HLPF: Civil society expresses discontent over dire state of Means of Implementation

High-Level Political Forum on the 2030 Agenda and SDGs - (Part 2)

Civil society expresses discontent over dire state of Means of Implementation

A report by Bhumika Muchhala (Third World Network)

Civil society organizations made their voices heard through bold, direct and urgent statements, reports and panel events through the eight days of the High Level Political Forum (HLPF) of which three days were at the Ministerial level.  The HLPF met at the UN headquarters in New York on 11 to 20 July.

Perhaps the most notable report was theSpotlight on Sustainable Development 2016, a report of the Reflection Group on the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development (availablehere: https://www.2030spotlight.org/).

The report assesses each of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) from a systemic lens, highlighting the ways in which the 2030Agenda has yet to see a change in the trajectory of global development by addressing the structural obstacles to equitable, sustainable and inclusive development. The complementary national reports show how the implementation of SDGs has yet to really begin in many countries (availablehere: https://www.2030spotlight.org/en/book/national-civil-society-reports)

At the same time the report recognizes that in comparison to the UN’s Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) which failed to address structural inequality, ecological sustainability and the responsibilities of the global North, the 2030 Agenda acknowledges the enormous disparities of opportunity, wealth, and power as immense challenges to sustainable development. This is a significant step forward.

Among various challenges in the meaningful implementation of the SDGs on the ground, two key issues stand above many others. First is the absence of any new financing. There is no new ODA or international public financing being made available. The overwhelming emphasis is on domestic resource mobilization from national governments and multi-stakeholder partnerships between the UN and the private sector or donors, which have been demonstrated to lack accountability and people-centered, bottom-up governance. Public-private partnerships involving national governments have also proven to be costly for the public and not deliver sustainable development.

A second obstacle is the new generation of bilateral investment treaties and free trade agreements, such as the Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA), the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) between the European Union and the US and the Trade in Services Agreement (TISA).

These agreements drastically constrain the ability of governments to abide by human rights and sustainability principles and commitments, carry out regulations to protect society, the economy and environment and encourage countries to keep competing in the race to the bottom by offering foreign investors and multinational companies lower taxes, cheaper labor, increased deregulation and the same (even more) rights and privileges as those offered to domestic investors and companies. The Spotlight report shows how these agreements regard social, environmental and human rights standards in the same category as non-tariff barriers to trade and investment which have to be either removed or harmonized.

The legal infrastructure of opaque arbitration and dispute settlement under the Investor-State Dispute Settlement System (an integral component of the above trade agreements) is enforcing the rights corporations as national laws, particularly in the United States, confer more rights to corporations than to human beings. Meanwhile, the increasing global concentration of corporate power exacerbates these challenges if governments continue to regard the legal recourse of corporations over States as inevitable. The Spotlight report points out that in 2015 the merger and acquisition activities of transnational corporations reached an all-time high.

Civil society statements boldly stressed the need to alter business-as-usual and dismantle systemic obstacles to realize the 2030 Agenda.

The Women’s Major Group, one of the key UN Major Group constituencies that can participate and contribute to the plenary as external stakeholders, delivered a statement titled “Unlocking Means of Implementation for SDGs and creating an enabling environment”. The first and foremost observation on MoI was that it is Missing in Action in the HLPF discussions.

The Women’s Major Group had five key points. First, how will MoI for the SDGs be mobilized when donor governments have failed to meet their basic ODA commitments towards development cooperation? The untying of aid, ending policy conditionality attached to loans and aid, use of country systems and transparency of information and development finance flows are not unfinished business but rather a core business for MoI.

Second, the Women’s Major Group questioned how the ambition of the 2030 Agenda will be met without reviewing the structural impediments to achieving the Agenda. Many states, including developing country governments from the global south, are pursuing the very opposite path, that of worsening systemic inequality through trade and investment treaties which are reaching farther and deeper across the borders, by increasing military spending and conflicts and engaging in proxy wars, by turning a blind eye to issues of corruption and governance breakdowns, by enabling greater land and resource grabbing, by ignoring and even fueling fundamentalist and extremist practices and by reducing the space for civil society to thrive.

Third, the Group questioned the irony of raising domestic financial resources for the SDGs through means that hurt the poor the most. Domestic resource mobilization focuses on domestic consumption and income tax, which, when not progressively structured, hurt the poor disproportionately (particularly through value-added and general sales taxes). Resource mobilization should instead target the world’s wealthiest corporations and individuals know how to legally evade taxes. The Third International Conference on Financing for Development (FfD) in Addis Ababa did not establish the inter-governmental taxation body, and thereafter the Panama Papers were leaked. It is clear that the international community needs a comprehensive mechanism for international taxation, without which the discussion of resource mobilization is insufficient and inappropriate.

Fourth, how can MoI be unlocked if development partners and partnerships are not accountable to the people? Transnational corporations must adhere to all development effectiveness and human rights principles, promote and practice decent work and adopt transparency and accountability norms.

And most importantly, the Women’s Major Group said, how do we expect to properly implement the SDGs if global civil society is left behind? Civil society is an independent development actor, and their ‘right to initiative’ must be supported. In more than a few countries, that space is closing at a very alarming rate. Environmentalists and human rights defenders, with women human rights defenders at the core, are being silenced, criminalized, and murdered. Political will and action is required to reverse this trend and to make the global partnership and the MoI work.

They concluded that unlocking MoI resources to make SDG implementation a reality requires changing the status quo, and this requires everyone to think out of the box and reformulate ways of this business called ‘development.’

The Asia Pacific Regional CSO Engagement Mechanism (AP-RCEM) focused its statement on three key points. First, there are some good practices on mainstreaming SDGs in the national level by several countries, particularly in terms of inclusion and participation of civil societies.  These examples should be upheld and replicated. Second, systemic issues are the central challenges for integrated policy making and for realizing the 2030 agenda. Third, the question must be asked what we can do together to support the national mainstreaming of the SDGs.

The statement pointed out that following countries have put in place policies, coordination mechanisms and plans to integrate the SDGs into their national development plans:

  • In Indonesia, civil society recommended a joint committee to implement the SDGs, which was agreed to by the President. This committee works together to mainstream SDGs goals and targets into the National Mid-term Plan 2015-2019.

  • Immediately following the signing of 2030 Agenda (in September 2015), UNDP and the Royal Government of Bhutan agreed to prioritize SDG implementation as part of Bhutan’s 12th Five Year plan.  Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness key results areas were mapped against the SDGs.

  • Sri Lanka established a new cabinet ministry exclusively for Sustainable Development in order to facilitate the national commitment to the 2030 Agenda. As the first ministry exclusively devoted to the 2030 Agenda, Sri Lanka is establishing an inclusive process of to build a national roadmap on sustainable development and form a committee inclusive of civil society and other stakeholders to monitor the implementation of the agenda.

However, AP-RCEM emphasized, going beyond the issues of inclusion, process and mechanisms, the 2030 Agenda cannot be achieved unless the systems and structures that impede sustainable and equitable development are dismantled. During the negotiations Member States, particularly developing countries, drew attention to the need to address systemic and structural imbalances in economic and political governance. Several states also stressed the need to address systemic human rights, conflict and justice barriers. Identifying and tackling systemic drivers of inequality between and within countries must be central to the efforts of mainstreaming the 2030 Agenda into the national policies to ensure the agenda is truly universal and ensuring that no one is left behind.

Addressing systemic issues means that governments need to reassess and review their national policies and practices, including their extra territorial obligations in relation to the following areas:

  • Trade and investment agreements: There is mounting evidence and awareness that neo-liberal economic policies widen inequalities, threaten the survival of our planet and disproportionately burden women, indigenous people, people living with HIV or other illnesses, people with disabilities, the elderly, rural communities, low-income workers, farmers and those dependent on state support or living in poverty. These communities are the ones who are ‘left behind.’ Despite these adverse outcomes, most government policy has failed to shift course. Trade agreements conflict with both the 2030 Agenda and the UN Charter. These agreements give multi-national corporations powers to challenge national policies designed to advance environmental protections, fiscal policies, labour rights, affirmative action policies, public health and public access to basic needs and services and human rights. In doing so they accelerate the power of the wealthiest and leave the vast majority of the population behind.

  • Land and resource distribution: Communities directly dependent on land and natural resources are increasingly at risk of being denied their livelihoods. Indigenous peoples, ethnic minorities, rural communities and subsistence farmers (the majority of whom are women) face increasing threats to their livelihoods from land concessions awarded to corporations, large scale ‘development’ and infrastructure (including those conducted under the guise of ‘green growth’) and from climate change. Cross-border activity in real estate volumes grew by 334% from $65 billion to $217 billion between 2009 and 2015. The wealthiest are buying up the world.

  • Militarism and conflict: Conflict, the presence of state and non-state armed forces and military spending are systemic drivers of inequality, poverty and human rights violations. The drivers of conflict increasingly intersect with core issues of the 2030 Agenda, such as resource scarcity, climate change, inequalities and poverty. Consequently, reducing militarism is both a driver and an outcome of inclusive, sustainable development. In addition to the immediate devastation of conflict, people, particularly women, displaced by conflict are amongst the communities most likely to be ‘left behind’ with generational consequences. Stateless people and those who migrate from conflict zones are most likely to be forced into cheap, exploitable labour or trafficked into slavery like conditions. Within these populations, women, people with disabilities, children and the already economically marginalised face deeper risks and less ability to seek safe refuge. Given the recent political responses to conflict and asylum, a thematic focus on militarism at HLPF is required, including addressing the issue on the national level.

  • Corporate capture: The UN Secretary-General’s report recognized that “a lack of clarity about additionality; a risk of misalignment of private sector and country priorities; and diminished transparency and accountability” make public-private partnerships a questionable way to advance sustainable development. Corporations are increasingly able to engage in manipulative price transfers, tax evasion and avoidance and avoid environmental and social responsibility. As state sovereignty and policy making power has been diminished and increasingly handed to the private sector, no corresponding system to ensure regulation and accountability has emerged from the private sector. This needs to be addressed to ensure that the 2030 Agenda itself is not ‘left behind.’

  • Patriarchy and fundamentalisms: Ideologies that rigidly limit opportunities, participation and autonomy for some members of the population cause whole groups of people to be ‘left behind.’ Patriarchy is the belief that power and decision making should reside with some men. It permeates lives, relationships and policies at the family, community, national and international levels. Fundamentalisms, whether cultural, religious, political or economic, ascribe rigid beliefs about the roles and value of different groups of people. In doing so fundamentalist beliefs commonly focus on women’s bodies, sexuality and decisions.

    When these ideologies shape policies and laws, women, sexually and gender diverse groups, single or unmarried women, women human rights defenders are ‘left behind’. While Goal 5 sets some important targets that measure some of the consequences of patriarchal policies, a more holistic review of the systemic causes of inequality as a review theme would allow the intersectional nature of the 2030 Agenda to be interrogated.

AP-RCEM stressed that the voluntary national reports of most countries continue to frame developed countries’ obligations only in terms of ODA.  The vast majority of states have failed to recognize their extra-territorial obligations in relation to multi-national corporations, to International Financial Institutions, and their complicity in promoting contradictory trade agreements and their roles in enabling global financial speculation, tax havens and transfer mispricing.

The AP-RCEM concluded with the following recommendations to mainstreaming SDGs into the national level:

(i) reviewing national policies and laws to align them to the SDGs and targets;

(ii) support international environment so that mainstreaming is not challenged by violating trade rules (WTO, FTAs);

(iii) institutional changes at the national level that break away from silos and move toward integration and interlinkages to ensure coherence within governments. Similarly the UN and other international institutions need to follow suit; and

(iv) meaningful and effective participation of society because mainstreaming towards transformation needs involvement of society so that there can be a rebalancing of power at the local, national and global level – otherwise inequality will continue to rise.

At a side event of the Economic and Social Commission for Asia Pacific (ESCAP) on financing for development to ensure no one is left behind, Third World Network representing AP-RCEM urged that the momentum for an intergovernmental UN tax body with universal membership and participation of developing countries, which was vigorously pushed by many developing countries in Addis Ababa last year, be continued and maintained by developing countries, and supported by regional commissions.

Without such a body, the ability of developing countries to generate significant sustainable financing for development through combating illicit financial flows and trade mis-invoicing in developing countries and balancing the allocation of taxing rights between source and residence countries is seriously compromised.

AP-RCEM urged ESCAP to recognize the regional significance of illicit financial flows, given that Asia Pacific is home to the greatest volume of illicit outflows (38+% of world total, primarily due to China and India) and has key tax havens (Singapore, Tokyo, Hong Kong).

One of the key functions of tax is wealth redistribution, not just financial mobilization. While ESCAP’s consideration of progressive tax measures is welcomed, wealth-based taxes such as income, estate, inheritance-based taxes are key to addressing soaring income inequality in Asia Pacific countries, as is consideration of the intersectionality of tax as it affects the care economy and informal economy where most women, the elderly and children are located.

In this sense, there should be a clearer message regarding regressive taxes, such as General Sales Taxes and Value-Added Taxes, which most Asia Pacific countries ranging from Indonesia to Pakistan have, and which exacerbate inequalities and continue a lack of diversification in national tax structures.

Gender equality as an objective in all tax and revenue policies, which was stated in the initial drafts of the Addis Ababa outcome document, should also be recognized. Tax policy is not gender or class neutral. Regressive tax policies such as indirect taxes disproportionately harm people living in poverty, women, minorities, people with disabilities, children, and other marginalized groups.

Civil society stressed that harmful tax competition, which occurs in the name of attracting FDI, be addressed in the Asia Pacific region. However, for a reform in tax competition to be sustainable and effective over the long-term, there must also be an effort to re-think the long-standing policy imperative in Asia Pacific countries to liberalize, privatize and deregulate national economies in order to attract FDI and international investors and companies.

Read also: High-Level Political Forum on the 2030 Agenda and SDGs - (Part 1): Member States adopt Ministerial Declaration and discuss follow-up and review processes

Credits: TWN Info Service on Finance, Trade and UN Sustainable Development, 11 August 2016, Third World Network, www.twn.my

Photo: UNDP/Flickr, Some Rights Reserved