Populist Nationalism threatens progress on Sustainable Development Goals but NGO community can be the difference

The political pressures of populism and nationalism are threatening to push the pursuit of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) aside in the United States and elsewhere. The United Nations General Assembly’s annual meeting (UNGA), which kicks off this week, is an opportunity for the UN, civil society, philanthropy, private sector, and government partners to assess progress towards the SDGs in the series of side meetings that have become collectively known as Global Goals Week. In order to assure progress, this year’s Global Goals Week needs to dive in and examine how closing civil society space and increased nationalism threaten the multilateral and multisector path towards a better world outlined by the SDGs.

Deputy Secretary-General of the UN, Amina Mohammed, recently identified the core challenge to the SDGs by concisely pointing out that the world will not achieve the SDGs if it doesn’t choose, with shared ambition, to meet the challenges laid out by the goals. The rising wave of populist-nationalism runs counter to meeting the vision proposed by the SDGs by prioritizing a world where many care only about their immediate surroundings, not helping humanity at large through partnership and collaboration. The Trump Administration’s disregard for the UN, and its focus on an ultra-transactional foreign policy, underscore this trend.

The SDGs, through promoting a world that provides for all and increases everyone’s human dignity, do represent a possible solution for the anxieties that fuel populist-nationalism. The goals are a comprehensive outline of objectives towards increasing global equality, prosperity, and justice for all and identify real solutions towards the social and economic challenges that often fuel resentment and conflict. They are among the most broadly endorsed goals in human history and rely on civil society leadership, not just the leadership of those in power.

As representatives of civil society, InterAction members are actively engaged in advancing the SDGs and participating in the Global Goals Week meetings across myriad topics. The NGO community has a key role in ensuring that the world stays on track towards achieving the SDGs through our global initiatives and activist voice. Additionally, when the private and philanthropic sectors make commitments towards achieving the SDGs, NGOs and other parts of civil society need to be at the table to ensure that human need and dignity are at the heart of any proposed solutions. But perhaps the biggest role the NGO community can play to help achieve the SDGs is to model best practices.

Possibly mirroring the U.S. government’s decreased use of the SDG framework, initial research by InterAction has shown that there has been less emphasis by U.S. NGOs in using the goals as a framework to measure and celebrate success. These organizations are still working towards and investing in the objectives spelled out by the SDGs and engaging in related conversations, but the progress is not being spelled out in terms of the universal framework provided by the goals. If the U.S. NGO community disregards the message of uniting towards a shared vision of a better world, as represented by the SDGs, we may decrease our opportunities to partner with others for greater impact on eliminating extreme poverty, promoting greater justice, and protecting the environment.

Global Goals Week presents an opportunity for the NGO community to recommit itself towards reaching the SDGs and offer a positive vision of international partnership. It is important that we take our seat at these meetings, seek constant improvement, make commitments, and call on others to ensure that the conversation remains focused on people, their needs and rights.