“We are not on track”

“The diagnosis is not good, but we try to keep the roadmap to development” summarized Ambassador Lachezara Stoeva, president of ECOSOC, in her dialogue with civil society at the Civil Society Forum of the Fifth LDC Summit. The Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) is the UN intergovernmental body in charge of overseeing the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

By Roberto Bissio*

Chee Yoke Ling reminded the audience that “this is the year of the midterm review of the 2030 Agenda, which pointed to systemic structural barriers and the need for the international economic system to remove those barriers and free up policy space for developing countries, especially for LDCs.”

ECOSOC president Lachezara Stoeva commented that “the 2030 Agenda, with its 17 sustainable development goals, is the road map for a better world. For a richer, better and equal world. Are we on track? No, we're not on track. We are far behind the implementation of all the goals and from the review we are doing currently doing, we know that the diagnosis won't be good, but the objective of this review is to make sure that this remains the road map for development, because we're not going to negotiate anything better and the goals, even though they're not reached, they're quite significant.”

“How does the Doha Programme of Action and the LDC5 Conference here today play a role in the Sustainable Development Goals? Actually, the DPoA is geared towards 46 UN Member States. That is almost one fourth of the membership, and the main principle of the 2030 Agenda is leaving no one behind. The LDCs are the most vulnerable, so they're the ones that are furthest behind in achieving the SDGs. So if we are to achieve the SDGs, we have to make sure that the Doha programme of action is implemented. This is the place where commitment should be made, and we all have to work twice as hard to make sure that the objectives of the DPoA are met, if we are to succeed at all with the SDG.”

“You have to be ambitious”

Ambassador Stoeva highlighted that the Council “this year has been dedicated entirely to the preparations of substantive outcomes and inputs for the so-called political declaration, to be adopted at summit level in September. We look at our own High Level Political Forum in July as a pre summit this year. So we already held the Partnership forum, we are going to have the financing for development forum, the youth forum, and the science, technology and Innovation forum. The coordination segment of ECOSOC, the humanitarian segment, the operational activities segment, they are all dedicated to the SDGs and. In all the forums and segments, civil society plays a key role. You have to be ambitious on all aspects to push strongly, because the Sustainable Development Goals belong to everybody, it's a whole of society approach, and the same applies to the Doha programme of action. So there are many synergies between the two, and one cannot do without the other.”

Maureen Penjeuli said: “Our entry point is SDG 14, ‘life underwater’. Oceans have very specific characteristics from the perspective of Small Islands Development States. If you look at Kiribati, it has a landmass of 811 square kilometres, but its oceanic economic zone is the size of India. Tuvalu is much, much smaller. It has a landmass of 26 square kilometres. At its narrowest part, the island is about 76 or 75 meters wide, and the airport, which is this widest part, is 650 meters.

The ocean really shapes and influences the countries of the Pacific, and they are heavily dependent on a very small commodity export base, with fish ranking quite high in terms of revenue. But in laying out the kinds of interest in the ocean, the multilateral system is quite fragmented, siloed, and in many ways contradictory. And so for civil society, we need to track across many instruments. For fish, we have to deal with the WTO, and what we're seeing is the erosion of ‘special and differentiated treatment’, or of historical responsibilities in climate negotiations or equity access and benefit sharing on biodiversity beyond areas of national jurisdictions. We are seeing these kinds of regression across the board in terms of the gains that we've made in the past.”

She ended by saying “Among the things that are working for us in the Pacific is that we're really still in control of land through customary land tenure systems and that's fundamentally important because that really allows our communities and our people to maintain control over land and also oceans. Secondly, the Pacific is really very rich culture wise. So a country like Solomons, has over 200 different languages and up to 85 to 90 percent of biodiversity is in oceans.”

Chee Yoke Ling elaborated on the difficult negotiations on biodiversity beyond national jurisdictions: “After a 48-hour marathon day and night in New York, a new treaty was born through UN negotiations, where every country has one vote. But nobody really has seen the whole text yet and we don't know really what in the end was compromised. This new treaty will be sent to an open-ended working group that will do technical edits, and the General Assembly will in September decide when this working group will meet to finish the Treaty, but not in the usual intergovernmental negotiation process. We might ask ourselves, is that the kind of multilateral decision-making that we would like to have or not?”

María Graciela Cuervo focused on the long-standing work of feminists and women organizations that have been active in multilateral spaces for many years “with a clear message of advancing gender equality, women's empowerment, and women's human rights as critical for inclusive and sustainable development”. While “this work has resulted in advancement of global institutional frameworks, the translation of these into national frameworks and norms is still very uneven”. Among the structural barriers for this to happen are “rising inequalities, constrained political and fiscal space, climate change, macroeconomic barriers, disease. These barriers need to be tackled in a coordinated way, both at national and global levels, with full recognition of women's positions, their contributions to development, as well as their oppressions and subordination on their patriarchal systems.”

While “we have major gains in language for women's human rights from the UN conferences of the 90s, and from the 2030 Agenda, we have seen the co-optation of this language in false solutions, mostly corporate solutions that use women as a token. We have also seen the politicization of the concept and practice of women's empowerment. The pink washing strategies of corporations, and  more recently superficial feminist foreign policies of governments of the North, that on the one hand are so-called feminist, and on the other, their practices are not.”

“We note with concern that in the DPoA Member States at times commit to action and in some relevant paragraph, where it requires strengthening global governance, or an action from the North, they just ‘encourage’ governments. The DPoA mentions the enjoyment of human rights by women and girls, access to health, education, social protection, political participation and elimination of violence, but if we really mean it, we need to address the structural barriers.”

“Women's unpaid care work, and the way that it's overlooked as a productive activity, is a major barrier to gender and economic justice. We need to recognize unpaid care work in the design of macroeconomic policies. That is fiscal, monetary, tax policies, etc. This must translate into the development of social protection systems and national care systems. Unfortunately, the IFIs, have managed to undermine human rights standards in the South through their recommendations for market deregulation, privatization and other strategies that pressure Southern countries to race to the bottom.

Cuervo argued that “we need to continue to put pressure on our so-called development partners. None of the challenges that are faced by LDCs can be addressed by domestic measures alone. Debt seriously undermines capacities to guarantee the human rights of the population and we need to keep pushing for its cancellation. Finally, we need to put more pressure on countries both in the South and the North to fulfil binding human rights obligations. Feminist organizations have been using theHuman Rights Council mechanisms such as universal periodical reviews or shadow reporting at the UN treaty bodies such as the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, or the Committee on Elimination of Discrimination against Women. We call on countries of the South for their responsibilities as duty bearers, but also countries of the North for their extraterritorial human rights obligations.”

Dereje Alemayehu addressed the issue of mobilizing domestic resources, saying that “there is no country in the world which had market-led development. All development was state-led. Markets were regulated, markets were created by the state. But when it came to developing countries, it was said ‘leave development to the market’. Africa was aware of this. When the structural adjustment programme package came, Africa was saying ‘we need structural transformation, not structural adjustment’.  But it was imposed anyhow. I'm not denying that there are adherents of the neoliberal development paradigm in low income countries, but the lesson, the package, comes from the North. Challenging this development paradigm is the homework task which developing countries should take on board.”

Alemayehu argued that “in the UN system, even the creation of this structure on the least developed countries, brings the issues into the logic of development assistance (ODA), of helping poor countries. It is going away from recognizing their rights to development to making it a charitable operation. What civil society is fighting for is to bring the issue of power relationships and structural issues to the United Nations.  But we look at the issue of financing for development as well. There is a tendency to make it like a fundraising operation, but financing for development started by questioning the financial logic, by looking at the structural mechanisms through which resources flow from the South to the North.”

“Bring governance and structural issues back to the UN”

The SDGs include a commitment to reduce illicit financial flows. Immediately we were engaged into a debate of what is legitimate and what is illicit. Instead of taking concrete measures to stop them, it was procrastination. Seven and a half years, half of the time, has elapsed, but not a penny of illicit financial flows from South to North is saved. The Economic Commission for Africa created a Commission,  led by Thabo Mbeki, to study the illicit financial flows from Africa. They found that more than 66 percent of  illicit financial flows from Africa is generated within the economy. It is not illegal activity at the source of illicit financial flows, it's a commercial activity, it is induced illicit financial flows, which is draining resources out of Africa. No measure is being taken to stop these illicit financial flows. They try to reduce the problem to corruption of African elites, but the figures tell their own language.”

“What is very important for developing countries, first, is to bring back the issue of governance and structural change  back to the United Nations. When the UN calls upon G20 countries to do this and that, it is giving the mandate of the UN to a private club of rich countries! We have to reclaim the role of the UN in standard setting, regulating. The second and very important thing is for the G77 group in the United Nations to be stronger and to be challenging. Without their unity, it is not possible to improve things globally. We have been struggling for a UN intergovernmental process to reform international tax rules and to set the standards. The current ones were created 100 years ago, when most African countries and developing countries were not independent. To change it, the rich countries wanted only the OECD to be the rule maker, but finally there was a milestone change last December, in which the Africa Group proposal to bring back the issue of international tax cooperation into the United Nations was endorsed. There is a lesson to learn from that. The only way for developing countries to change structures and power relationships globally, is by strengthening their voice within the UN system, to make the UN not a multi-stakeholder institution, but a Member State-led institution in which all countries can negotiate equally on an equal footing to solve common problems.”

“UN decisions are up to Member States”

Ambassador Stoeva, who chaired the meeting that passed the UN resolution on taxes last December, stated: “On what the UN can do and what it cannot do, it's up to the Member States to decide. We cannot blame the ECOSOC or the UN or any other body within the UN for not doing its job. When it comes to the financing for development,  it is key that this year we deliver. This will be an extremely important element for the success of the sustainable development goals summit in September.

“We keep saying that ECOSOC should be where we discuss issues, but we need to also realize that the IMF is also part of the UN system. And we are trying this year to have a more open dialogue with them, and I hope we achieve some progress in that direction. I am not 100 percent sure that we are going to see dramatic changes overnight. It will take time, but as long as  they feel the urgency and the need to act, that's already a step forward. We all want everything, and we want it now. It's not going to happen, but we can make progress. It's not ideal, but we don't have other options.

At many moments, you're disappointed by the UN because it doesn't meet the high expectations you have, but I think that our only way out is to work together in this system, which is far from perfect, but it is the only one we have, and we are now not going to create a better one, that's for certain.

Global Digital Cooperation

Anita Gurumurthy elaborated on the little known “digital compact” that is being discussed in the UN. “In June 2018, a High Level panel on Digital Cooperation was set up by the UN Secretary-General, chaired by Melinda Gates and Jack Ma. The committee did have voices of civil society, but the high superpower stakes of the digital economy  is very much reflected in the 2019 report. A year later, in 2020, we had the Secretary-General's report, which is the road map for digital cooperation, which in some ways reflects the aspirations of civil society in terms of connectivity, digital inclusion, human rights, and which ends with a call for global digital cooperation. Then in 2021 the Secretary-General’s ‘Our Common Agenda’ report starts with ‘A Wake-Up Call’ and calls for a Summit of the Future, to be convened in 2024, that is to include a Global Digital Compact. The Office of the Special Envoy on technology to the UN Secretary General is holding many consultations, and there are very many ways for civil society to express itself.

As a civil society person who observes the field, I think that the accelerated digitalization we see today is very much part of the inequality problem. A data analysis would show that co-linearity, if not causality, between the models of digitalization and the deepening of inequality. This that doesn't mean we throw the baby with the bath water because, because the problem is the particular way we have done the digitalization and platformization processes. The second I want to say is that there are many new discourses in the digital field that really appeals to civil society, a language that we have invented, often times, to communicate with our social movements. The word ‘common’, the Commons, public goods… But we have to really be very careful about the capitalist Commons, as it were, because in many, many fields, including the digital field, people who contribute to commoning are unsung and completely not rewarded by the system. They are actually cannibalized by the system. The idea that there are these digital public goods, they are plug and play and the least developed countries must actually play catch up, is part of a kind of collective social psyche, and we must be very cautious about it. I'll tell you a story about digital public goods soon.

In the spectacular digital field with concepts of openness, freedom, security, we see a certain reflection of our own aspirations. But we have to be very careful. First, openness means also that some people are putting things into the common pool and other people are taking it away. That's the story of data. So if you actually go to the WHO, to the COP 15, for instance, discussions about fair sharing of the benefits of digital sequence information, increasingly the global system, out of conviction, ignorance, conspiracy, or a combination of all of this, is encouraging the poorer countries to contribute into the common pool. But there is no global governance paradigm or framework for digital data.

The second thing is freedom. When we hear calls for freedom, we may not be saying the same thing because freedom for us is not freedom to articulate our voice in the privatized publics, controlled by the few digital corporations. We really want not to be talking in a way on Twitter that Musk can determine is good or bad, right? And finally, in terms of security, for the longest time, the feminist movements have been saying we do not want to technicalize this debate. It is a part of social well-being, so we really need to rescue the idea of security out of this. So in respect of public financing for digital goods or public digital goods, there are three takeaways.  The first is that over-reliance on the market model has not brought connectivity to all LDCs. In fact, the digital divide in certain countries will never be bridged. The second is the technological bank, and the programmatic difficulties that LDCs have about keeping an eye on the horizon. Why? It is extremely hard to keep track of the innovations, because if you had the resources to do it, you would do it.

The consulting firms are foul dealing

And the third is that every one of the Big 5 top consulting firms agrees that AI investments in core sectors like agriculture, for instance, is going only in downstream value chains, which means that wherever there's money to be made through crop insurance, fintech, which is the bottom of the pyramid markets. In the input markets in agriculture, which is so important for the LDCs, there's nobody to put money. We come back to the idea that we need public finance and therefore to IFI reform. The simplest truth here is that the old paradigm of technology transfer won't work. That is because digital public goods that involve data are also sovereign national resources, and the transfer paradigm somehow bedazzles us into believing that a consulting firm will take our data and give back the analytic solutions, which never happens. The firms who have benefited from the global digital public goods alliance are doing a cut-and-paste template of the digital ID programme they have, then customize the same software for every country. So they're not only free riding, they're also foul dealing, and foul dealing in economics is like taking away from the Commons. It's hollowing out the public, so we must remember that the global digital commons have to be managed as digital public goods.

To sum up. First, we need public financing and a  public digital innovation ecosystem. We cannot believe the private sector will bring innovation in the sectors we care about. Second: governance of global digital public goods is as important as governance at the national level, so we need frameworks for it in all the large UN institutions, same as we have frameworks underpinning human rights. Third, effective governance of transnational digital corporations who are claiming intellectual property on analytics, on AI, without due respect to the social commons of data. Fourth is a new data constitutionalism, grounded in the right to development. Fifth, we need a human centred agenda. And sixth, we need a certain systemic capability in developing countries, which is about building our own ability to govern the data economy.

Food systems are key

Bridget Mugabe spoke on food and agriculture systems, noting that “food systems is a minority subject in the Doha Programme of Action which is quite worrying, considering that the majority of LDC countries focus on agriculture as a backbone of their economies. In Africa, which has the majority of the LDCs, we see a looming food crisis. And also a climate crisis, the COVID-19 pandemic, not so much in terms of number of deaths, but in terms of economic impacts, including failing to access the necessary vaccines.

Africa has a very high food import bill. It's currently standing at US$50 billion and expected to double by 2030. And what is the impact? This is economic but also speaks to issues of food sovereignty and food security, of accessing food imports but also accessing fertilizers, synthetic fertilizers which are highly promoted. Two different paradigms are proposed as solutions. One which has the most financing and which dominates African agriculture and food policies, focuses on increasing production,, using synthetic fertilizers, drones, robotics, imagery and, big data, and it comes at the cost of forests and water bodies.

The other paradigm which AFSA is proposing is agroecology and the food systems approach, which looks at production emphasizing territorial markets. As we look at the Continental Free Trade Area, need to enhance territorial markets to be able to facilitate food security, access to a healthy diet. Agroecology and the food system approach also looks at the social interactions of food production, how we interact in the environment, with the markets, with the people, with their livelihoods. It looks at gender issues. So we propose an approach that does not prescribe solutions like use of drones and smart seeds, but an approach that looks at a transition, meaning that we move with the people, not with companies.

The production paradigm is pushing for corporate control of agriculture, removing control of land from the hands of the people and putting it in a private sector that is just looking towards profit. So, in terms of proposals, as we move towards the review of the SDGs and the implementation of the DPoA, one would call for an enabling environment and what this means is that we promote territorial markets, which are the easiest way that most people can access food within their territories, where they can access healthy food, cheap food. We call for public financing, but also private financing, not in terms of loans but in terms of  grants. We propose land in the hands of communities, of the food producers, while the approach we have in most of our countries now is about land to monoculture production, taking huge chunks of land away from the small scale farmers. Smallholder farmers are feeding Africa, but they lack the appropriate technology to support them, they lack the financing, and the policy space.

Chee Yoke Ling remembered that “the FAO has finally recognized that more than 90 percent of our food production is coming from small farmers, especially women. It is a problem for practically all our national policies, the lack of knowledge of the reality of farm systems, seed diversity and the role of small farmers. There's this feeling that big is efficient and also the concept of technology, as if there is no technology in the very diverse and complex systems that our farmers actually do have on the ground. And there's so much that's happening now, new ways of looking at information, working with the experience of traditional knowledge. How do we bring that more to the United Nations?

Chantal Umuhoza, speaking from the experience of Rwanda, confirmed that “definitely there's a lot of progress, good governance, decentralized governance, strong institutions and progress to digitalize the economy and infrastructure development. But poverty rates are still high, inequalities are on the rise, structural and systemic barriers remain. Rwanda gives the message that it is not enough to have good governance, good institutions. There is more that needs to be done.

Division makes things worse

In Africa, no single country can be able to progress and advance by itself. And Rwanda is a landlocked country. There's a lot of investment in transportation, airlines and all that. But in the African continent, no single country can be able to improve, for example, the persisting challenges in airline transportations without really looking at Africa as a whole and improving those situations and investment in the same sectors together. That's why the solutions stemming from the African Union are so important. LDCs in Africa need to be looked at holistically. We have fragmented agendas and fragmented support and finances that come into the continent and are not very different from the colonial era ‘divide and rule’. Rwanda cannot progress if the East African region and Africa as a whole do not do the same. That is why the concept of multilateralism in Africa is so important, because division makes things worse.

Chee Yoke Ling concluded: “This is, Ambassador Stoeva, the first time in many years that we come together in one space, activists, young, old, experienced, learning and even the older learning all the time, coming together from across very different aspects of work, but very fundamentally understanding that the root causes of the problems are similar, and committing to the action.”

Plenary 2: DPoA: key for the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development
Doha, 5 March 2023

Moderator: Chee Yoke Ling

Speakers: Ambassador Lachezara Stoeva (President of ECOSOC), Million Belay (African Food Sovereignty Network, Ethiopia), Maureen Penjueli (Pacific Network on Globalisation, Fiji), Dereje Alemayehu (Global Alliance for Tax Justice, Peru), María Graciela Cuervo (DAWN,Dominican Republic), Anita Gurumurthy (IT for Change, India), Chantal Umuhoza (RESURJ,Rwanda).

See more about the LDC5 Civil Society Forum (Doha, Qatar, from 4 to 9 March 2023) here.


* This summary is based on notes and recordings. It has been edited for clarity and conciseness; subtitles emphasis and clarifications were added. Karen Judd contributed to the final editing.

Chantal Umuhoza (RESURJ, Rwanda), Maureen Penjueli (Pacific Network on Globalisation, Fiji), María Graciela Cuervo (DAWN, Dominican Republic), Chee Yoke Ling (Third World Network), Anita Gurumurthy (IT for Change, India), Ambassador Lachezara Stoeva (President of ECOSOC).