Reflections on Volunteers, Civil Society, and the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals

By on July 16, 2015

Six essential elements for delivering the sustainable development goals. Image source:  UN

Six essential elements for delivering the sustainable development goals. Image source: UN

In September, the United Nations will adopt the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), an overarching set of collective objectives for the development of people and the planet that will replace the expiring Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) on January 1, 2016.

The SDGs

For the next 15 years, the SDGs will drive the development agenda and will shape the way the United Nations, governments, development agencies, businesses, civil society (nonprofit) organizations, and volunteer groups engage in efforts to combat global poverty, income inequality, and environmental degradation.
But more than just replacing the MDGs with a new set of goals, targets and indicators, the SDGs promise a new way of doing business. There are three especially important differences to be aware of.
First, the SDGs recognize the inter-related nature of social, economic, and environmental development work and no longer keeps these work streams in separate silos.
Second, the SDGs recognize that development work is not something that is confined to developing countries. The SDGs are will only be considered achieved if they are achieved for all, and no one should be left behind. This means that developed countries have a responsibility to work inside their own borders just as much as they do across borders.
Third, the SDGs recognize that governments alone cannot be responsible for developing, implementing, financing, measuring, monitoring, reviewing, and reporting progress towards achieving the Goals. Rather, the participation of multiple stakeholders – and indeed the people themselves – is needed if the SDGs are to be realized.

High Level Political Forum

To this end, the United Nations has been hosting regular negotiations in New York under the auspices of the High Level Political Forum (HLPF), the UN body responsible for managing the development of the SDGs, to debate how the SDGs should be structured, and how the HLPF will provide political leadership, guidance and recommendations to member states of the UN, and how it will manage the follow-up and review of their implementation.
The negotiations are formally carried out by member states, but a mechanism has been developed to ensure that the voices of various stakeholders are included. Twelve groups of stakeholders, one of which is reserved for Non-Governmental Organizations and one of which is Volunteer Groups, are invited to comment on the negotiations, submit position papers, and provide input and suggestions. The inclusion of Volunteer Groups as a named stakeholder is a recent development and reflects a growing recognition that volunteers play an important and distinctive role in development efforts (the Secretary General called volunteers a “powerful and cross-cutting means of implementation”) and an increasing coalescing of diverse volunteering voices under a single tent.

Realizing the SDGs

I have been working with the volunteer groups – officially named the Post-2015 Volunteering Working Group – and it was through them that I was nominated and ultimately selected to be a speaker at the UN last week, July 8, during the latest round of inter-governmental negotiations. The overall theme for the HLPF meeting was Strengthening integration, implementation and review- the HLPF after 2015 and I participated in a moderated roundtable discussion on Realizing the SDGs: Matching ambitions with commensurate means of implementation – resources, technology and capacities.”
In my comments, I drew on the experience of our Center, in collaboration with a diverse group of civil society, volunteer groups, and government actors, to collaborate with the United Nations Statistics Division and the International Labour Organization to develop the first-ever international standard methodologies for gathering and reporting basic data on the nonprofit sector and volunteering by government statistics agencies. Developed from the ground up, and incorporating the experiences of actors from diverse regions and levels of economic development, our experience serves as proof that these kinds of partnerships work and offer a model for how they might be structured in efforts to achieve the SDGs.
Drawing on this background, I emphasized the importance of engaging civil society and volunteer groups in the planning – not just in the implementation after the fact – so that the outcomes are more effective, more efficient, more transparent, more accountable, and more useful to the communities they seek to serve.
The good news is that most seem to recognize that the SDGs will simply not be achieved without partnership with civil society and volunteering groups, upon whom we will all rely heavily to implement the SDGs at the local level. However, clear parameters have not been articulated to outline how these partnerships will be enabled. What is needed at this point is some articulation of the clear structures and processes that might be established to enable these partnerships within the HLPF and among member states. I recommended four areas of action:

  • The development of robust data on civil society and volunteering using the United Nations Handbook on Nonprofit Institutions in the System of National Accounts and the International Labour Organization Manual on the Measurement of Volunteer Work to help benchmark and gauge progress.
  • The establishment of coherent institutional structures to facilitate better partnerships, including thematic working groups with clear mandates.
  • Encouraging the flow of social impact private investment capital to CSOs, volunteer groups, and social ventures and help prepare them to access and use this capital effectively.
  • Support for the development of an enabling environment and remove the barriers that hinder civil society and volunteer groups from serving as effective partners.

Though my comments were well received, I can’t operate under the illusion that a single four-minute set of comments will radically change the course of global events. What we need to trust in is that, by having many voices repeat the idea that engaging civil society and volunteer groups is important, we will be able to penetrate the language and strategies of development work. If we keep at it, eventually, it will not be possible to think about development work without also thinking about the role of volunteers and civil society groups.
I conceive my own role, and the role of our Center, as working to permeate the language of national statistics offices with the language of civil society and volunteers. Hopefully one day soon, governments will routinely report data on civil society and volunteering as part of other measures of economic, social, and environmental development and well-being. Of course, we cannot and should not do it alone. We seek partners in this endeavor, and encourage everyone to join us and participate. Please contact me if you would like to join us!
Watch the event (my comments begin at about 50:30):