Agenda 2030: Why civic participation is key to meeting UN sustainability targets

a protester raises their hands in a crowd. Attacks on civil society threaten to unravel progress made on sustainable development outlined under Agenda 2030.

Attacks on civil society threaten to unravel progress made on sustainable development outlined under Agenda 2030. Image: Unsplash/AJ Colores

Mandeep S. Tiwana
Chief Programmes Officer and Representative to the UN headquarters, CIVICUS
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  • Attacks on civil society and civic freedoms are threatening adequate progress being made on meeting the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
  • Agenda 2030 marks a rare moment of global unanimity with an emphasis on economic advancement, social progress and environmental sustainability.
  • Ahead of September's 2023 SDG Summit, we must ensure that sustainable development involves both freedom from fear and freedom from want.

Attacks on civil society and civic freedoms threaten to unravel achievements in meeting the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). They are weakening action to tackle economic inequality, gender imbalances, corruption and environmental degradation.

UN Chief Antonio Guterres will release the latest Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) progress report this week. This year’s report is especially crucial as we’re nearing the halfway point of Agenda 2030 – arguably the greatest-ever human endeavour undertaken to create peaceful, just, equal and sustainable societies.

The report’s findings will help lay the groundwork for deliberations at the high-level 2023 SDG Summit which will take place alongside UN General Assembly meetings in September this year.

The 2023 SDG Summit is enormously significant, with a number of world leaders expected to attend. They will reflect on the progress achieved and propose strategies to accelerate the implementation of Agenda 2030, which has suffered unforeseen setbacks due to the COVID-19 pandemic, major negative impacts of climate change and the rising cost of food and fuel everywhere due to the conflict in Ukraine.

Agenda 2030, a rare moment of international unanimity

In times of fraying multilateralism, Agenda 2030 represents a rare moment of unanimity achieved by the international community, which in 2015 agreed to cement the three pillars of sustainable development – economic advancement, social progress and environmental sustainability – into an integrated set of goals under a common global framework.

The 17 Sustainable Development Goals and the targets of Agenda 2030 represent a significant improvement over the preceding eight Millennium Development Goals because of their comprehensive scope, rights-based underpinnings and universal application.

Civil society organizations played a key role in putting forward ideas for the SDGs and forging consensus among states. They were able to win significant people-centred commitments on:

  • Responsive, inclusive, participatory and representative decision-making at all levels (SDG 16.7)
  • Public access to information and protection of fundamental freedoms in accordance with national legislation and international agreements (SDG 16.10)
  • Encouragement and promotion of effective civil society partnerships building on the experience and resourcing strategies of partnerships (SDG 17.17)

These commitments are critical for transparency, accountability and public participation – without which the goals cannot be fully achieved.

Beyond their role in the SDGs, it’s established that civil society organizations contribute to national life and sustainable development in myriad ways. They help foster inclusive policymaking that keeps the needs of the vulnerable and marginalized at the centre of decision-making, support the delivery of essential services, especially to excluded groups, and work as watchdogs to ensure that decision-makers act in the best interests of the people. For this, they need enabling environments and civic space.

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Yet global findings released in March 2023 by the CIVICUS Monitor – a research collaboration to measure fundamental civic freedoms of peaceful assembly, association and expression involving more than 20 organizations around the world – reveal that only 3.2% of the world’s population lives in countries with ‘open’ or enabling civic space.

Conversely, 28% of the world’s people live in 27 countries with completely ‘closed’ civic spaces where merely asking questions of those who hold power or expressing democratic dissent can result in imprisonment, forced exile or death.

The CIVICUS Monitor measures civic space conditions in 197 countries and territories along five categories: open, narrowed, obstructed, repressed and closed. The global breakdown is as follows: open (38 countries and territories), narrowed (42), obstructed (40), repressed (50) and closed (27).

Where do people live?  agenda 2030
Just 3% of the world's population live in countries were civil space is completely open. Image: Civicus

Our findings track the range of tactics being used to restrict civic freedoms. The top kinds of violations tracked in 2022 are harassment and intimidation of activists, journalists and civil society organizations to deter them from their work to protect and advance rights; arbitrary detentions of protesters as punishment for speaking out against governance failures; and restrictive laws designed to prevent people mobilizing and exercising their fundamental civic freedoms.

The COVID-19 pandemic has already severely disrupted progress on Agenda 2030. In the quest to ‘build back better’, civil society is proposing new ways of achieving the SDGs and creating a better post-pandemic world.

Repression of civic freedoms threatens action on SDGs

In his 2020 Call to Action for Human Rights, Guterres lamented that disregard for human rights is widespread, along with social polarization and loss of civility. He urged that human rights principles should inform the implementation of Agenda 2030, including empowering people and creating avenues for civil society participation.

A Guidance Note on Protection and Promotion on Civic Space was issued in September 2020 urging meaningful civil society participation, protection of civil society at risk and promotion of inclusive participation channels and fundamental freedoms. Our research at CIVICUS shows that civic space conditions have only further deteriorated since then.

In light of this, civil society advocates hope the UN Secretary-General’s report on SDG progress will include a reflection on the state of implementation of the call to action and guidance note by UN agencies and offices themselves.


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In the run-up to the adoption of Agenda 2030, civil society urged that development must be about freedom from fear and freedom from want. People need good living standards, but they also need civil and political freedoms, not least so they can ensure that the benefits are evenly spread.

The UN Secretary-General has made a fervent appeal to recognize the value of civil society and civic space in Agenda 2030, saying: “Civil society organizations link governments and people.

“They are a vital voice for human rights. When civil society is muzzled, we lose an essential forum for dialogue – and we lose the lifeblood of democracy. That is why I advocate at every possible opportunity for the protection and expansion of civic space.”

At this vital midpoint for Agenda 2030, let’s hope he’s heard this September.

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