Social, economic transformations needed even more, as another HLPF convenes

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The High Level Political Forum (HLPF) on Sustainable Development convenes again this July, with the theme “Empowering people and ensuring inclusiveness and inequality.” Different trends today—the continuing extractive economic paradigms, threats to the democratic rights of civil society and people’s organisations, as well as urgent ecological concerns—all challenge the agenda of “leaving no one behind.”

The challenge of inclusion and empowerment

An International Trade Union Confederation report on 145 countries shows threatened workers’ rights globally: with 85% of countries violating the right to strike, 80% denying the right to collectively bargain, and with unionists killed in at least 10 countries (Bangladesh, Brazil, Colombia, Guatemala, Honduras, Italy, Pakistan, the Philippines, Turkey and Zimbabwe).i

The killings of unionists also point to a broader trend of shrinking democratic spaces for rights defenders. For the year 2018, 321 rights defenders have been killed, with Colombia, Mexico, the Philippines, and Brazil leading the list, and with 77% of those killed being activists for land, indigenous peoples’ and environmental rightsii whose work are crucial in prospects of grassroots-led, people-centred and sustainable development.

The disproportionate impacts of the climate crisis

Furthermore, peoples of the global South are among the worst affected by the ever-worsening climate crisis. The poorest half of the world population is responsible for only 10% of emissions, in contrast to the richest 10 people responsible for 50%.iii Of the 10 countries most affected by extreme weather events from 1998 to 2017, 8 are low and low-middle income countries.iv “Developing countries will bear an estimated 75% of the costs [of the climate crisis].”v On the other hand, only 100 corporations are responsible for 52% of emissions since the industrial


Despite these, a 2019 report even said that a new billionaire rises as the poorest 50% of the world population lose 11% of their wealth.vii Corporations especially from “developed countries” still continue to flourish. Of the 100 biggest non-financial multinational corporations (MNCs) in 2018, 19 were from the United States, 14 are from the United Kingdom, 13 from France, 10 from Germany and 9 from Japan (with 6 corporations from China).viii

Further, inequality between countries also manifests in resource extraction. High income countries dominated the trade in biomass, fossil fuels, metal and non-metal minerals in 2017, as they account for the transfer of 11.8 billion tonnes of “primary [resource] extraction from elsewhere in the world.”ix This led a recent report to declare that “economic activity in high-income group of countries depends on very large and increasing levels of extraction of primary materials in other countries [of lower income].”

Urgency of transformative shifts

There is only over a decade before the target 2030 deadline for the sustainable development agenda. Therefore, the above challenges are ever-urgent as the HLPF 2019 tackles SDGs on education; inclusive and sustainable economic growth, and decent work; inequality within and among countries; combating climate change and its impacts; on peaceful and inclusive societies, access to justice and inclusive institutions; and finally, as per every year, the means of implementation to the SDGS (e.g., financing, partnerships).

Systemic change for sustainable development

Trends so far present the need for comprehensive and systemic changes. Experts indeed see a need for "a fundamental, system-wide reorganization across technological, economic and social factors, including paradigms, goals and values.” A genuine system change would understandably encounter opposition from “those with interests vested in the status quo," such as corporate giants, elites and benefiting governments, but also that "such opposition can be overcome for the broader public good.” x

Transformative shifts—away from neoliberal norms, the monopolistic and extractive capitalism and elite leadership in governments—are required at local, national and international levels. A corresponding people-centred sustainable development, on the other hand, requires the basic reversal of shrinking civic spaces. It must work with the people’s organisations and civil society already asserting the rights of workers, farmers, indigenous peoples, the urban and rural poor, including the right to social services and the right to shape national development paths. It must therefore create room for the active and substantive participation in development and governance processes, founded on people’s sovereignty. #