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The most sustainable development goal

Why the UN is calling for civic engagement that goes beyond elections

From Sept. 25 to 27, the United Nations will vote on adoption of the sustainable development goals (SDGs), a set of international development targets set to replace the Millennium Development Goals, which expire at the end of 2015.

The SDGs aim to eradicate poverty, build sustainable cities and combat climate change. Unlike the Millennium Development Goals, which were largely assigned in a top-down manner in New York and Geneva, the SDGs were conceived more democratically after three years of deliberation by a group of representatives from 70 countries. In addition to government representation, there was a high-level panel that included representatives from civil society, the private sector and academia, alongside local and national governments. In fact, the U.N. conducted the largest consultation in its history to shape the SDGs. These conversations included thematic and national discussions in addition to door-to-door surveys that sought feedback from a variety of stakeholders.

Perhaps as a result of this collaborative process, one of the objectives calls for “responsive, inclusive, participatory and representative decision-making at all levels,” calling for a new type of civic engagement that isn’t limited to elections and includes citizens in local governance and political decision-making.

What does it mean to engage citizens in governance? That’s a tricky question, not least because the definition of governance varies immensely from country to country. This is in part because of different structural, political and societal frameworks. For example, several countries are resource rich but give citizens little say in how their wealth is allocated or managed. In Albania, Tanzania and Mali, for example, greater transparency and accountability for the extractive industries will be a key issue for more inclusive government.

The lack of a common definition of governance complicates ambitious global attempts toward political development, but the United Nations’ SDGs treat this diversity of opinions as a strength. Instead of imposing specific targets and the means to achieve them, the SDGs will rely on local governments and civil societies to forge their own paths toward nationally relevant targets. To this end, there are 48 countries taking part in the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative to create an international standard for the management of natural resource revenues. 

Porto Alegre citizens use the participatory budgeting program to decide how to spend about one-fifth of the city’s budget.

Bottom-up participatory governance predates the U.N.’s global initiative. Take participatory budgeting (PB), which lets citizens make decisions on budget allocations that affect their everyday lives. It started in 1989, in Porto Alegre, Brazil, and as of 2015, more than 1.3 million residents of Rio Grande do Sul state have participated, with upward of 200,000 people choosing to vote online. Porto Alegre citizens use the participatory budgeting program to decide how to spend about one-fifth of the city’s budget, or an average of $71.5 million per year. Now more than 2,500 cities use PB.

In Buenos Aires in 2012, the Net Party (El Partido de la Red) was formed to advocate for a special kind of participatory democracy (also known as liquid democracy), in which an elected representative responds directly to the population’s online voting preferences. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Tanzania, the widespread use of mobile phones has enabled citizen participation and decision-making on crucial governmental health and education initiatives. In crisis-ridden Greece, Athens has created SynAthina, an online crowdsourcing platform for proposing social and urban solutions, such as housing schemes for the homeless that are co-implemented with the mayor’s office.

Most of these successful endeavors share a commitment to multisector involvement: They are inclusive not only in their goal of citizen engagement but also in the way they make use of private companies, technology, civil society groups and formal government agencies to reach their objectives. And these collaborations are truly global. Local organizations and elected officials are sharing best practices, learning what works from one another and serving as models for others to emulate. From the Open Government Partnership, which has grown from eight to 66 member countries, to Bloomberg Philanthropies Mayors Challenge, which is lifting up best urban practices from Warsaw to Philadelphia, groups help one another share lessons learned, experiment and strengthen the overall quality of democratic governance. The U.N. SDGs can help give these practices the attention they deserve.

Opening up processes for more transparency and accountability and more inclusive governance carries risks. They don’t necessarily give citizens large amounts of power just by virtue of being adopted. Special interests don’t just disappear; authoritarian governments could theoretically push back if people seem too empowered. So it’s important that these initiatives include a commitment to a plurality of opinions and more democratic outcomes. As Center for American Progress senior fellow Molly Elgin-Cossart outlined in a recent paper, “To get serious about delivering on the promise to leave no one behind, commitment to principles needs to be accompanied by action, measurable objectives and rigorous analysis.” 

Nonetheless, they could create a window of opportunity to bring more democracy to localities, municipalities, countries and institutions around the world. Ultimately, though, it will be up to us — the people who elect our representatives — to hold them accountable to these lofty goals. That’s requires a lot more work than drafting resolutions in a U.N. conference room.

Hollie Russon Gilman is a civic innovation fellow at the New America Foundation. She holds a Ph.D. from the department of government at Harvard University; her dissertation is the first academic study on U.S. participatory budgeting. As the former White House open government and innovation adviser, she worked toward federally supported participatory budgeting. 

Aristodimos Dimitrios Iliopulos is a graduate public policy student at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs. He previously worked as a hedge fund analyst at Aksia and a global macro researcher at Eurasia Group. 

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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