Achieving SDGs only possible with people’s participation & monitoring

Published on 30 May 2018

Following last week’s British Academy Sustainable Development conference on “More Than Economic Growth: Overcoming the Challenges of Sustainable Development”, Shannon O’Shea, Agenda 2030 Partnerships Manager and Team Leader, UNICEF, reflects on why people’s participation and participatory monitoring are essential to understanding Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) implementation efforts and creating more accountable and inclusive institutions.

I first became involved with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) when the international community was just starting to think about what would replace the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), reflecting on what had and had not worked during that era.

One of the most striking things that I learned, as the new Agenda was being discussed and negotiated, came from the research that the Institute of Development Studies (IDS) was doing at the time.

The IDS-led Participate Initiative had convened “Ground Level Panels” with local, marginalized groups of people, and the results of these consultations revealed how a number of well-intended MDG initiatives had yielded sub-par or even negative results for the very people they were aiming to assist. This was because it was only “experts” and decision-makers who had been involved in designing and executing said initiatives.

Partners and agents of change, not beneficiaries

It became very clear to me that for development progress to be sustainable and sustained, then those people who were once only considered “beneficiaries” or a “vulnerable group” would need to be brought into the process – as partners and agents of change.

I believe this is both the challenge and the opportunity for creating more accountable and effective institutions, as articulated through Goal 16, but of critical relevance to all 17 of the SDGs.

The SDGs’ negotiations were a positive step forward in this sense: an unprecedented consultative process that brought the views of millions of people from different walks of life to the attention of decision-makers crafting the new Agenda, and the UN System worked with civil society on that process.

However, two and a half years into implementing the SDGs, this ethos of participation needs to further permeate local and national planning, implementing and monitoring of the SDGs.

Participatory monitoring crucial for fostering trust between different levels of government and their constituencies

I want to highlight one specific aspect of participation, which is a critical element for increasing two-way communication and fostering trust between various levels of government and their constituencies: that is data collected through participatory monitoring methods.

What I mean by this is increasing channels and spaces where people, including and especially marginalized groups, are involved in tracking progress on targets within the SDGs by providing qualitative data on issues – through focus group discussions, community score cards, off and online surveys and other means.

Participatory monitoring methods allow people to share their perceptions, ideas and “lived experience” about whether or not the SDGs are achieving their desired results.

For example, official data collected through a national statistics office might reveal that school attendance for girls decreases between primary and secondary levels in “x” number of districts… but what this official data will NOT tell you is why.

Is it because of school fees?

Is it because the journey to get to school is unsafe?

Is it because the school does not have adequate sanitation facilities for adolescent girls?

Participatory methods provide that critical “reality check” and are a useful complement to official data collection methods — by unearthing evidence gaps and bottlenecks that otherwise would go unseen.

Perception data, and more broadly people’s participation, can also be a “service” to governments in helping them create and implement more efficient and effective policies and programmes as well initiate smarter social spending on solutions that will yield the best results for money spent.

At UNICEF, we are especially interested in how children, adolescents and young people can be involved and included

Being from UNICEF, we are particularly interested in how children, adolescents and young people can be involved in such processes. Through both our political advocacy at the global level and work with governments, civil society and young people at local and country level, we have seen some positive results on this front.

For example, over the last several years UNICEF has developed a mobile-phone based social messaging tool called U Report, which allows young people to ask questions and share their views on key topics of interest to their lives, including those covered in the SDGs.

Individual responses are confidential, but all responses are aggregated so that results can help inform and improve our own programmatic work and be shared with governments so that they better understand the priorities, concerns and needs of young people in their countries.

U Report has millions of registered users and is currently operational in 43 countries.  We have discussed piloting this tool for gathering more perception data for SDG indicators, including more reliable data for “tier 3” indicators, which are those where no internationally agreed methodologies presently exist and where data is scarce.

To conclude, people having the space to participate in decisions that affect their lives is essential to the SDGs pledge to “leave no one behind” and to achieving all of the Goals. Participation is an essential right for all people, and, as such, has intrinsic value.

However, participation also serves a greater purpose in helping decision-makers create and implement policies and programmes that benefit peoples’ lives. This can, in turn, enhance the effectiveness and trustworthiness of public institutions as enshrined in Goals 16, but also essential for making sustainable progress on all of the Goals.

Shannon O’Shea is the Agenda 2030 Partnerships Manager and Team Leader at UNICEF, and co-led UNICEF’s involvement in the SDG negotiations’ process from 2012-2015.  This blog post is adapted from her remarks at the British Academy seminar “More than Economic Growth: Overcoming the Challenges of Sustainable Development” where she participated in a panel that was asked to discuss “What are the main obstacles, nationally and internationally, for promoting the peaceful, inclusive societies and accountable, inclusive institutions that SDG 16 calls for?”  The seminar took place in London on 23 May 2018.

The views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author/s and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of IDS.

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