Introduction and Background

On 25 September 2015, following a broad and extensive consultation and negotiation process, the 193 Member States of the United Nations (UN) adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development (the 2030 Agenda). The 2030 Agenda, formally titled “Transforming our world: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development,” is a global 15-year plan of action to end poverty, protect the planet and ensure prosperity for all, while strengthening universal peace in larger freedom.

The 2030 Agenda contains 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and 169 targets, and builds on its predecessor, the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). In addition to its Goals and targets, the 2030 Agenda references other explicit commitments, including a marquee pledge that no one will be left behind, and that Member States will endeavour to reach the furthest behind first.1

Similar to the MDGs, the 2030 Agenda is a political declaration that is not legally binding for Member States. There are no defined consequences if countries fail to make serious efforts to meet the Goals or targets.2 Despite its voluntary nature however, the 2030 Agenda carries a strong moral obligation or social contract on the part of governments to implement it. By making ambitious commitments to deliver on a wide range of sustainable development issues at the international level, governments are, in essence, declaring themselves accountable to the peoples to whom these commitments are made.3

What does the 2030 Agenda say about accountability?

There are relatively few references to “accountability” in the 2030 Agenda, electing to use the language of “follow-up and review” instead. The 2030 Agenda does recognize “accountability to our citizens” in relation to the systematic follow-up and review of the implementation of the Agenda. The Agenda also outlines a number of guiding principles for follow-up and review that support accountability, including that follow-up and review processes at all levels will be “open, inclusive, participatory and transparent for all people” as well as “people-centred, gender-sensitive, respect human rights and have a particular focus on the poorest, most vulnerable and those furthest behind.” While the Agenda emphasizes the voluntary nature of follow-up and review, it also encourages countries “to conduct regular and inclusive reviews of progress at the national and sub-national levels” drawing on contributions from “indigenous peoples, civil society, the private sector and other stakeholders, in line with national circumstances, policies and priorities.” While limited, these explicit commitments to accountability should serve as the foundation for civil society to hold governments accountable to the 2030 Agenda and the SDGs.

Follow-up and review in key international agreements

In addition to the provisions on follow-up and review in the 2030 Agenda, there are a number of directly related international agreements that can help support accountability for sustainable development:

The Addis Ababa Action Agenda on Financing for Development (AAAA) establishes an annual Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) Forum on Financing for Development Follow-up to support the follow-up and review of the AAAA and other financing for development outcomes as well as the means of implementation of the 2030 Agenda.

The Paris Agreement on Climate Change establishes an “enhanced transparency framework for action and support,” an expert committee to facilitate implementation and promote compliance, and a global stocktaking of progress every five years.

The Sendai Framework on Disaster Risk Reduction tasks the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR) to support the implementation, follow-up and review of the framework through various actions including participating in the Inter-Agency and Expert Group on Sustainable Development Goal Indicators (IAEG-SDGs).

The New Urban Agenda stresses that its follow-up and review must have effective linkages with the follow-up and review of the 2030 Agenda to ensure coordination and coherence in its implementation.

“Defining” SDG accountability

The concept of “accountability” – as it pertains to the relationship between individual governments and their citizens – implies the obligation of the State to account for its actions as well as the right of citizens to hold the State accountable. While the definition of accountability varies across disciplines, it tends to have three main elements in the context of development:

i. Responsibility – the notion that authorities have clearly defined duties, performance standards or responsibilities to take certain actions;

ii. Answerability – the obligation of authorities to provide information and reasoned justifications for their actions, especially to the people affected by them; and

iii. Enforceability – the notion that authorities may be subject to formal consequences or sanctions for their actions or omissions.4

In applying these elements to the 2030 Agenda, there is a notion of shared responsibility for implementing the SDGs. However, the primary “responsibility” rests with national governments as the only official signatories to the agreement. With respect to “enforceability,” the Agenda lacks enforceability in a traditional sense since there are no formal sanctions or consequences if States fail to implement the SDGs – unless of course they overlap with existing national or international legal obligations.5 Accordingly, accountability for the 2030 Agenda tends to focus on the “answerability” element of accountability – namely that governments must be answerable to the people whose lives are affected by their actions and decisions.

Ensuring accountability for the SDGs may involve a variety of actions including “monitoring” – tracking inputs, outputs, short-term outcomes and long-term impacts – and “evaluation” – determining how or why SDG progress, or lack thereof, has occurred as well as assessing the degree of progress.6 It is important to recognize that accountability for the 2030 Agenda is not only about ensuring that governments are answerable for outcomes to achieve the SDGs, but are also answerable for the strategies that are put in place to reach outcomes. Accordingly, it is essential to accountability that the processes, policies and institutions to implement and follow-up and review the 2030 Agenda are open, inclusive and transparent and respect human rights.7 While the 2030 Agenda and the SDGs outline a global plan of action, national governments will take vastly different approaches to implementation. Consequently, it will be necessary for civil society to hold governments accountable to the commitments they make through National Development Plans and other related laws and policies.

Given the voluntary nature of the 2030 Agenda, especially in relation to follow-up and review, it is important that people actively engage and participate in processes, where they exist, to hold their government accountable for SDG commitments in order to ensure overall accountability for the 2030 Agenda. As one expert notes, “the real politics of change is likely to occur at the domestic level”8 and people – including vulnerable and marginalized groups – will have a critical role to play in ensuring that national governments keep their promise to fully implement the 2030 Agenda.

CSOs can promote people’s active involvement in generating accountability for the 2030 Agenda in a number of ways. As this Handbook demonstrates, CSOs can facilitate and support people-led accountability for the SDGs by ensuring that citizens have the opportunity to participate directly or indirectly in formal accountability processes or mechanisms. CSOs can also create informal opportunities for people to exert political pressure on their governments through a variety of citizen-led accountability initiatives. Importantly, the activities of CSOs that represent the interests of vulnerable and marginalized groups can help to give voice to people traditionally excluded from both formal and informal accountability processes.

Prerequisites and Challenges to Accountability

There are a number of prerequisites that can support the pursuit for accountability for the 2030 Agenda as well as several challenges that may hinder progress.

First and foremost, it is essential that fundamental rights and freedoms – including the freedom of expression, association and assembly and the right to information and political participation – are protected in law and practice. Recognized by major international human rights treaties, these rights and freedoms are vital to the functioning of an independent civil society and people’s meaningful participation in ensuring accountability for the SDGs. People must be able to participate in formal and informal accountability processes, express their concerns and question or challenge government without fear of repercussions. Without these rights and freedoms guaranteed, many people will be unable or unwilling to engage in SDG accountability processes.

The right to information is especially important for accountability for the 2030 Agenda. Public access to reliable, credible and user-friendly data and information is key to holding governments accountable. Information enables citizens and others to evaluate the performance of public officials and to monitor government actions. Citizens should have the right to access all public information relevant to the SDGs including through measures such as Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests. Governments should ensure that information is made available to all in a timely and accessible manner, free of charge, and without restrictions on its use and re-use.9 In countries where FOIAs do not exist, civil society should demand passage of such laws to guarantee access to all public information, both related to the SDGs and beyond.

Other factors that contribute to an enabling environment to pursue accountability for the SDGs and may be considered prerequisites for people’s meaningful participation in holding national governments to account include: increased public awareness of the SDGs and government commitments; institutionalized consultation mechanisms at all levels; financial support; and the availability of materials on the SDGs in local languages and user-friendly formats.

While some governments around the world are creating a better enabling environment for citizen voice, transparency and accountability, others are restricting rights and freedoms that will invariably limit the ability of citizens to pursue accountability for the SDGs. In many cases, civil society space is shrinking, with some governments reducing the scope, independence and sources of funding for CSOs through legal means or by threats, harassment or violence.10 The decline in civic space for people to organize, participate, communicate and express their views freely poses a significant challenge and threat to ensuring accountability for the 2030 Agenda. In particular, the shrinking of civic space has seen disturbing trends since the adoption of the 2030 Agenda. National and global efforts to push back against these threats must be strengthened – with the SDGs presenting another opportunity to demand these spaces, both around the UN and at the national and local levels.

The nature of political processes also produces specific challenges for SDG accountability. While all governments committed to implement the 2030 Agenda in 2015, government administrations will inevitably change, which can result in a decrease in ownership of the SDGs or a shift in priorities away from commitments made through the SDGs. In some cases, governments – new or old – may no longer consider the SDGs as relevant to their political agenda and thus rely on purely symbolic actions “to answer” for their implementation of the 2030 Agenda. Beyond that, there will always be internal political battles over mandates and funds, with bureaucratic officials seeking to protect or promote their agency’s interests – in terms of autonomy, budget or personnel – instead of carrying out wider policy commitments such as the SDGs that serve the greater public interest. All of these difficulties related to “politics as usual” will pose major challenges to ensuring that national governments keep their promise to implement the SDGs.

Ensuring SDG Accountability Processes “Leave No One Behind”

The 2030 Agenda’s pledges to “leave no one behind” and to “reach the furthest behind first” should also be considered guiding principles in all formal and informal accountability processes. Both governments and CSOs alike should seek to engage a broad range of stakeholders including vulnerable and marginalized groups that are traditionally excluded or unable to express their views in conventional ways in accountability processes. Such groups include people living in poverty, women, children and young people, older persons, ethnic and religious minorities, persons with disabilities, Indigenous peoples, migrants and refugees, forcibly displaced and stateless persons, and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, among others. CSOs, in particular, should facilitate the participation of vulnerable and marginalized groups in SDG accountability by advocating for official government processes and mechanisms to take measures to ensure their inclusion, while also ensuring that civil society-led initiatives do the same.

“Leaving no one behind” in SDG accountability means creating an enabling environment and the conditions necessary for the meaningful participation of all people, including by addressing the physical, financial, linguistic, logistical, technological, age, gender or other barriers that may prevent certain groups from participating in accountability processes.11 Although participatory accountability should be an ongoing, systematic and dynamic process12 – rather than a one-size-fits-all or one-off process – CSOs should consider the following principles in advocating for or designing inclusive SDG accountability processes:

  • Engagement should aim to be regular and continuous rather than a one-off opportunity;
  • There should be formal and informal engagement mechanisms and spaces to support people’s effective, meaningful and safe participation and dialogue with decision-makers;
  • There should be communication, awareness-raising and information-sharing with stakeholders to highlight opportunities for their contribution and participation;
  • Steps should be taken to support people’s awareness of their rights, empowerment, intrinsic value and capacity to participate in accountability processes;13
  • There should be different ways for people to participate in accountability processes including online/offline, written/oral, and in-person/remote opportunities;
  • Processes should take place at subnational and local levels, in addition to the national level, in order to facilitate people’s participation;
  • People should have access to relevant information and materials in a timely and accessible manner, format and language they can understand;
  • There should be targeted outreach and strategies for specific groups – for instance, through dedicated consultations, events, meetings, workshops or activities that allow a specific group to participate and express their views freely, and active measures should be taken to accommodate the special needs of groups such as providing childcare services for parents or ensuring that meetings occur after school for children and young people;14 and
  • Decision-makers and those in positions of power should be prepared to listen and provide feedback to people on how their input or participation has been taken into consideration.

Case Study: Ensuring the Inclusion of Marginalized Groups in SDG Accountability Processes

Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Kenya, Netherlands and Nigeria: A growing number of countries are dedicating a section of their VNR reports to the pledge of “leaving no one behind.” The 2017 report from Bangladesh includes a focus on persons with disabilities, and identifies specific actions taken under SDGs 1, 3 and 5 in relation to children with disabilities. Ethiopia’s 2017 report includes a sub-section focusing on children’s rights and welfare, and reports on policies and information systems that have been rolled out since the adoption of the SDGs. At the federal level, a database on children’s rights and welfare is being developed. Kenya reports on the rights-based approach of its 2010 Constitution, which aims to move Kenya towards a more equitable and inclusive future. The Kenya 2010 Constitution contains a comprehensive Bill of Rights, including rights to the highest attainable standard of health, to education, accessible and adequate housing, water and sanitation, as well as the right to food. These rights are all guaranteed as enforceable rights that extend to all individuals and specific groups, including children, youth and persons with disabilities.15

Indigenous Peoples - The Indigenous Navigator is an example of participatory data collection by a particular group of rights-holders. It provides a framework and a set of tools for Indigenous peoples to systematically monitor the level of recognition and implementation of their rights. It is designed to monitor: essential aspects of the SDGs, including by collecting data for Indigenous peoples related to the global SDG indicators as well as complementary indicators to capture Indigenous peoples’ rights and aspirations (for example, for bilingual and culturally-appropriate education, land rights and self- governance); the implementation of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples; and the outcomes of the World Conference on Indigenous Peoples.16