Civil Society Organization (CSO) Forum

24 September 2019 | UN Headquarters, New York, United States of America


Participants said key obstacles to achieving the SDGs include the imbalance between public and private funding, lack of systemic thinking in governance and policy making, and insufficient support for grassroots CSOs.

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Organized by the Major Groups and other Stakeholders coordination mechanism, the Civil Society SDGs Forum provided an opportunity for dialogue between civil society and UN Member States, international organizations, and other stakeholders, to discuss possible responses to the challenges uncovered during the first four years of the implementation of the 2030 Agenda.



L-R: Joop Theunissen, UN Department of Social and Economic Affairs (DESA); Marc-André Dorel, DESA; Antonia Wulff, Co-Moderator; Workers and Trade Unions Major Group; Jordan Ann Chiara, DESA; Yaryna Shura, DESA; Dan Perell, Co-Moderator, Baha'i International Community and NGO Major Group; and Gwilym Roberts-Harry, DESA



  • Key obstacles to achieving the SDGs include imbalance between public and private funding, lack of systemic thinking in governance and policy making, and insufficient support for grassroots CSOs.
  • The reform of High-Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development (HLPF) should realize effective dialogue between CSOs and governments and create better opportunities to provide input.
  • The UN and governments should provide more resources to grassroots organizations and consider CSOs and local organizations as partners, not beneficiaries.

Opening the Forum, co-moderator Antonia Wulff, Education International, Workers and Trade Unions Major Group, mentioned that the structural side of SDG implementation is not reflected enough in the governmental discussions. Co-moderator Dan Perell, Baha’I International Community, NGO Major Group, said knowledge and data are no longer the limiting factors, the missing ingredient is political will.

Maria-Francesca Spatolisano, UN Assistant Secretary-General for Policy Coordination and Inter-Agency Affairs, noted that the SDG Summit outcome declaration highlights the role of partnerships among all stakeholders, observing that success will be measured also in the way in which the SDG implementation reaches and benefits the poorest, most vulnerable, and most marginalized segments of the population. Spatolisano concluded by emphasizing that CSO cooperation is proving its dynamism at a time when multilateralism is under attack.

Systemic Analysis for the Current State of Implementation

Emilia Luisa Reyes, Equidad de Genero, Women’s Major Group, highlighted the global imbalance between public and private capital, noting that far more private capital is being invested in fossil fuel production than public funding made available to the Green Climate Fund, and that women’s and feminist organizations receive only 1% of funding even though women subsidize the global economy with billions of dollars. Noting that these issues transcend national boundaries and negotiating groups, she encouraged participants to think more collectively.

Gemma Santana, Director of 2030 Agenda, Office of the Presidency of Mexico, provided lessons learned from efforts to align national priorities and policy making with the SDGs, including: addressing issues as a system rather than its parts; moving from hierarchies to networks for implementation; recognizing that linear solutions are inadequate to address non-linear processes; and mapping systemic linkages between the SDGs.

Roseline Kihumba, Helpage International, listed obstacles to improved inclusion of underprivileged groups, including: unequal representation and participation in decision making; discrimination and harassment, such as mandatory retirement ages and limits to medical insurance; ignoring demographic trends and their consequences for policies; lack of data disaggregated by gender, age, and abilities; lack of an integrated human life-cycle approach to decision making; and lack of high-level commitment to inclusion, equity, and equality. Participants underscored the calls for more investment by the private sector, systemic governance, inclusion, and combatting discrimination. They identified additional obstacles, including overstretched international institutions, insufficient participation, and continued work in silos. Several emphasized the need to empower women and girls and to guaranteeing girls’ reproductive health and rights as cornerstones of progress. Others noted difficulties for grassroots organizations to access funding, calling for a reorganization of global funding streams, with some stressing the need to engage regional and local governments and organizations.

Key Proposals to Unlock Progress

Annie Namala, People’s Assembly, highlighted the shrinking space for CSOs both at the UN and in countries. She called for making the SDG review process a peer-review process and strengthening the HLPF and the voluntary national reviews (VNR) processes. She identified key areas where governments should act in partnership with civil society: discrimination; disaggregated data, especially on vulnerable communities; and a people-centered approach to development.

Maria Auma, Major Group for Children and Youth, said the failure to curb climate change and implement the SDGs is a crime against humanity. She called for acting now to save the planet’s ecosystems and for reforming the SDG follow-up framework to include major groups and other stakeholders at all levels of the review process. Adding that for “every action there is an equal and opposite reaction,” she said that the more governments disregard young people’s rights, the more they will rise up.

Participants discussed, among other issues, the need for: governments to engage with civil society and other stakeholders in the UN fora, such as the CSO Forum; civil society to practice itself what it preaches to governments; finding ways of measuring progress that go beyond GDP and numbers to assess the improvement in people’s lives; progressive taxation and macroprudential regulation; binding legal agreements on corporations and human rights; and including and supporting the participation of indigenous peoples in the SDG implementation and civil society mechanisms.

Other participants: cautioned that youth now have more access to violence than they have to education; highlighted the importance of volunteerism for SDG implementation; and called for including youth civil society organizations more prominently in the civil society forums and discussions.

Institutional arrangements that can facilitate implementation

Tove Maria Ryding, Civil Society Finance for Development (FfD) Group, stressed the need to ensure that civil society holds governments accountable for their commitments annually, starting from the national level. She advised civil society participants to push for legally binding agreements that include rights and rules under the UN, explaining that the role of the UN is to facilitate international negotiations and not flurry speeches. She warned participants not to let the new narrative on the multilateral crisis serve as excuse for governments not to deliver on their commitments.

Cristina Gallach, High Commissioner for the 2030 Agenda, Spain, said the country established a Sustainable Development Council that includes representatives of civil society, the business sector, trade unions, and other stakeholders. The Council represents an effective mechanism for dialogue between the Spanish government and civil society on SDG implementation, Gallach noted, as the 50 members of the Council are further engaging and representing their networks.

Joan Carling, Indigenous Peoples Major Group, said the HLPF needs to: become more substantive and discuss issues related to the structural barriers that prevent progress on the SDGs; create more space for equitable and inclusive participation, especially for rights-holders and those most left behind; focus more on policy coherence; strengthen coordination between national, regional, thematic, and global processes; and have an action-oriented outcome instead of a ministerial declaration, to reflect the discussions actually taking place at the HLPF.

Mohammed Loutfy, Persons with Disabilities Stakeholder Group, recommended that the review of HLPF: stress the role of global processes to enhance follow-up steps; emphasize interlinkages; enhance effective dialogue between CSO and governments; and allocate resource to enable CSOs to participate in VNRs. One participant asked to clarify how CSO inputs are integrated in the HLPF Ministerial Declaration, with another suggesting that future CSO forums be held prior to HLPF to provide input. Participants also noted that marginalization cannot be addressed through established institutions and proposed realizing proportionate representation of marginalized groups at the HLPF. They also requested that CSOs should be full participants, rather than observers.

Reflecting on the discussions, Micah Grzywnowicz, for the LGBTI Stakeholder Group, lamented the lack of action on leaving no one behind, while encouraging CSOs to help identifying groups being left behind. José Viera, for the Persons with Disabilities Major Group, encouraged CSOs to question themselves and determine what they want to do and what they are willing to undertake to change structural issues in participation. Frances Zainoeddin, for the Stakeholder Group on Ageing, lauded the successes of CSOs in supporting vulnerable people. Noting that CSOs are not only watchdogs, but also partners, she said they should be proud of what they are doing. 

IISD Reporting Services, through its Earth Negotiations Bulletin on the Side (ENBOTS) meeting coverage, provided web coverage from the CSO Forum.

Photos by IISD/ENB | Francis Dejon

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View of the CSO Forum pleanary session
Antonia Wulff, Co-Moderator, Workers and Trade Unions Major Group

Dan Perell, Co-Moderator, Baha'i International Community and NGO Major Group
Maria- Francesca Spatolisano, Assistant Secretary-General for Policy Coordination and Inter-Agency Affairs, DESA
Roseline Kihumba, Helpage International and Stakeholder Group on Ageing
Emilia Luisa Reyes, Equidad de Genero and Women's Major Group
Gemma Santana, Director of the 2030 Agenda, Office of the Presidency, Mexico
Stirling Dean, United Institutions
Buky Williams, ENERGIA and Women's Major Group
Annie Namala, Peoples Assembly
Maria Auma, Children and Youth Major Group
Felipe Urbas Sinópoli, (on screen) making an intervention on behalf of the Children and Youth Major Group
Roberto Suárez Santos, International Organisation of Employees
Chanta Umuhoza, SPECTRA Young Feminist
Tove Maria Ryding, Eurodad
Joan Carling, Tebtebba and Indigenous Peoples Major Group
Cristina Gallach, High Commissioner for the 2030 Agenda, Spain
Jennifer Zhang, Columbia University
Mohammed Loutfy, Stakeholder Group of Persons with Disabilities
Jose Viera, World Blind Union
Micah Grzywnowicz, Stakeholder Group of LGBTI
Frances Zainoeddin, Stakeholder Group on Ageing



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Children and Youth