directly contribute to the SDGs (i.e. service delivery) do not map their outcomes to the Goals or targets. For example, Oxfam has helped two million people access clean water and sanitation facilities last year (SDG targets 6.1 and 6.2), but does not publicly link their work to the SDGs.

The paper recommends that CSOs consider harmonizing their current reporting to the SDGs, including through mapping alignment with Goals and targets, utilizing common measurement systems, identifying those “left behind” and including them, and seeking to better understand or audit policy coherence and the impacts of their work. Pursuant to this, the paper calls on DESA to consider how it can support such harmonization, whether through tool kits and guidance, highlighting best practices, or encouraging funders to align their goals and expectations with the SDGs.

DESA also has a role in establishing or strengthening existing channels through which CSOs can report, whether through thematic reviews, VNRs, and at the national, regional and global level. DESA also has a role to play in ensuring inclusion and equity in reviews and reporting, in partnership with stakeholder coordination mechanisms. [Publication: How should civil society stakeholders report their contribution to the implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development?]

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