If We Do Not Invest in SDG 16 We Risk Conflict and Sliding Back on All of the Other Goals

By Joanne Lu

In December, the Biden Administration closed out 2021 by sounding an alarm: Democracy is under threat around the world. If the world does not work to defend it, the president warned at his first Summit for Democracy, we will not be able to rise to the unprecedented challenges of our time.

Joe Biden is not the only one who feels that way. There is growing consensus among global leaders who are working toward the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that if we, as a global community, do not invest in SDG 16 – peace, justice and strong institutions – we risk conflict and sliding back on all of the other goals.

On the first day of Global Washington’s Goalmakers 2021 conference, on December 8, leaders from our community gathered online to discuss this very issue.

“When the system itself is unjust or unequal, you cannot maintain your precious development gains – you almost always plant the seeds for greater conflict [or] renewed violence,” Nancy Lindborg, President and CEO of the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, said in a panel discussion.

Laura Chinchilla, Costa Rica’s first woman president, agreed: “The purpose is not to build institutions for the sake of them. On the contrary, we are guided by higher principles and goals to which those institutions are meant to serve. This is why I consider SDG 16 the moral backbone of the 2030 agenda.”

SDG 16 is summed up as “peace, justice and strong institutions,” but the panelists warned about the pitfalls of this “bumper sticker” abbreviation.

“[Strong institutions] is a phrase that is open to misunderstanding and misuse,” said Betsy Anderson, executive director of the World Justice Project. “Institutions that are powerful, even authoritarian…, could be characterized as strong, and, of course, that’s not what we contemplate in SDG 16.”

Instead, Anderson says, we should look at the full text of the goal that UN member states signed onto: “Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels.”

Anti-corruption – one of the three focuses of the first Summit for Democracy, along with human rights and the rise in authoritarianism – is a key part of building effective, accountable and inclusive institutions. This is something the Chandler Foundation has been working hard to promote through its investments. For example, they support organizations like Open Government Partnership, which provides government officials and their partners with practical tools and resources – including more than 200 crowdsourced examples of policies and practices – that help keep governments transparent and honest. Similarly, Open Contracting Partnership helps governments adopt protocols for buying emergency equipment quickly and fairly, without favoritism, allowing government funds to stretch further.

Renewing Democracy – A Decade of OGP | Video: Open Government Partnership

The Chandler Foundation also helped launch the Chandler Sessions on Integrity and Corruption at Oxford University as an opportunity for government anti-corruption leaders to engage in peer exchange and learning.

Of course, data is also critical for governments and advocates to assess how well they’re doing. That’s why the World Justice Project publishes its Rule of Law Index every year. Through household surveys and interviews with experts, the index measures how rule of law is experienced and perceived throughout the world, and it’s shared across sectors with the intention to “encourage policy reforms, guide program development and inform research to strengthen the rule of law.”

Here again is a term that has been misused to justify authoritarian regimes and brutal crackdowns – what WJP executive director Betsy Anderson says is more like “rule by law.” Instead, she says, under the rule of law, “a strong institution does enforce laws and holds people accountable, but it also is accountable itself under the law. The law has to be clear, publicized, stable, and uphold human rights. And the processes by which that law is adopted and administered should be open and accessible.”

Such a system not only facilitates the achievement of all the other SDGs, but it also ensures that progress is inclusive and leaves no one behind. As Nancy Lindborg of the David and Lucile Packard Foundation mentioned above, effective, inclusive, and accountable institutions are also critical for maintaining peace.

We’ve seen, for example, how quickly Afghanistan fell to the Taliban as soon as the U.S. withdrew, in large part because corruption had undermined Afghanistan’s ability to develop effective institutions. The government of Afghanistan wasn’t able to create credibility, says Lindborg, and the people lacked confidence in it.

But as we also see in Ethiopia, when conflict breaks out, decades of progress can be reversed seemingly overnight. The World Bank estimates that by 2030, two-thirds of the world’s poorest people will live in conflict zones. That’s why humanitarian and development organizations like Mercy Corps not only respond to crises after they break out, but also facilitate peacebuilding. For example, in Nigeria, where climate change is driving conflict between farmers and pastoralists, Mercy Corps is helping these groups build trust in each through dialogue, mediation, and working together to address common problems.

Similarly, in 2019, the U.S. signed into law the Global Fragility Act, which aims to take a more proactive, long-term, whole-of-government approach “to help countries move from fragility to stability and from conflict to peace.” The bill includes for the first five years $200 million a year for a Prevention and Stabilization Fund and $30 million a year for a Complex Crisis Fund. It also requires 10-year strategies for five priority countries or regions.

Crowded market in Ethiopia

Crowded market in Ethiopia. Photo: Lesly Derksen, Unsplash

Amid a rise in global conflicts after decades of decline and other unprecedented challenges – like the pandemic and climate change – that are only exacerbating violence, efforts to promote peace, justice, and effective, inclusive, and accountable institutions are more important than ever. It may be the last Sustainable Development Goal, but it is foundational to maintaining – and accelerating – all of the progress we’ve worked so hard for as a global community.

The following GlobalWA members are working to build strong institutions and reduce inequalities in low and middle income countries.

The Chandler Foundation’s mission is to help build strong and healthy nations that provide all people the opportunity to unleash their creative and entrepreneurial potential. We believe that governments, when operating in service of their citizens, are the most effective accelerators of change. So, the Chandler Foundation invests in organizations working to reduce corruption and bolster public service capacities of governments in the Global South. We partner with organizations like Open Government Partnership, Open Contracting Partnership, and Chandler Institute of Governance. We also launched the Chandler Sessions on Integrity and Corruption at Oxford University to promote peer exchange among anti-corruption leaders from governments around the world.

We believe that talent is equally distributed, but opportunity is not. Rather than adopting a traditional model of “alleviating poverty,” the Chandler Foundation seeks to build the enabling conditions for upwards social mobility. We are currently developing this new area of work and are exploring the intersection between social mobility and inequality.

Landesa champions and works to secure land rights for millions of those living in poverty worldwide to promote social justice and provide opportunity. Deeply entrenched inequalities around gender, age, and Indigeneity reinforce the poverty cycle, but land provides firm ground to stand on. Secure rights to land lay the foundation for people to access other basic rights.

Landesa partners directly with governments to strengthen the institutions that develop and implement land laws. When land ownership is unclear, the potential for violence and conflict escalates in cases of migration and natural resource use. Secure and transparent land rights act as pillars of peace at the household, community, and national levels.

Landesa provides ongoing technical assistance to the Liberian government as it implements the national Land Rights Law passed in 2018. This includes supporting the Liberia Land Authority to develop legal and institutional frameworks that promote inclusion of women and youth, along with gender-responsive policies and regulations to enhance implementation. A focus on national and county government capacity building offers training opportunities for young Liberians and ensures gender-responsive land reform can continue successfully into the future. Beyond government partnership, Landesa also builds capacity of civil society groups to raise legal awareness and foster implementation of the Land Rights Law that is responsive to climate change, gender, and youth. Learn more about Landesa’s work in Liberia.

Oxfam America is a global organization that fights inequality to end poverty and injustice. We offer lifesaving support in times of crisis and advocate for economic justice, gender equality, and climate action.

We seek to reduce inequalities and promote peaceful and inclusive societies throughout our work. Our Commitment to Reducing Inequality Index ranks 158 governments according to their social spending, tax and labor policies to fight economic inequality. In many of these countries we work with partners to hold government accountable for progress in these areas. In doing so we defend the ability of people to organize and speak out without fear by strengthening partners’ resilience and effectiveness, building political support for freedoms of speech and association, and advocating for protections of partners under threat. Globally, we advocate for resource transfers from rich to poor countries. We tell truth to power in our annual reports around the global elite’s Davos meetings, including by challenging corporate power. We also work collaboratively with governments committed to just and inclusive societies, notably through Pathfinders for Peaceful, Just and Inclusive Societies, a multi-stakeholder initiative that seeks to accelerate action at the intersection of SDG16 and SDG10 through research and dialogue.

Pangea Giving works to be a catalyst for peace, social, and economic justice. As a giving circle, we share our time and resources to form trusting relationships that impact change around the world. Three key steps we take are:

Central to Pangea’s mission is the commitment that our grants fund the self-defined needs of communities. We work with grassroots organizations that are embedded in communities and engaged in work that addresses their needs. We do not limit our support to any particular issue; however, most of our work is focused on four pillars: climate and environmental justice, gender equity, children’s rights and education, and indigenous rights.

We believe that establishing transparent and supportive relationships with our partners, and continuously learning from our interactions, are essential to making lasting impact.

Seattle International Foundation (SIF) is guided by a vision of just, peaceful, and prosperous societies in Central America. From our 14-plus years working in the region, we recognize that the foundational pillars of strong societies are championing good governance and strong rule of law, supporting a vibrant civil society, fostering equity and inclusion, and addressing the root causes of migration and displacement. We support and strengthen local civil society actors who understand their communities and countries best, and are the frontline in the fight against corruption, impunity, inequality, and human rights violations.

SIF makes financial grants and provides technical support to civil society actors, including independent media outlets, youth social movements, activists, and other organized civil society members. To complement our grantmaking, we intentionally create spaces for actors across the region to convene securely and build supportive peer networks; advocate and amplify issues in Central America to US policymakers and in broader public stages; and engage philanthropic donors interested in Central America to encourage investment. We believe that these approaches, combined with the sustained efforts of civil society in Central America, are the best way forward, especially in this politically and economically challenging era.

Spreeha transforms lives by empowering people in communities to thrive through healthcare, education, skills training, and economic opportunities. Spreeha envisions people empowered to permanently break the cycle of poverty.  We deeply engage with communities to build trust and understand the problems they face.  Spreeha’s work as an institution builds on its core values of empathy, innovation, agility, continuous learning, partnership and integrity.

In Bangladesh, through a holistic approach of healthcare, education, sills training and economic opportunities, Spreeha empowers children, women and men in the underserved communities. Spreeha’s healthcare and telehealth services offer access to healthcare for communities in urban slums and remote areas. This especially provides access to healthcare for pregnant women.  Preschools program introduces learning at an early age, and provides a level playing field for children living in urban slums. After-school program helps students to succeed and prevents school dropouts, a common concern for slum area students. The adolescent girls’ club and leadership programs for teenage girls and boys empower adolescent students with leadership skills, social justice, civic responsibilities and individual rights. The work of providing access and opportunities empowers communities, creates a lasting impact, breaks the cycle of poverty, and reduces inequalities.

Sukarya is a woman led, women centric and women focused organization, and has been strongly advocating for women empowerment and place them at the center of the development curve, equipping them with education, life-skills, training and career opportunities since last two decades.

Be it Education on Wheels, skilling of women, leadership training of adolescent girls or providing maternal and child health services are designed keeping in mind their intergenerational challenges. It works with women at individual/group level to build their self-esteem and self-worth. By providing education, life skills, awareness about their body, surroundings and rights, countless women have learnt to tackle complex emergency situations. We stand by our communities and this came into play most impactfully during COVID-19 pandemic.

Through the two years of COVID-19, handholding support, reassurance and guidance have been provided to families ravaged by the pandemic. By creating awareness, providing timely relief, addressing daily needs with COVID-19 hygiene kits and food packets with dry rations, Sukarya has also been consistent in its advocacy for vaccines, ensuring families are fully vaccinated. From printing advocacy materials to organizing trainings (online and offline), making household visits and WhatsApp groups, and encouraging and shaping community leaders, not a single day passes when Sukarya team is not there for its communities.

At the core of Sukarya’s work is to help build resilient communities that can weather all storms and upheavals, boost PPP initiatives and NGO sector at grassroots to help existing government programs scale-up ensuring voices of minorities, especially women and adolescent girls, find a place in the larger public dialogue and policy framework.

Women’s Link Worldwide is a transnational feminist organization that uses the power of the law to advance the human rights of women and girls. We use the law creatively to help judges understand the problems women are facing and issue decisions that contribute to reducing the inequality women experience. Our focus in on advancing access to sexual and reproductive health services and protection when women are victims of gender-based violence.

The strategic legal actions Women’s Link undertakes have the potential for broad impact, not only for the women we represent, but also for the communities in which they live. For example, in response to our lawsuit, a court in Colombia recently ordered that various health authorities take immediate measures to protect the sexual and reproductive health of women in Norte de Santander (which borders Venezuela), including migrant women.

In another legal action with allies in Guatemala, we called on judicial authorities to guarantee rights in the midst of the pandemic. The authorities adopted our recommendations to extend operating hours of courts that deal with violence again women, extend protection measures for women who are victims of violence, and called for a protocol for the functioning of the judiciary in the current crisis.

Our work strengthens institutions by providing the judiciary with opportunities to issue rulings with a gender perspective that in turn help authorities and governments guarantee women and girls their rights to live free from violence and discrimination and to have full autonomy over their bodies and their decisions.

The World Justice Project is an independent, multidisciplinary organization working to advance the rule of law around the world. Effective rule of law reduces corruption, combats poverty and disease, and protects people from injustices large and small.

The World Justice Project’s research and analysis includes the annual World Justice Project Rule of Law Index®, the world’s leading source for original data on the rule of law.  The 2021 Index draws on more than 140,000 in-depth household and expert surveys to measure rule of law in 139 countries and jurisdictions around the world.

In its role as convener of the international, multi-stakeholder rule of law movement, the World Justice Project and its partners will host World Justice Forum 2022: Building More Just Communities in the Hague and online, May 30 – June 2, 2022.

Yemen Relief and Reconstruction Foundation Yemen has been at war since 2015. The Yemen Relief and Reconstruction Foundation (YRRF) has been involved in life saving relief efforts throughout the country. Disastrous blockades of lifeline ports coupled with indiscriminate continuous bombing campaigns have produced an historically unprecedented humanitarian crisis with extreme food insecurity and a destruction of many of the services, including health and education. The Foundation has been critical in providing food, medicines, and other aid. YRRF supported activities related to COVID19 response to health facilities and the major public health laboratories.  Moreover, YRRF continues to provide much needed medicine, equipment, and supplies to public health facilities, supports schools and students, focusing on the vulnerable and underserved populations, and supports families with income generation projects to facilitate their independence.  We reduce inequalities by delivering our services to remote, hard to reach villages across the rugged geography. We emphasize the disenfranchised including the internally displaced persons sheltering in camps. We also partner with other organizations to advocate for peace and to end US support to the war. Our vision is Peace for the people of Yemen and the preservation of their institutions to allow them to enjoy the security and well-being currently beyond their reach