UN is not Coca-Cola

By Lorna Gold

Negotiations on the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) may still be ongoing, but the debate is shifting to questions of implementation. A strange logic is evident. A highly technocratic market-driven model of delivery is envisaged rather than any focus on embedding these goals in national political life. There appears to be little appetite to commit the substantial new public resources, estimated at over $1.5tn, required to meet the goals.

The SDGs are to be universal to all countries. They cover a vast range of areas. Previously, there were eight Millennium Development Goals, focused on priority basic development areas. There are now seventeen SDGs, addressing the full range of economic, social and environmental objectives which constitute the daily public life of a modern nation.

It is all about choices, contradictions and possible pathways when it comes to implementing the SDGs. Issues which are priorities for one nation, are not so vital for another. Decisions around what gets prioritised in any one country have to be embedded in the political choices of that nation if they are to be legitimate and meaningful. The SDGs must be democratically accountable if they are to be achieved.

Preparations for this new SDG era is, however, giving rise to a new breed of ‘contract ready’ international NGOs, focused almost entirely on delivery of services connected to one or more of the SDGs. This new breed, such as the Adam Smith International, are winning contracts from local NGOs. Donors are favouring large-scale consortia with a private-sector ethos. In the case of the UK Department for International Development this is accompanied by a ‘payment by results’ approach. Multi-national NGO conglomerates are driving out smaller independent organisations as a result.

In the absence of any significant commitment from governments to address fundamental inequalities in the global economy, SDG delivery will mainly come down to new global initiatives by partnerships involving major private-sector entities like Unilever and Coca cola. Last year, Unilever signed a multi-million dollar partnership with Solidaridad, aimed at improving livelihoods through their supply chain. Engaging in such partnerships is set to become the new norm.

On the surface, such a shift seems logical. NGOs and corporations join forces to achieve common goals, or in business speak to ‘create shared value’. This ensures economies of scale, greater integration, and faster speed of response. Multinationals can readily achieve ‘market penetration at the bottom of the pyramid’.

However, this shift will have serious repercussions for local civil society organisations across the world and their capacity to engage in social action and seek accountability. It will have serious repercussions for the global justice organisations that still support them. Funding for thousands of local NGOs, particularly community-based organisations, that are unable to meet the audit and reporting standards of the ‘contract ready’ NGO, is under threat.

This goes to the heart of the concept of human development. It reflects a fracture between approaches to development that have co-existed for decades. On the one hand, there are those who see the business of development as needs-based, involving direct provision of essential services and, essentially, stepping in where government can’t or won’t provide. Speed and scale are off the essence. On the other hand, there are those who see development as about human rights involving action to enable and empower communities to hold duty bearers to account. Local knowledge, community participation, and political accountability are central.

The SDGs are broad enough to embrace both approaches, but the needs-based, service-provision model backed by private finance now has the upper hand. The drive towards contract-based SDG provision could lock in an approach to development co-operation that is heavily skewed towards this service-provision model. The big question then is what happens to the local NGOs that focus on democratic governance, participation, empowerment and human rights?

Civil society organisations across the world are already under pressure in retaining their democratic freedoms to engage in social action and participatory accountability. Finding funding for such work is increasingly challenging. In countries like Kenya, Ethiopia and Zimbabwe there is an insidious security discourse emerging about international NGOs being agents of foreign interference. These countries are already using legal, policy, and financial means to obstruct the work of vocal local NGOs. They would happily take the help of SDG contract-ready partnerships that absolve them of their responsibilities and make no noise, in preference to the involvement of organisations that support a vibrant and challenging civil society. How INGOs position themselves in regard to these issues over the coming months is critical. •