Sterilized? Actor Forest Whitaker addresses the United Nations High-level Thematic Debate on Achieving the Sustainable Development Goals, Thursday April, 2016 at UN HQ. Mark Lennihan/Press Association. All rights reserved. The heads of state of the international community agreed in September 2015 that peace, inclusivity, access to justice and quality institutions matter for sustainable development.
This agreement took the form of Sustainable Development Goal 16 (SDG16) in the United Nations 2030 agenda ‘Transforming Our World’. The preamble of Agenda 2030 actually puts SDG16 at its core by stating that: ‘There can be no sustainable development without peace and no peace without sustainable development.’ Otherwise put, violence and conflicts are considered key threats to the progressive and universal development vision of Agenda 2030. No amount of indicators, however well-chosen technically, will change the fact that a number of governments that signed the UN’s 2030 Agenda have little intention of actually implementing parts of it.
However, the question remains whether the tension between the declarative universality of SDG16 and its divisive political reality can be bridged in actual practice. It is, after all, no accident that it took until 2015 to agree on something so obvious.
The time needed to realize this achievement suggests that the political interests and perspectives of the elites that govern the 193 countries constituting the UN’s membership diverge sharply on the meaning, reach and import of SDG16. This divergence of perspectives has been temporarily overcome at the declarative level, but will rapidly resurface.
No amount of indicators, however well-chosen technically, will change the fact that a number of governments that signed the UN’s 2030 Agenda have little intention of actually implementing parts of it. SDG16 features prominently in the part of Agenda 2030 that is at risk of what I would call ‘evasive implementation’. Such an observation points to the need to consider how unwilling countries can be nudged towards its realization.
For the sake of being provocative, five categories of countries can be distinguished in respect of SDG16 implementation. While this is a crude approach that can easily be criticized, there is still something to be said for all its aspects. It also invites thinking and action beyond the sterilized nature of the discourse and a quantified approach to monitoring that can dominate discussions at the UN:
– First, there are countries that largely have their own house in order. The universality of SDG16 mostly amounts to them mobilizing their energies and resources in support of progress elsewhere. Think Canada, South Korea, Norway or Singapore: countries with low-levels of violence domestically, strong institutions, a level playing field for domestic political competition and a largely pacifist foreign policy.
Note that although countries like Sweden, France or the UK largely fall into this group as well, they still have steps to take in terms of reducing their contribution to either the illicit global arms trade or illicit financial flows. An international strategy focused on this first group of countries to induce greater SDG16 implementation could therefore center on domestic civic advocacy to enact political and legal measures that curtail negative arms and financial flows, as well as on developing incentives for more realistic external policies that are better attuned to the political and idiosyncratic nature of development processes.
– Second, there are countries with a more modest domestic track record on most of SDG16 but that, over the long-term, are moving in a progressive direction. Think Turkey, Brazil, Greece or Senegal: countries with moderate rates of violence domestically, institutions of growing maturity, increasing political contestation (as underlined by crises that, at face value, suggest the opposite) and a fairly pacifist foreign policy.
An international strategy for promoting SDG16 implementation is to tie these countries as much as possible into global webs of trade, diplomacy and peacemaking. This must be done productively, responsibly and respectfully so that their economies can grow and their populations can continue to be exposed to other opinions and cultures. This strategy relies on indirect encouragement of, and trust in, a relatively peaceful and progressive domestic process of contestation and development.
– Third, there are countries whose foreign policies create considerable negative spill-overs for the state of SDG16 elsewhere. Think Russia, the USA, Saudi Arabia, Israel or Iran: countries with higher levels of violence domestically, quite strong state institutions (some unconstructively so), a more uneven playing field for domestic political competition and an aggressive foreign policy that is not conducive to peace or inclusivity. Despite these countries having very different domestic SDG16 profiles, a long-term foreign policy that ‘harms SDG16’ elsewhere is bound to have negative domestic repercussions back home – even in democratic states like the USA or Israel. Here, partnerships of countries from ‘north’ and ‘south’ will most easily emerge if traditional allegiances and prejudices can be replaced by the shared vision of Agenda 2030.
An international strategy for SDG16 implementation could support the development of international diplomatic coalitions, taking their legitimacy from the process of Agenda 2030 implementation, to exert pressure that restrain such foreign policies. It is here that partnerships of countries from ‘north’ and ‘south’ will most easily emerge if traditional allegiances and prejudices can be replaced by the shared vision of Agenda 2030. Such pressure will not be cost-free, however. Hence, a key question is to what extent the societies out of which such coalitions may emerge are willing to tolerate limitations on their own wellbeing to promote that of others.
– Fourth, there are countries with a relatively poor domestic track record on most of SDG16 but that simultaneously demonstrate a development orientation and allocate (some) resources to its realization. Think of Rwanda, Timor-Leste, Ethiopia or Sierra Leone: countries with moderate levels of violence domestically, more or less stable institutions, a modest measure of inclusivity in their political processes and a largely peaceful foreign policy with violent aspects limited to their immediate neighborhood.
An international strategy for SDG16 implementation could center on finding a balance between supporting their governments with larger resources while also enabling – and protecting - greater social contestation, preferably of the peaceful kind. Given the deeply political nature of issues like inclusivity, security reform or justice development, this will be a difficult tightrope act. Given the deeply political nature of issues like inclusivity, security reform or justice development, this will be a difficult tightrope act. Recent OECD research shows that significant bureaucratic constraints in international development bureaucracies, such as their inability to engage for the longer-term, to sustain politically astute approaches and to implement programs flexibly, will need to be addressed to make such a strategy feasible.
– Fifth, there are countries with a highly problematic domestic track record on most of SDG16. Their governments have largely demonstrated a combination of limited interest and inadequate resource allocation towards its realization. Think of the DRC, Libya, South Sudan or Iraq: countries with high levels of violence domestically, ‘personalized institutions’, little political inclusivity and a marginally relevant foreign policy.
An international strategy for SDG16 implementation is likely to require a combination of firm UN-conducted intervention, international diplomatic coalitions that put pressure on third countries that perpetuate such violence and exclusivity, as Iran and Saudi Arabia do in Syria, and bottom-up peacebuilding.
In short, preventing ‘evasive implementation’ of SDG16 is not just a matter of reigning in warlords, druglords or kleptocrats. It requires the operationalization of a universal principle into a set of diversified strategies aimed at different categories of countries, and uncomfortable partnerships. Calls for ‘global leadership’ suggests a template and plan-type approach that is probably best avoided.
But it is clear that we also need to avoid the reflex of applying SDG16 within our existing paradigms, experiences and patterns of reaction in areas like conflict management, peacebuilding and development out of fragility. We must reach beyond their partitions to break new ground.