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Civil20 India 2023, or C20, is one of the official Engagement Groups of the G20 that provides a platform for Civil Society Organisations (CSO) around the world to voice people’s aspirations to the world leaders during G20. It gives CSOs a forum to protect the agency of this sector, reflects the primary and common concerns affecting the people globally, and promotes social and economic development with the vision of leaving no one behind.
With more than 3.3 million CSOs in India, it is imperative to discuss their role in promoting peaceful and inclusive societies in India to accelerate its progress towards the 16th Sustainable Development Goal, or SDG 16.
In the face of a complex national and global intersecting crisis, and India’s G20 presidency this year, an enabling environment for civic engagement is more vital today than ever. Governance systems worldwide are affected as the world faces an unprecedented era of a 'polycrisis’. That includes conflicts at their highest levels since 1945; the continuing socio-economic shockwaves of the COVID 19 pandemic; and a devastating cost-of-living crisis that has tipped millions of people into poverty and hunger.
In Asia, the United Nations (UN) is reporting that almost all indicators for the region have not been met on its path to achieve SDG 16 (Peace, justice, and strong institutions).
The pandemic was a humanitarian crisis that created social distress and enormous pressures on public service delivery systems. On the other hand, the pandemic has created opportunities for stakeholders, including civil society organisations, to learn from this experience and find ways to build more inclusive and accountable governing systems.
As a signatory to the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and home to one-sixth of all humanity, India is committed to participating in the international review of the progress of the SDGs on a regular basis through the Voluntary National Review (VNR), a process through which countries assess and present national progress. The scale and ambition of the agendas are such that they can be achieved only through partners and partnerships, with civil society being a key factor among them.
Ways in Which Civil Society Can Engage with SDG 16+
While different mechanisms exist for the engagement of civil society, inclusion can take the form of consultation, dialogue, and/or partnership (depending on the degree and quality of engagement). This is true for VNR development and validation, as well as monitoring, and post-VNR implementation. CSOs help fill data gaps, provide relevant programming, and advocate for groups otherwise unseen or unheard. One such example was the way in which civil societies in Indonesia, Mongolia, Pakistan, and South Africa worked with Information Commissions and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) in the preparation of the 2019 VNRs with regard to SDG 16.10.2.
Firstly, meaningful and systematic civil society inclusion in VNR and post-VNR processes, as linked to national planning, policies, and frameworks, is critical to realising SDG 16 at all levels and the larger 2030 Agenda, and to manifest a ‘leave no one behind’ (LNOB) approach.
However, from the grassroots to the global landscape, civil society organisations are diverse in their missions, mandates, and the level at which they primarily operate.
The involvement of CSOs should not be tokenistic, but rather reflective of a true multi-stakeholder process, prioritising human rights.
India’s VNR report in 2020 reflects the ‘whole of society’ paradigm, as it incorporates insights from over a thousand civil society organisations. These organisations with groups in situations of vulnerability, business sector representatives, and subnational governments. Governments must leverage civil society and its proximity to local communities and grassroots groups to bolster responsiveness to various segments of society.
The Open Government Partnership (OGP), since 2011, covers 76 countries (including India) and 106 local governments, representing more than two billion people, and thousands of civil society organisations. It allows governments and civil society to mutually create ambitious action plans for strong accountability between member governments and citizens.
Secondly, identifying SDG Champions at national, subnational, and local levels is crucial. A follow-up should be tied to national development plans, action plans, dialogues and/or sector strategies, with a focus on aligning SDG 16-related government programmes and projects with those implemented by civil society. The Aspirational Districts Programme, UNDP-NITI Aayog collaboration, aims to transform the socioeconomic status of these priority districts.
The programme’s focus on the 3 Cs: Convergence (of Central and State schemes), Collaboration (between Centre, State, District and Citizens), and Competition (among the districts in key performance indicators) are proving to be a successful model for stimulating local development and identifying ‘champions of change’.
Notably, the Northeast SDG India Index, prepared with the technical support of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and in extensive consultation with CSOs and other stakeholders, was used by the Ministry of Development of the North-East Region as a justification for a new scheme. 'PM DevINE', or the Prime Minister's Development Initiative for North Eastern Region, was aimed at addressing social and infrastructural gaps.
Thirdly, assistance in reporting to the government can ensure an independent and robust assessment of SDG 16 progress on specific mainstreaming efforts, including legislative measures, adopted policies and institutional structures. Spotlight Reports are generated by civil society and, at times, in partnership with National Human Rights Institutions (NHRIs), academia and other stakeholders. They can challenge, complement, or question member state reports, promote government accountability, provide a global platform for local civil society voices, and set the stage for follow-up action with the government.
Challenges for SDG 16 and The Civic Space in India
During this, one of the biggest challenges besetting most targets of SDG 16 is the inadequacy of comprehensive and disaggregated data. Adequate reporting of cases of violence and instances of rights violations must be ensured. Though the extent of reporting has improved in recent years, it is essential to invest in consulting CSOs to improve the availability of comprehensive and updated data on various types of offences, and reports on crimes against women, children, and other groups in vulnerable situations. Under the near-universal coverage of Aadhaar, one of the key indicators under SDG 16, citizens of the country have been provided with a legal identity, but CSOs flag concerns about data privacy and security.
The story “Rs. 418, 10 minutes, and you have access to billion Aadhaar details” published a few years back, created a shockwave among the citizens about UIDAI’s security system.
Further, quality assessment of all indicators and incorporation of feedback loop from CSOs and other stakeholders is critical for substantial evidence-backed policy interventions. CSOs often highlight limitations in incorporating indicators like 'number of courts' for SDG 16 progress due to its ignorance to capture legislative delays, judiciary capacity and redressal mechanisms. Additionally, programmes in consultation with CSOs to promote wider awareness and skill-building, as well as dissemination of digital technology on a larger scale, can help combat challenges in digital governance.
The Way Forward
As we emerge from the COVID 19 crisis, the economic and political impacts of the pandemic are still reverberating worldwide. With India’s G20 presidency this year, it is imperative to rebuild trust in governments and the political elites of the country. From global to national and local levels, we are seeing a renegotiation over the balance of power, making it more important than ever to invest in democratic institutions and accountable governance.
In this context, the role of civil society organisations continues to be instrumental in boldly voicing the realities of the grassroots levels for accelerating India’s growth in achieving better peace, justice, and strong institutions.
(Himanshi Goel is an Independent Economics & Public Policy Consultant currently working with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) providing evidence-based programmatic and policy recommendations. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)