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Tuesday, 5 April 2016


At the APFSD Bangkok discussion on CSO Engagement
Asia Pacific Forum on Sustainable Development 2016 (UNESCAP)
Panel Discussion (April 5, 2016; UN Centre, Bangkok)

Reflections from Datuk Dr Denison Jayasooria (Malaysia: KITA-UKM;PROHAM & ASEC/Ripess-Asia)


One major thrust of SDGs is the involvement of the stakeholders in the sustainable development process. As the major theme is “leaving no one behind” the policy thrust for involving all stakeholders is very significant. There is a need to build trust and a conducive environment for engagement. Recognising that SDGs is a joint responsibility, although the State is the primary mandate holder. Therefore States must facilitate and make resources available for meaningful engagement.

Malaysian Experience

On Oct 27, 2015 a number of CSO organisations hosted a discussion on SDGs and application to Malaysian society. We had a good cross section of CSOs participating. We drew together CSOs working in the service and development areas including youth and women based CSOs, also those involved in human rights issues and those addressing environment concerns. We had a representative of the Malaysian government on this panel who related the SDGs to Malaysian policies such as the Eleventh Malaysia Plan (2016-2020). A CSO report was published by KITA-UKM and a joint statement was handed over to the Minister in charge of the Economic Planning Unit (EPU) in Malaysia. The Minister responded positively and acknowledged this pro-active role and assured of CSO engagement in the SDG process.

The Malaysian government organised a National Symposium on SDGs on Feb 23, 2016 when they also released a review report on the MDGs noting the achievements and gaps. CSOs were invited as participants and a number were speakers on the panel. This is a healthy start however the Malaysian government is to announce the formal mechanism soon. We are hopeful that CSOs will be included at all levels such as planning, delivery, monitoring, impact assessment and evaluation.

Trends in the ASEAN region

At a sub-regional level there are two trends observed on challenges facing CSOs. While the ASEAN countries are open to CSO participation at the global UN process however at the sub regional level there are differences both at the national and sub regional process. Governments tend to be open to service and development based CSOs whom they see as complementing the social development mandate. However on human rights and environment issues especially when CSOs adopt a structural analysis approach which is viewed as critical, confrontational and political many countries close the access. Advocacy based on a rights framework is often not appreciated by certain state officials who see these as political action questioning their legitimacy. Therefore we must recognise this problem and ensure there is access to all types of CSOs working from the UDHR framework including civil and political rights.

In the Malaysian experience the CSOs involved in the Universal Periodical Review Process (UPR) were declared illegal by the Malaysian Ministry for Home Affairs. However the CSOs who did the shadow report had access to the UN UPR review process. In the SDG partnership and CSO engagement there must be a more open process so that member states must adopt the UN ECOSOC accreditation criteria for engagement at both sub regional and national engagements. This approach could resolve the Malaysian UPR experience where the Home Affairs took a very restrictive view of CSO engagement in the UN process.

ASEAN has formal processes but they seem to differ on CSO engagements such as the Asean Peoples Forum. Some ASEAN chairs are open, while others are not and in the case of some they would not want a CSO gathering during the ASEAN Summit while similar gathering with the private sector are well organised, coordinated and even participated by national leaders and senior officials. In 2015 Malaysia provided good space and funding for the CSO process  such as the CSO forum, however this was more restrictive in Myanmar (2014) and in 2016 not permitted in Laos. SDG consultations at both national and sub regional levels must be more engaging and open. UN ESCAP through the APFSD process could engage more formal spaces and monitor this as one specific indicator of engagement.

A second trend observed is the rise of right wing CSOs (religious, racial & ideological) using the democratic space to intimidate CSOs using the UDHR framework through verbal threats and acts of violence. These CSOs do not respect diversity of thought nor rights based approachon universal principles. Very often these groups seem to have the support of the political elites and enforcement seems to look the other side or act late in ensuring peace and order. The International community especially UN organisations play a role in monitoring these and ensure compliance to UN policies and statues on CSO engagement.

Engagement possibilities

Four possibilities could be explored at the national level which will have a positive impact at the sub regional and global levels.

One, there needs to be by-partisan parliamentary working group on SDGs at the national level. The SDG agenda could ensure close partnership and collaboration across the political divide. This parliamentary open process could also provide the space to CSOs for participation including presenting reports and reviews for policy analysis and formulation of new polices and allocation of resources.

Two, national governments could establish SDG Councils or Taskforce which must include CSOs along with representative from private sector, professional bodies and academicians. They could establish working groups that could be involved in planning, delivery, monitoring, impact assessment and evaluation.

Three, establishment of grievance mechanism at both national and sub regional levels like ASEAN. The role of National Human Rights Commission is most important adopting the Paris principles for independence and compliance to human rights norms. This provides the inquiry approach however other community mediation mechanism must also be established so that community in conflict and dispute could resolve them through non judicial process too. 

In the context of sub regional issues such as the plight of Rohingya boat people needed a more dynamic role of the ASEAN Inter-governmental Human Rights Commission. Now its TOR does not provide them the powers to receive complaints, undertake fact finding visits or conduct a sub-regional inquiry especially it involved cross boarder issues. Many such issues now impact migrant workers and indigenous people. CSO can play a major role in this especially in ensuring early excluded groups have access to the services and programs for their social mobility and empowerment.

Four, data gathering from the grassroots is a very important role. While governments undertake macro data gathering including the generation of disaggregated data, CSOs can provide a complementary qualitative data for example using a case study approach which is ethnographic. Social Solidarity Economy (SSE) based programs at the grassroots can best capture SDGs as they already undertake programs based on a number of key principles such as commitment to people development, profit generation for sustainability, care for the environment, good participatory governance, compliance to human rights and also adopting of good values such as dignity. Micro studies at the community based both rural and urban can complement statistical analysis. 

Currently ASEC/Ripess Asian partners are already undertaking such projects throughout Asia. Formulating a template based on SDG indicators could capture the salient pointers including success stories, barriers to inclusion and can serve as a reality check from the grassroots. A grounded research approach and methodology could be adopted and CSOs can play a major role in this regard.


CSOs today are highly motivated and have the vision for SDGs. They are a key player and therefore if formal spaces and resources are made available, this will be in the best interest of B40 communities who feel excluded and isolated. CSOs can be instrumental for the quick realisation of the SDG targets and indicators.

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