Arab Civil Society Reviews Development Progress
At the midpoint in its implementation, it is evident that the 2030 Agenda (“transforming our world”) and its 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are faltering. The universal commitments to achieve a sustainable, prosperous and peaceful world for everyone are not achieving the promised objectives. Hampered by multiple crises, the systemic and structural challenges at political, socio-economic, cultural and environmental transformation also still lack the political will of governments.
Regional forums offer an effective way for states to cooperate in the pursuit of common goals. Within the common framework of the UN’s 2030 Agenda, the Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA) organizes an annual Arab Forum for Sustainable Development (AFSD), convening states and stakeholders to share experience and assess progress and enhance the region’s voice at the High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development (HLPF).
The Civil Society Forum
In preparation for AFSD, the Arab NGO Network for Development (ANND) collaborated with the members of the Regional Sustainable Development Platform (ATUC, CAWTAR, HIC-HLRN, AFRPD, ANDE and Transparency International) to organize the The Regional Civil Society Forum on Sustainable Development in the Arab Region on 12–13 March 2023 in Beirut. This year, the deliberations also coincided and overlapped with the Safir Youth Forum [AR].
Both the civil society and official forums began with the same message: that states, governments and all stakeholders must do more to achieve intended progress. The rich program of the Civil Society Forum interrogated and contested laws, policies and practices of the region’s government, while emphasizing also the special circumstances of the region. These include uniquely convergent effects of climate change; unproductive and inegalitarian rentier economies; conflict, occupation and war; economic and military dependence; anti-democratic and authoritarian regimes; and customary practices that impede social development, especially for women, minorities and persons with disabilities.
The Civil Society Forum’s two days featured seven panel discussions, each elaborating on a certain thematic focus of Agenda 2030 and its 5Ps (People, Prosperity, Peace, Planet, and Partnerships), as well as cultural dimensions. Around 150 participants engaged in working group sessions and developed a set of recommendations around the priorities discussed, including on the regional context, process, and engagement on Agenda 2030 monitoring, the peace-and-development nexus, social cohesion, structural economic problems, administration of land and natural resources, Agenda 2030 implementation and financing for development, diversified economies, industrialization, employment, and climate finance. The deliberations and recommendations are compiled in the final report.
The Official Forum
The Arab Forum for Sustainable Development (AFSD) lasted three days (14–16 March) and covered SDGs 6, 7, 9, 11 and 17, forming the thematic focus of this year’s HLPF at New York, in June 2023. Plenary sessions were also interspersed with special sessions of a more-technical nature. You can find the Forum documents, materials and recorded sessions here. One of the key documents was the Annual SDG Review, which focused entirely on the role of the private sector in the SDGs.
The session dedicated to SDG 11: Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable sought to assess the implementation status progress in the Arab region, and the impact of COVID-19 and other crises on the efforts of Arab countries to make progress on this Goal.
Moderated by Maysoun Ibrahim, president of the Palestinian Syndicate for Information Sciences and Technology, the session featured panelists:
Yousef al-Shawarba, mayor of Greater Amman Municipality, Jordan
Fatima Amzil, deputy mayor of Agadir, Morocco
Mohammed Khashashneh, secretary general, Ministry of Environment, Jordan (virtual)
Moataz Yeken, managing director, Wabel Consulting, Egypt
Nongovernmental discussants were:
Rania Hedeya, regional representative, UN-Habitat Regional Office for Arab States
Joseph Schechla, coordinator, HIC-HLRN
Abir Saksouk, co-director, Public Works Studio, Lebanon
For his part, Joseph Schechla introduced Habitat International Coalition, a global civil society platform with some 350 member organizations in 80 countries, including 10% of them in the Arab countries. He explained that the Coalition was formed and renewed in the global policy processes of the serial UN conferences on human settlements, now expressed in the New Urban Agenda.
He continued: “With our grounding in international law for a just world order, our approach to human settlement development is rooted in human rights related to the habitat, that is, at the very confluence of both human rights and sustainable development. Those combined criteria for statecraft apply equally and simultaneously to each sphere of government, whereas cities and local authorities share the same binding obligations, as well as the temporary and voluntary commitments of the 2030 Agenda, as central institutions of the state.
From this vantage point, we no longer refer to “levels of government,” with their implied hierarchy and bias against the local processes that are always closer to the daily experience of citizens. Rather, we only speak of “spheres of government” as partners in human rights-based sustainable development.
In the efforts at mitigation and adaption to climate change, we are encouraged by the examples we have heard here to localize climate action and climate justice. In particular, we commit to apply and further develop our already-proven methodologies to quantify impacts of climate change with local communities who are already paying the price, especially in response to the new loss-and-damage fund and the need to invest in local remedies. In that challenging and indispensable task, we look forward to cooperation with all spheres of government as part and parcel of the fabric of the state: its territory, its people and its institutions.”
Abir Saksouk addressed Lebanon’s development plan, drafted with the United Nations. She pointed out that its implementation has seen the continuing privatization of the states assets, in particular, 25% of its land. Meanwhile, the country’s monetary reserves have diminished along with the decline of the country’s natural and productive resources. These practices contradict all principles of the plan.
Housing costs are on the rise, with the costs of services, during an unprecedented national economic crisis and falling wages. The human right to housing is violated in this context with waves of forced evictions. Meanwhile, hundred of recent reports indicate that 65% of Lebanese are living in uninhabitable conditions, 60% live without basic services, 96% are subject to discrimination and 60% face arbitrary and unlawful evictions. In light of these circumstances, she asked what is our role, and the role of this forum to pressure the Lebanese government to uphold is housing rights obligations to its citizens and residents?
Panelists did not address either of the civil society interventions.
Unprogrammed, the moderator invited the regional WHO representative to speak, promoting the agency’s Healthy Cities Programme. She also invited an intervention from the representative of IOM, who characterized the conditions of migrants and displaced persons in the region.
The scheduled discussion with the audience featured Sylvana Lakkis (AFRPD), questioning how the 15% of the population with disabilities figure in the efforts toward inclusive and smart cities. The moderator tried to interrupt her, but she continued to speak from personal experience in Arab cities (e.g., in Morocco) as to how mobility obstacles for persons with disabilities impede normal life. For his part, Yousef al-Shawarba replied with a principled response and example of how Amman has provided free transport to residents with disabilities.
A participant representing a private company in Egypt responded to Abir Saksouk’s concerns by affirming the private sector’s readiness to provide needed energy and other services lacking in the public sector.
A final intervention posed a threefold question: (1) does “smart” Amman have indicators to determine the effect of traffic on the physical and mental health of its inhabitants, (2) what role does ESCWA play to compare official development reports with reality, and (3) how can we [in Amman] claim to have the no. 1 municipality in the world, when it is unelected?
Watch the entire session (untranslated)
The panelist responded to questions posed to them in their final comments, but the session naturally left many issues hanging for future stakeholder encounters. It was well noted by civil society participants that all UN agencies and their logos were represented at the Forum, excluding the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. It is understood that this omission came at the direction of Amina J. Mohammed, Deputy Secretary-General of the United Nations and Chair of the United Nations Sustainable Development Group, who personally opened the Forum.
Photo: View of the Civil Society Forum on Sustainable Development session on climate action, 13 March 2023. Source: ANND.