The APFSD has grown into a useful multi-stakeholder platform for sharing experiences and networking around sustainable development.
It is important to examine whether stakeholder engagement provides meaningful space for the stakeholders and whether it is built on the “minimum requirement” of protecting and respecting human rights.
Subregional platforms can foster dialogues among different stakeholders, which is difficult to hold at a larger platform.
The sixth meeting of the Asia-Pacific Forum on Sustainable Development (APFSD-6) was organized by the Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP) and took place in Bangkok, Thailand, from 27-29 March 2019. APFSD is a regional multi-stakeholder forum on sustainable development, preparatory to the High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development (HLPF), which convenes in New York annually to follow-up and review the progress against the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. In 2019, the HLPF will convene twice, including the first time it will take place at the level of Heads of State and Government.
In 2019, the HLPF 2019 is focusing on the theme, “empowering people and ensuring inclusiveness and equality.” APFSD-6, under the same theme, discussed related regional perspectives and trends, shared experiences with voluntary national and local reviews, and examined the region’s progress and challenges toward achieving the 2030 Agenda. APFSD-6 also included roundtable discussions on SDGs 4 (quality education), 8 (decent work and economic growth), 10 (reduced inequalities), 13 (climate action) and 16 (peace, justice and strong institutions), which will be reviewed at this year’s HLPF, to formulate regional recommendations on the way forward. As APFSD is a large event with parallel roundtable discussions and side events, it is difficult to capture everything that took place. Three salient points are highlighted below.
Bringing together more than 850 participants from governments, inter-governmental organizations, United Nations bodies, international organizations, civil society organizations and other entities in 2019, it was clear that APFSD has grown into a useful multi-stakeholder platform for sharing experiences and networking around sustainable development. Member States shared their progress and challenges against the 2030 agenda. Civil society voices were also present in most of the panels and sessions. In addition, many UN agencies participated in the main forum, as well as at side events. Some even took a leadership role in the roundtable discussions. Research institutes such as IGES also participated in and contributed to many parts of the forum. Overall, collaboration and provision of meaningful space for various stakeholders resulted in a well-attended forum with useful experience sharing.
The ideas and initiatives shared at the forum made it meaningful and relevant to participants from different parts of the region. For example, some governments shared unique yet replicable practices including SDG-based budgeting (Mongolia), auditing of SDG preparedness and achievement (Indonesia), implementation of the Aarhus Convention (Georgia), and public-private-people partnership (Thailand). Voluntary local reviews and localization of SDGs were also introduced (Kitakyushu City, with support from IGES). While countries in Asia and the Pacific are diverse, many of these practices are relevant and adaptable for many contexts.
Differences in Views about the Causes and Solutions for Inequalities Stood Out
The discussions and statements on inequalities at APFSD-6 highlighted the differences in the views between governments and civil society. Asia-Pacific being a highly unequal region, many governments highlighted the importance of strengthening governance and an inclusive approach to redress inequalities. While acknowledging that these are important, civil society representatives argued that the root causes are based in systemic problems, highlighting the need for system changes and financial measures to respond to inequality. They raised illicit financial flows, unequal trade, trade mispricing, and tax evasion as some of the major reasons for widening inequalities and suggested increased use of progressive tax systems and regional tax reform as exemplary solutions to achieve redistributive justice.
Regarding inclusive approaches, many governments introduced their stakeholder engagement initiatives for their SDG implementation/review process and mechanisms. While agreeing on the importance of inclusive approaches, civil society called for the need for partnerships with people based on a human rights approach. “Stakeholder engagement” can mean anything from merely informing a small group of selected people, to empowering everyone. Civil society’s claim points to the importance of looking into the degree and quality of engagement as well as the relationship between government and stakeholders. Their claim for “partnership” clearly indicated a desire to be treated as an equal “partner.” In the context of inclusiveness, Thailand introduced its “public-private-people partnership.” Regardless of what the relationship is called, it is important to examine whether stakeholder engagement provides meaningful space for the stakeholders and whether it is built on the “minimum requirement” of protecting and respecting human rights.
These perspectives of civil society made the APFSD discussion holistic and balanced. APFSD should be recognized for its excellence in bringing grassroots voices to the regional forum.
APFSD in the Future
As the number of players working on the 2030 Agenda increases in the region and the quality of inclusive discussions at APFSD is enhanced, it will become even more important to feed Asia-Pacific perspectives into HLPF, so that global discussions are grounded in the wealth of experience and reality of the region. To achieve this objective, the efforts can be two directional. Firstly, the region can aim to approach HLPF with a stronger voice. On this element, strengthening ownership by Member States in reporting the results of APFSD to HLPF may lead to stronger voice from the region. Secondly, the Department of Economic and Social Affairs, which organizes HLPF, should seek ways to strengthen the feed-in mechanism from regional forums, to increase their relevance while also making the HLPF more applicable to the regional, national and local efforts on the 2030 Agenda.
In a similar way, APFSD should strengthen its connection with the subregional forum on sustainable development organized by ESCAP subregional offices. The Asia-Pacific region is diverse in terms of the types of megatrends faced by countries. For example, challenges related to aging society are daunting yet mostly specific to East Asian countries. Initiatives and experiences related to these issues can be better discussed at subregional level with various stakeholders. Such subregional platforms can foster dialogues among different stakeholders, which is difficult to hold at a larger platform. APFSD did not enjoy a strong presence of non-governmental actors in East Asia, but a subregional forum could be a meaningful opportunity for them to exchange experiences and dialogue with other actors in the subregion.
This article was authored by Nobue Amanuma, Senior Policy Researcher, Sustainability Governance Center (SGC), Institute for Global Environmental Strategies (IGES)