Bringing the sustainable development goals home

Posted on 27/03/2017
By Commonwealth Foundation
Namhla Mniki-Mangaliso

The Commonwealth Foundation (CF) spoke to Namhla Mniki-Mangaliso about her role in domesticating and implementing the sustainable development agenda in African countries. Namhla is the Director of Africa Monitor, which currently acts as the Africa Working Group (AWG) secretariat, a broad regional coalition of African civil society organisations. The Commonwealth Foundation has funded and supported AWG since 2014.

CF: Namlah, welcome to the Foundation. Could you start by introducing Africa Working Group (AWG) and the Africa Monitor’s role as secretariat?

Namlah: Thank you so much for having me. Africa working group is a coalition, or let me say it’s a platform, of well over 150 civil society organisations operating in Africa, working on various aspects of sustainable development. We’ve been in existence for the last 4-5 years and working to make sure we can inform and shape the evolution of the sustainable development agenda in Africa. We started during the negotiation process and now we are very well positioned as civil society […] to influence the accelerated implementation and domestication of the sustainable development goals [SDGs]. African Monitor is one of the founding members of the working group and is also the secretariat. Our work at the organisation is to enhance sub-Saharan African citizen agency […] to build the capacity of ordinary citizens to engage well with their governments. And so there is a complete alignment with what we do and the intentions of the African Working Group in making sure that African Civil Society is engaged and influences the policy direction that Africa takes as it correlates to the sustainable agenda.

CF: What are the benefits and constraints of the work of the AWG as a loose association of organisations?

Namlah: It is a loose network. We did not want to institutionalise it and turn it into a [formal] organisation: it is a coming together of a multitude of organisations. […] We wanted the likeminded to come together, as long as they care about sustainable development and as long as they cared about improving the real lives of people on the ground in Africa. I think the benefits have been the automatic commitment that organisations have to the cause because it is the coming together of the likeminded. The way that things happen in the African context is that there is a lot of influence in the collective […] you can achieve a lot more if you operate as a collective than if you operate as individual organisations. […] The challenge I think has been to work through how then do you put in place systems for accountability, governance and transparency. How then do you make decisions? Particularly the strategic [decisions] around what you focus on. And I think we had to be very careful in […] how you govern and coordinate, how you spread the responsibility of doing the […] work throughout the members. But I dare say that we’ve done much of that now. The AWG has a secretariat, there are core group of organisations that are Founding advisory members, there are working groups within the AWG, and there are co-chairs within those working groups. And so there are continuous processes of engagement, we do [web conference] calls and those kinds of things, so that we are continuously talking […].

CF: The Commonwealth Foundation supported AWG engagement with colleagues at the UN in New York while the SDGs were being negotiated – could you describe that and tell us about the impact of that work?

Namlah: Let me contextualise New York a little bit. When we did the New York mission […] at the time the negotiation around the SDGS were starting and […] accelerating. The United Nations (UN) system is set up in such a way, that the African Group [AG], in other words the African ambassadors [had] no systematic engagement with […] African civil society, in fact there was barely any presence of independent African civil society within the UN system. And so the Commonwealth Foundation came at the perfect niche, the perfect time in terms of the support and the boost we needed to get going with what turned out to be a fairly important relationship that we established with the African Group. And that was about three years ago already now and I think since then, not only were we able to continuously engage with the African Group in New York to the extent that they now know who the AWG is, which means that we continued to have the political space to shape […] the sustainable development goals. What that means for us is that the perspective of African people, our constituents, found voice and space. We wanted to make sure that the agenda on the SDGs is about people, is about the poor, is about the excluded and the vulnerable. The terminology of ‘leave no one behind’ was at the core of some of the things that we were negotiating for. We wanted to make sure that there is a very strong focus on young people, because Africa is a young continent. And we wanted to make sure that there were real conversations around structural issues, that make economies function well, […] inclusive economies, economic justice and so on. And then we wanted to make sure that governance was a central part of the agenda and so some of the big, big achievements I think [reflect] what we had been fighting very hard for. So New York was the beginning of something that continued up to December 2015 where we continued to engage. What that meant was is that we had impetus, as the civil society network, to continuously position ourselves and get ourselves organised [and] to go back as civil society leaders and say there is a real need for our continued engagement in this space, and so how do we shape that engagement with the African Union [AU], how do we shape that engagement at the national level with our presidents and our ministers and so on and I would say that moment was a really important accelerant to the work we’ve been able to do since then, […]. I think once the negotiations were completed and September 2015 happened a number of other amazing things and big milestones were achieved, I can sit here and say in most of the countries that we work there are SDG civil society platforms that exist, that have in large part been initiated by African Working Group members. So whether you are thinking about Tanzania, Cameroon, Ghana or South Africa, the SDG platforms that exist in those spaces are in fact initiated and co-coordinated by AWG members. Beyond that civil society networks at the national level are actively engaging with their own governments to ensure that the SDGS are domesticated, that accountability and review mechanisms [are in place] to ensure that the SDGs are going to be implemented. Another angle that I think AWG are working very hard on is around the issue of data. In other words, what’s the role of citizens in producing the kind of data and knowledge that can actually inform and influence review processes? So citizen driven data is a strong element of what we’re working towards both to improve national accountability systems and therefore improve national governance mechanisms, but also to improve global and regional accountability.

CF: Why were Cameron and Tanzania selected to localise the SDG agenda and what have the successes and challenges been?

Namlah: So both Tanzania and Cameroon exist within the context [of] AWG […] working across all the major countries to ensure that the SDGS were domesticated. The civil society organisations both inside Tanazania and Cameroon are a part of the Africa Working Group, so we already had very fertile ground in relation to the engagement of civil society in those spaces. When we started last year we said that we wanted a pilot programme, something that essentially would give us a model on how civil society can engage in the domestication agenda. Now you must remember that the background to this is that we had spent three years in policy advocacy trying to shape the agenda, and then we were realising that it was time to implement and to make sure that it comes back to the national level. That meant a couple of things. It meant that there needs to be policy integration, that we need to take the 17 SDGs and make sure that they are integrated with the national development plans. There [also] needs to be the institutionalisation of multi-stakeholder systems that would make sure we can jointly plan and jointly make decisions and review the SDGs. And then implementation approaches so the SDGS can be implemented […]. Tanzania being in East Africa and Cameroon being in West Africa … also gave us a really nice spread in terms of the geography of the continent. We also wanted to make sure that we could learn from the results of what was happening in both of those countries and it’s been exciting because I think there are a couple of milestones that we can look at that have happened. The first of those, was can we make sure that civil society gets its act together and positions itself well to engage as a value creating partner in the SDG agenda? What does that mean? That essentially means the establishment of the civil society SDG platforms… this idea of saying that all of civil society […] engaged in the SDGS must come together and think creatively about how to effectively engage.

Interestingly in most of the countries, civil society has come to the same conclusion about their role in monitoring and review in the data processes, […] in joint planning, joint decision making processes… and that’s the first milestone that I think we were able to achieve in each of the countries. In Cameroon they developed what I think they called the civil society chatter that essentially was a framework of how civil society would engage with other stakeholders, particularly government in the SDG process both from the policy integration perspective and the joint planning perspective as well as the monitoring and review perspective. Interestingly in Cameroon, the government hadn’t begun to think about how it was going to engage with other stakeholders, and so the process that civil society started, with the support of the Commonwealth Foundation, eventually ended up being endorsed by the planning ministry as a way forward in terms of making sure that there was going to be multi-stakeholder engagement.
In Tanzania, a similar process unfolded where civil society set-up what they called the civil society SDG platform and developed a monitoring and evaluation framework that then was the basis for negotiations with government. Because the Tanzania government decided that the institute for sustainable development would be the lead agency for the domestication of the SDGS, they’ve got political commitment to establish a multi-stakeholder forum, where government, business and Civil Society Organisations come together to work on the SDGs. The AWG members that are presented as a part of the CSO collation.

So [these are] huge millstones that would not have happened if civil society wasn’t organised and hadn’t positioned themselves well. The big task is that it’s not enough to have the institutional systems in place, the SDGS are about implementation. What do you prioritise? How do you budget in such a way that those that are in the frontline are now in the position of benefiting from implementation and services? That’s what we are engaged in now […] now the institutions are in place, how do we prioritise, plan properly and implement so that we leave no one behind. The next 13 years is going to tell us how successful we are.

CF: What aspects of partnership with the Foundation have been valuable to the AWG and the localising process? What distinguishes the Foundation as a partner?

Namlah: I think probably the most important characteristic is something that we’ve found very difficult to get funders to understand, because funders work in very traditional ways […] they look for an organisation and they look for established track records and there is usually very little understanding of how change works in the African context: that you need to operate by coalition […] and the model of the African working group is very unique in that sense, because we are not an institution, we are the coming together of different organisations and networks that want to make an impact in Africa. I think what, for me, distinguishes the Foundation has been the ability to understand those organic processes and the willingness to listen to what would work and why we are organising this way […]. I think this fits in very well around the new strategy of the Foundation, which is around civic voices because it’s about understanding the very many ways citizens can organise themselves, in order to improve governance and in order to improve democracy, not for its sake but to make real impact in the lives of people. Being able to work together in that space and being able to co-lend and co-create together has been wonderful, and we talk about development effectiveness and the idea that the solutions for problems must come [from those] at the helm of those problems and I think that the Foundation has an amazing ability to come in, listen in, and say what are the big problems, what aligns with our strategy, what can we add value to, while leaving the decision making powers to those that are involved and I think that has been our experience. I mean we are talking about a modest sum of resources, but I think it has given us the impetus that we needed at critical moments […] to make important impact. I do hope that becomes the example [for] more funders […]. […] It is important to safe guard civil society and civic space in Africa, we can’t talk about democracy in Africa without talking about how you protect civic space […]. [Funders] understanding why that’s important, I think would make a huge difference.

CF: What does the future hold for the AWG in the context of civil society supporting SDG? Could you identify gaps and potential gains?

Namlah: The bottom line is that we want the lives of African people changed in radical ways, and […] while we are still in the continent with the most young people in the world, the most resources under the ground, we still are faced with absolute poverty, huge unemployment issues and huge problems with governance. The SDG framework provides an opportunity within which that can change, but that’s not going to change by having the right policies in place, it’s going to change by implementation. And it’s our job, because we are civil society and we are independent from governments, [that] we work as a value creating stakeholder within the sustainable development agenda. It is our job to hold our governments accountable, to make sure that the resources that belong to the peoples of Africa are actually used to benefit Africa. […] so we’re not just going to challenge the status quo at the national level, we’re going to challenge it at the regional level [and] you can be sure we are going to challenge it at the global level because we know that it is the global dynamic that creates the mess in Africa, in terms of global resources [being] used and stolen and hidden […] and I think that the responsibility of the network is to be useful, directly in the lives of people, but also […] in giving voice to Africa’s aspirations globally and regionally.

CF: Namlah, thanks for giving us this insightful interview.

Namlah: Thank you.