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Opinion: Measurement Matters – Civic Space and the Post-2015 Framework

In this column, Mandeep Tiwana, a lawyer specialising in human rights and civil society issues and Head of Policy and Research at CIVICUS, the global civil society alliance, argues that with recent trends pointing to shrinkage of civil society space, goals and targets to protect this space in the post-2015 agenda will count for nothing if not backed by relevant indicators.

JOHANNESBURG, Mar 23 2015 (IPS) - For those of us interested in a vibrant civil society, it seems to be best of times and the worst of times.

In recent months, there has been great progress in recognising the importance of civil society in shaping the so-called ‘post-2015’ agenda and an explicit recognition of the important role that civil society will play in delivering sustainable development. However, in many countries around the world, the actual conditions in which civil society operates are getting worse not better.

As we come closer to a new global agreement on sustainable development goals (SDGs), we need to push for an agreement – backed by robust indicators – that will make a tangible difference in protecting civic freedoms.

Mandeep S. Tiwana

Mandeep S. Tiwana

Indeed, a perceptible rise in bureaucratic harassment and raids on NGO offices, violent dispersal of citizen demonstrations, attacks on and illicit surveillance of activists, combined with the application of draconian laws to silence dissent and restrict funding, has many civil society observers worried about shrinking space for the sector.

Over the course of last year, CIVICUS, the global alliance for citizen participation, monitored severe threats to civic freedoms in roughly half of the globe’s 193 countries. Amnesty International’s Annual Report for 2014/2015 calls it “a devastating year” for those seeking to stand up for human rights. Front Line Defenders, which works to protect human rights defenders at risk, reports the killing or death in detention of over 130 human rights defenders in the first ten months of 2014 alone.

All of this is happening while the United Nations is making unprecedented efforts to ensure greater civil society participation in the post-2015 global development framework.

While the next generation of sustainable development goals, their associated targets and indicators will be decided by world leaders at their Sep. 25-27 summit in New York this year, civil society’s role in grounding the framework in people’s aspirations and holding duty bearers to account is crucial.

“Assurances for a civil society enabling environment and respect for the freedoms of expression, association and peaceful assembly in the post-2015 framework are integral to greater public involvement and accountability in development”

In light of recent trends which point to shrinkage of civil society space, in both democracies and non-democracies, there is naturally a high level of anxiety whether guarantees on civic freedoms and civil society participation will be included in the final framework. Indeed, a major criticism of the current Millennium Development Goal (MDG) framework is that it has failed to recognise and thereby institutionalise the role of active citizens and civil society organisations in development.

Assurances for a civil society enabling environment and respect for the freedoms of expression, association and peaceful assembly in the post-2015 framework are integral to greater public involvement and accountability in development.

So far, some progress has been made but the gains remain shaky because many governments which will be involved in adopting the final framework in September are themselves complicit in serious violations of civic freedoms. These include some influential states such as China, Cuba, Egypt, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Saudi Arabia and Turkey whose developmental models are predicated on top-down governance with scant role for independent civil society.

Positively, the U.N. Secretary General’s Synthesis Report on the Post-2015 Agenda, released in December last year, calls for the creation of an “enabling environment under the rule of law for the free, active and meaningful engagement of civil society and advocates reflecting the voices of women, minorities, LGBT groups, indigenous peoples, youth, adolescents and older persons.”

Notably, participatory democracy – without which civic freedoms cannot meaningfully exist – has been described as both an enabler and outcome of development.

From the perspective of civic freedoms and civil society participation, the U.N. Secretary General’s report has done well to elaborate on the proposal submitted to the U.N. General Assembly by the Open Working on Sustainable Development Goals (OWG) in July 2014.

Comprising 30 representatives nominated by U.N. member states from all the regions of the world, the OWG recommended 17 goals and 169 corresponding targets which are the basis of intergovernmental negotiations on the SDGs this year.

Two goals are particularly relevant from the standpoint of civil society’s ability to freely operate and monitor progress on the framework.  These are proposed Goal 16 (“promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels”) and proposed Goal 17 (“strengthen the means of implementation and revitalise the global partnership for development”). 

The proposed goals are further sub-divided into targets. For instance, targets under Goal 16 include “responsive, inclusive, participatory and representative decision making at all levels” and “public access to information and protect fundamental freedoms, in accordance with national legislation and international agreements.” A key target under Goal 17 is to “encourage and promote effective public, public-private, and civil society partnerships, building on the experience and resourcing strategies of partnerships.”

Progress on the proposed targets will be measured by indicators currently being developed by various U.N. bodies, including the U.N. Statistics Division. Ultimately, it will be the indicators that will anchor the post-2105 agenda because gains will be gauged through their prism. It is therefore crucial that the United Nations is able to identify suitable tools to measure civic space and civil society participation.

Although, the U.N. Development Programme (UNDP) has produced a report titled ‘Accountability through Civic Participation in the Post-2015 Development Agenda’, much more needs to be done to put in place relevant indicators that are linked to the targets identified by the OWG.

For instance, in relation to proposed Target 16.10 with its focus on “fundamental freedoms”, it would be valuable to evaluate whether both legislation and practice protect civic space, in particular the freedoms of expression, association and peaceful assembly.  Similarly, under proposed Target 17.17 with its focus on encouraging and promoting civil society partnerships, it will be vital to measure the existence of enabling conditions such as mandated requirements for civil society involvement in official policy making processes at the national level.

Currently, there are a number of initiatives that measure civic space and civil society participation. Some of these, such as the World Press Freedom Index, the Freedom in the World survey and the Enabling Environment Index, are led by civil society organisations, while others such as the Global Partnership for Effective Development Cooperation are being developed by multi-stakeholder initiatives.

With post-2015 negotiations entering the final phase, it is vital that political negotiators and technical experts are convinced that adoption of the above and associated methodologies will lead to better service delivery, citizen monitoring and accountability.

With the attention on the post-2015 agenda now focused on measurement, civil society advocates have their work cut out to also engage and influence the statisticians. Ambitious goals and targets will count for nothing if not backed by relevant indicators. (END/IPS COLUMNIST SERVICE)

Edited by Phil Harris   

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, IPS – Inter Press Service. 

 
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