Advocates offering some alternative ideas and a few dissenting views on the Sustainable Development Goals on track to be adopted by the United Nations at a special session later this year are convening on Jan. 26 in New York to air opinions from all major developing regions on this critical new proposed set of policies.
Regions Refocus 2015, the title of the Jan. 26 meeting and the report now being published, is the result of nine regional workshops from July 2014 to January 2015 involving policy makers and civil society activists. The workshops — in Southern Africa, West Africa, the Pacific, South Asia, the Caribbean, the Arab states, Latin America (with two) and European institutions and partners — revealed striking differences and some similarities among regional attitudes on development priorities.
In the report that presents the outcomes of these workshops, as weighed against the Sustainable Development Goals now being finalized, there was wide support among regions for making national governments more effective, responsible and accountable in, for example, recovering lost revenues from tax evasion, capital flight, illicit transfer of funds and too-easy terms for foreign investors. Latin America held a separate workshop on these issues, titled “Hidden Money, Hidden Resources: Financing Development With Transparency.”
Debt relief was a general topic of discussion, and featured widespread wariness about public-private partnerships, especially in crucial public services like health and education, an increasing trend advocated in the UN system and among donor governments. There was also opposition to international trade agreements, based on fears that these would inevitably benefit the global North more than the developing counties. African workshops stressed these issues emphatically.
Workshops also devoted attention to social policies affecting health, education and women’s rights, though the subtitle message of the overall report, “Fostering Regional and Feminist Solidarities for Justice,” emerged in a few cases more as an add-on than as a major theme. Notable was the strong support in several regions for more explicitly stated rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people — those under the LGBT umbrella — which the Sustainable Development Goals avoid, ignoring worldwide movements for gay rights and against rising discrimination, criminalizing and persecution in a number of countries.
The Regions Refocus 2015 initiative, organized almost entirely by nongovernment organizations, is housed at the Dag Hammarskjold Foundation in New York. It was supported by the Ford Foundation, where the launch of its report will take place, and by the United Nations Institute for Training and Research (Unitar), with help from numerous international and national foundations and nonprofit groups.
Highlights from the regional reports reveal a growing sense that diverse areas of the world want to focus on their own relevant priorities, with regional nations working together more closely to advance their policies, including bids to have more voice as regions in international organizations, especially the UN system. This was a particular concern of Caribbean nations, where some elected officials were included in the workshop mix, along with academic experts on development issues.
“A significant thread in the workshop discussions focused on the decline of Caribbean participation, both governmental and of civil society, in intergovernmental spaces over the past several decades,” the Caribbean workshop found.
The Caribbean regional report was very focused and strong on women, broadened to “gender” to be more inclusive. “Gender justice, economic justice, and a human rights perspective are three critical principles to advance,” participants agreed, particularly in the current environment of austerity. The leading partners in the Caribbean discussions were the Nita Barrow unit of the Institute for Gender and Development Studies at the University of the West Indies, at Cave Hill in Barbados; the gender justice division of the Caribbean Community (Caricom); and the gender and economic section of the Caribbean Development Bank.
The Pacific region was also focused closely on women/gender components in development strategy, as the title of its workshop indicates: “Pacific Partnerships on Gender, Climate Change and Sustainable Development.” UN Women, the UN agency, was among the leading partners in this workshop. Like the Caribbean and other island regions threatened by rising seas, the Pacific workshop heard from numerous speakers engaged on that issue, including the safeguarding of women’s health and reproductive rights.
“As women are fourteen times more likely than men to die during disasters, participants articulated the rationale for including a gender perspective in disaster risk reduction and climate change policy that acknowledges the particular vulnerabilities and contributions of women and girls,” the Pacific report said. The region also gave explicit support to gender identity rights.
Most outspoken on the issue of gender identity was the workshop report from South Asia — India and its neighbors — where LGBT rights are nonexistent or have suffered recent setbacks. The leading nongovernment organization in the workshop was the New Delhi-based YP Foundation, a youth-run and youth-led organization working through Indian state partners on gender and sexuality, among other social and cultural projects. The workshop strongly backed effective sexuality education, which much of the region lacks and adolescents need.
“A major thread of the workshop focused on the need to redefine sexuality at national levels, within South Asia as a whole, and through the global development space,” the South Asia report said. The report looked at gender identity as a human right. It defended the designation of Q for queer in LGBTQ and expanded the meaning of transgender to encompass a range of identities, which it said should not be seen as “problems” for development.
In addition to its workshop on transparency in financing for development, the Latin American regions held a second workshop on “Education to Guarantee Rights: For a World of Dignity and Education for All.” In a controversial statement, this report, again focusing on regional specificity, said that “The group disputed the narrative that Millennium Development Goal (MDG) #2 — achieve universal primary education — has been accomplished, stressing that while global trends may indicate success, states are facing obstacles in its implementation at the national level.”
Among the concerns in the region were social and economic inequalities and the encroachment of the private sector in education. “Inequalities were identified as the major impediment to the realization of human rights in the region, which is the most unequal in the world,” the report said, noting that education is the most important vehicle to end inequalities in Latin America, but donor financing often skews the agenda “since donors are not financing lifelong learning but only ‘read, write, count’ initiatives,” the report said.
In its summary of the messages gleaned from the nine reports, the editors mentioned the role of the UN, saying: “All of the meetings emphasize the need for increased policy coherence of development-related systems, guided by the UN’s rights-based normative framework and oversight. The Latin America feminist caucus calls for reform of the international financial architecture “towards development, equity, and human rights for all” — a recommendation that echoed throughout the workshops.
Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She has also contributed to the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.
Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and previously its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of “So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas,” “The Great Hill Stations of Asia” and a Foreign Policy Association study, “India Changes Course,” in the Foreign Policy Association’s “Great Decisions 2015.”
Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.