The Post-2015 Agenda: A Global Call to Increase Civil Society Space

This month, leaders from 193 countries will gather in New York City to formally adopt the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). As we move from the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) to the SDGs, it’s critical to acknowledge how they differ. The MDGs rest on an older model of development – richer nations provide development assistance to poorer countries. But over the past 15 years, our thinking has shifted – the role of local agency and self-determination has become central to the policy discussion, though I would argue it has always been central to how humans make progress. The SDGs rely on individual citizens and civil society organizations to help build resilient societies and effective institutions.  

The United Nations Secretary-General’s Synthesis Report on the Post-2015 Agenda called on all countries to create an “enabling environment under the rule of law for the free, active and meaningful engagement of civil society and advocates” to amplify the voices of poor or marginalized groups. An enabling environment allows nonprofits, religious institutions and social enterprises to provide basic services, such as healthcare, education and food assistance to people in areas typically out of government and private sector reach. It also enables these groups to hold governments and businesses into account while advocating for the rights of people often overlooked. Civil society’s expertise in service delivery, advancing rights and accountability makes it integral to furthering the SDGs and monitoring the agenda’s progress.

Goal 16 of the SDGs calls for societies to advance freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly – all of which are critical to civil society organizations – while Goal 17 encourages governments and the private sector to form effective partnerships with civil society organizations. This aligns with InterAction’s goal to promote the ability of civil society to thrive worldwide. Initiatives such as Global Partnership for Social Accountability and Making All Voices Count work to bolster civil society across the globe. The world is also monitoring the space organizations have in member states through the Enabling Environment Index, NGO Law Monitor and Freedom in the World Survey.

Civil society’s critical role in successfully achieving the Post-2015 Agenda cannot be ignored. Following the adoption of the SDGs, member states will select indicators to measure success and civil society must help shape what the world considers “progress.” There are many questions to consider. Will key development initiatives result in a more equitable distribution of wealth? How will the agenda affect small-scale farmers, displaced people and gender equality? To achieve our ambitious goals over the next 15 years, we must actively engage citizens and civil society organizations in all countries.

To learn more about the future of development, listen to renowned economist William Easterly's keynote on combatting inequality through the power of individual choice and civic actors.

Lindsay Coates is the executive vice president of InterAction, the nation's largest alliance of U.S.-based nongovernmental organizations working internationally. InterAction leads, supports and mobilizes its members to take collective action, improve the impact of their programs, increase their global reach and advocate for efforts that advance human well-being around the world.

Follow Lindsay on Twitter: @LindsayCoates