As the mid-point for the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) nears, it’s clear that progress is far off-target. Multiple crises have helped build momentum to look at new ways of financing the SDGs, with reform of international financial institutions such as the International Monetary Fund and World Bank increasingly on the agenda. Civil society is a source of reform ideas and is working to advance the SDGs, but is stymied by rising civic space restrictions as well as the growth of conspiracy theories. States need to enable civil society to play its full role so they can work together to unlock change.

It’s sometimes hard to recall the optimism shared in 2015 when leaders of all 193 United Nations (UN) member states came together to endorse Agenda 2030 – a global plan for peace and prosperity. It set out 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), a comprehensive series of commitments to ensure social progress, economic advancement and environmental sustainability.

Almost halfway to the endpoint, crisis upon crisis has set back hopes of achieving the goals. There’s been the pandemic, the growing impacts of climate change and numerous conflicts, including Russia’s war on Ukraine, which has brought global economic repercussions. Globally, poverty, hunger and inequality aren’t shrinking – they’re growing.

The worst-hit countries are those that were already the most left behind. This could be seen during the pandemic: rich countries used their resources to mitigate economic shocks and vaccinate populations early, while poorer countries simply couldn’t follow suit.

With time running out, global south states are increasingly demanding big changes to unlock the resources needed to realise the SDGs.

Global financing under question

Mia Mottley, prime minister of Barbados, is leading the charge. At the last global climate summit, COP27, Mottley was prominent among those calling for an overhaul of the global financial system to expand the ability of institutions such as the World Bank to finance climate resilience.

With COP27 finally having committed to establishing a fund to compensate for the loss and damage caused by climate change – a longstanding demand of civil society and global south states – the question of how to finance loss and damage as well as adaptation to climate change and emissions cuts becomes ever more urgent, particularly since targets on climate financing have consistently been missed.

Further urgency comes from current high global inflation, which is pushing up interest rates. This is a crucial issue for the many global south countries burdened with high levels of debt, typically owed to multilateral lenders and other states. Currently 52 global south states are reported to be in debt distress or at high risk of being so – which means they’re unable or potentially unable to meet debt commitments. Last year it was reported that 22 such states are in Africa – 40 per cent of all African countries. Servicing debts – not even paying them off – may mean public service cutbacks and austerity policies that impact hardest on the poorest, taking countries further away from realising the SDGs.

There has to be another way. April saw the launch of the Bridgetown Initiative 2.0, a joint call between the UN and the government of Barbados for a large-scale SDG stimulus package to enable countries struggling with debt and liquidity to invest in the SDGs. The initiative also urged long-term reform of the international financial system.

Momentum is building to reimagine international financial institutions – particularly the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank, created to promote post-Second World War economic stability and reconstruction. They’re accused of failing to adjust to changed times and of standing in the way of, rather than enabling, sustainable development. If they were put at the service of addressing the climate crisis and realising the SDGs, the impact could be transformative.

There’s much room for improvement. The IMF has long been criticised for insisting governments adopt austerity policies in return for its loans, such as those made recently to Argentina, Sri Lanka and Zambia. Last year Oxfam found that 13 of 15 IMF COVID-19 loan programmes negotiated during the pandemic’s second year required spending cuts or the imposition of food or fuel taxes that would impact on poorest people the most. These actions are the opposite of what’s needed to realise the SDGs.

The World Bank, whose outgoing president, David Malpass, has been accused of being a climate denier, continues to provide funding for new fossil fuel projects, making a mockery of the Paris Agreement and SDG 13 on climate action. It’s criticised for overstating its contribution to climate financing and failing to offer adequate support for renewable energies and adaptation. Civil society has long called for the World Bank’s overhaul.

While the SDGs are globally owned, these two crucial financial institutions are dominated by wealthier states. Inequality among states is made explicit in their leadership. The convention is that the US government appoints the World Bank president while European states choose the IMF’s managing director. This means that so far every permanent World Bank president has been a US citizen and every IMF head a citizen of a European country. It’s an insult to the rest of the world to imply that the best people to lead the way keep coming from a minority of wealthy countries.

World Bank appointments are often partisan. Malpass was a Trump appointee who served in his election campaign. His face didn’t fit under the Biden administration, which recently put forward a replacement, Ajay Banga, who takes office next month. Banga was born in India but is, inevitably, a US citizen. He most recently played a senior role in a private equity firm and previously headed Mastercard. While the Biden administration has talked of the World Bank taking on more of a climate role, Banga is a financial insider who hardly looks like a change candidate. His appointment was made quickly and with a typical lack of consultation. It suggests a missed opportunity to start shifting the World Bank’s direction.

As it stands, these global institutions aren’t working in the interests of the world as a whole, as represented by the SDGs and the Paris Agreement. They must also be aware that states are increasingly looking for alternatives, including that offered by China, which is now the world’s biggest bilateral lender and is increasingly offering IMF-style emergency bailouts. China is accused of ‘debt-trap diplomacy’ – making loans that states struggle to pay back and using them for political leverage. The need for institutions that work in common interests – rather than those of particular states or groups of states – should be clear.

A potential roadmap towards change could be offered by a series of upcoming meetings, including a summit in Paris in June on a ‘new global finance pact’, the G20 summit in India in September, two high-level summits – one on the SDGs and one on financing for development – as part of the UN General Assembly, also in September, and the next global climate summit, COP28, in November and December, where recommendations on the implementation of loss and damage financing are due. Beyond that, the UN’s Summit of the Future, due to be held in 2024, is set to discuss how the multilateral system can meet the promises of both the UN’s Charter and Agenda 2030, and a fourth Financing for Development Conference is anticipated in 2025.

An opportunity is there – to either succeed or fail. By the end of this chain of meetings, there will only be five years left to achieve the SDGs. Like-minded states – those that have a lot of global power and those that have little, those with wealth and those in heavy debt – need to work together to seize the moment.

Need for civil society

It’s important that global south states be given much more say in decision-making and leadership of bodies such as the IMF and World Bank. The recent UN resolution to begin a process towards establishing a UN tax body, rather than leave global taxation decisions in the hands of only wealthy states as is currently the case, shows that steps to rebalance power are possible.

But this won’t be enough. Civil society needs to be involved.

Without civil society’s full and enabled role, there’s no hope of realising the SDGs.

The SDGs, at least in part, came from civil society. Civil society criticised their forerunner, the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), for being a top-down, elitist project. When the time came to look beyond the MDGs to set new goals, civil society was involved extensively. Consultation processes gave it considerable scope to organise, mobilise and work together to exert influence. The SDGs that resulted are much more rights-oriented and comprehensive, as well as universal, applying to every state. They explicitly recognise, in goal 17, the need for partnerships with civil society.

In the SDGs, states commit to respecting the fundamental freedoms on which civil society relies: goal 16 contains a commitment to ‘responsive, inclusive, participatory and representative decision-making at all levels’ and ‘protection of fundamental freedoms’.

The need to enable and involve civil society, recognised in the SDGs, is echoed time and again in international commitments on development and financing and was highlighted in the UN Secretary-General’s 2020 Call to Action on Human Rights.

And yet the reality since the SDGs were agreed is of an assault on civic freedoms in many countries around the world. The latest figures from the CIVICUS Monitor, our research initiative that tracks civic space conditions in 197 countries, shows that only around three per cent of the world’s population live in countries where civic freedoms are broadly respected, compared to the 85 per cent who live in 117 countries where these freedoms are now under severe attack. Among the typical attacks are restrictions on the ability of civil society organisations to receive and use funds – which directly limit the ability of civil society to help deliver the SDGs.

In these conditions, civil society can’t play the roles it needs to – to help implement the SDGs, monitor government actions and advocate for faster progress. The restriction of civic space affects not just goals 16 and 17 that specifically relate to civil society and civic freedoms, but all the goals, from the elimination of poverty to protecting ecosystems. Without civil society’s full and enabled role, there’s no hope of realising the SDGs, particularly when it comes to the excluded groups whose rights civil society stands for.

The backlash

Beyond financing and the restriction of civil society, there’s another growing challenge to realising the SDGs. The world has changed a lot since 2015. In multiple countries, right-wing populism and nationalism have surged. Basic assumptions about the values that underpin the SDGs have become questioned. Disinformation has mushroomed and now distorts every debate. The pandemic dragged many more people down conspiracy theory rabbit holes.

Ideas most people support, such as ending poverty and hunger and ensuring everyone has clean water and sanitation, are now being vociferously attacked by a highly agitated minority. The SDGs have been folded into endlessly accommodating, vast-ranging conspiracy theories.

Agenda 2030, and a forerunner, Agenda 21 on sustainable development, are being characterised as part of a plan to construct a ‘new world order’ consisting of a highly interventionist global government, totalitarian surveillance, the elimination of private property, the destruction of the family unit, an enslaved population and mass depopulation. The fact that the goals were agreed long before the pandemic and have been disrupted by it is easily brushed aside – the alleged conspirators are believed to have planned the pandemic and resulting vaccinations as part of their malevolent plans, often referred to as ‘the great reset’.

Fake documents circulate widely to add further fuel. Sometimes these fakes are based on distortions and biased reinterpretations of SDG texts and sometimes they’re outright lies, bringing in concepts and terminology that simply aren’t part of the SDGs. Even harmless symbols related to the SDGs – like the circular, multicoloured badge sported by conspiracy theory supervillains such as Bill Gates – are incorporated into lurid conspiracy theories.

Civil society, through its involvement in developing the SDGs and advocating for them, is also coming under attack. It’s vilified as part of a sinister global elite working towards evil ends.

Time to join the dots

There’s doubtless a hardcore circle of conspiracy theorists who’ll never be convinced about the true nature of the SDGs. But if those who are sceptical but open to persuasion are to be convinced, surely the way forward is to show that the SDGs are bringing tangible benefits to people’s everyday lives. That won’t happen without proper financing, and it also won’t happen without the ability of civil society to scrutinise development decisions and financing, and serve those who are hardest to reach.

It’s wrong that many of the same governments pushing for a financing breakthrough to deliver the SDGs are at the same time repressing civil society. They need to see the bigger picture and commit to working with civil society, and they need to do so before it’s too late.


  • States should commit to working in full partnership with civil society to realise the SDGs, including by opening up civic space.
  • States and civil society should join the call for reform of international financial institutions to focus on climate action and the SDGs.
  • All stakeholders should demonstrate the ways in which the SDGs are driving improvements in people’s lives as a way of overcoming scepticism about Agenda 2030.

Cover photo by John Angelillo/Pool/Reuters via Gallo Images