Edward John-Bull is Director of CAFOD partner Caritas Sierra Leone which has led on the creation of a coalition supporting the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). He attended the UN High Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development with the government of Sierra Leone, which presented its SDG implementation strategy for review at the meeting.
As the first major UN conversation since the Sustainable Development Goals were agreed in September 2015 wrapped up in New York, it may have come as a surprise that a country left in a fragile state by the wreckage of civil war and Ebola would be amongst the first to volunteer its plans for implementation to scrutiny – like a footballer with a broken leg putting themselves forward to take a penalty.
Yet Sierra Leone is one of only 22 countries to have presented their strategy for the delivery of the goals for review at the meeting. A coalition representing private, NGO and government sectors is working to take advantage of Sierra Leone’s willingness to act as a guinea pig and ensure that the country ‘walks the talk’ on the SDGs.
Caritas Sierra Leone, with the support of CAFOD, created the Sierra Leone Coalition 2030 in January. This has provided one strong voice for civil society organisations to influence the government in designing, monitoring and following-up on the implementation of the SDGs. We have three key activities: to ensure that the voices of people who have been left behind are heard; to educate people about the SDGs; and to work closely with the government as an instrument of accountability.
Working with government is vital to the success of the SDGs. Without the strength of voice, expertise and experience that the coalition brings, it would be easy for the SDG agenda to slip down the government’s own agenda – not least with the 2018 general election approaching on the horizon.
This is a government facing multiple obstacles. The lack of capacity and resources is obvious. The traumas from war and disease are notorious. And the demands for development are numerous – the government’s own Agenda for Prosperity, the African Union’s development Agenda 2063, and our Ebola recovery programme. On top of that, we now have the SDGs from the UN.
As a result, governments like ours have challenges on how to fit all of this together. This is where working side-by-side with the government in a spirit of friendship is so helpful in order to speak truth. We shouldn’t be afraid to speak about the government’s shortcomings, but first we have to build a relationship. It’s less threatening and more productive and effective as a result than acting as spectators criticising from the stands.
We can help to amplify the voices of the different sections of society we represent, in particular people who are vulnerable or who belong to minority groups. We can support people affected by climate change with loss of water supplies and desertification to ensure that they don’t pay the price for not-very sustainable ‘development’ which exploits their natural resources or degrades their land. We can advocate for changes in behaviour towards consumption and production, clean energy and technology.
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We can help to increase awareness of the SDGs. If the goals are to be implemented and no-one left behind, then all of society – from MPs and government departments to the grassroots of religious communities – must know about them and feel a sense of ownership. Governments should ensure that their priorities come from their own people and constituencies so that they don’t become externally or UN-driven. This will empower people to participate in the delivery of the goals and can be achieved through group discussions, radio phone-ins, television interviews, and many other ways.
We can also help with the implementation of the SDGs by ensuring that there is coherence and consensus. Without agreement on the methodology for data collection and on baselines, it is difficult to measure progress. What do we mean by ‘ensuring no one is left behind’ when the great majority of people in Sierra Leone are already left behind? We can help to set realistic targets and a roadmap which prevents a government seeking to fulfil 17 goals from going in 17 different directions.
It’s important to use the opportunity created by the government’s willingness to submit to international scrutiny. Creating this strong coalition and working in a way that is cooperative yet effective gives us hope that such an opportunity will not go to waste.