Achieving the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030 is an ambitious objective that Panama and 150 other countries undertook to pursue on their way to a more inclusive and sustainable future.
Although achieving them is a government commitment, the truth is that SDGs will be very hard to reach without the active participation of civil society organizations (CSOs), which include NGOs, academia, research centers, social enterprises and community-based organizations.
Specifically in the case of SDGs related to human welfare, such as poverty reduction, universal access to quality health care, nutrition, education and child and youth protection, the role of CSOs is particularly relevant.
According to a study by John Hopkins Center for Civil Society Studies, CSOs provide critical social services to the most vulnerable population groups, promote respect of human rights and fight for environmental protection. The same study indicates that CSOs have the commitment, knowledge and capacity to be a decisive factor in making SDGs achievable.
In Panama there are more than 300 social organizations operating at national level that are involved in the resolution of the country’s main social and economic challenges. In fact, a sizeable portion of Panama’s social infrastructure and community-based networks is supported by non-governmental organizations.
Their capacity to reach territories and ensure community participation and engagement makes them important partners in the design and implementation of social development projects. For example, at the IDB we work hand in hand with Nutre Hogar to ensure comprehensive early childhood care in rural and remote areas. Together with this organization, which has a 30+ year presence in Panama’s indigenous communities, we conduct the “Cuidarte” program that seeks to develop parental abilities and promote child development among children aged 0 to 3 years in the indigenous region Ngabe Buglé, which has the highest poverty and undernutrition rates in the country. Their knowledge of the social and cultural context, their close ties with local and traditional authorities, and their operational experience in the field makes civil society organizations such as Nutre Hogar a key element to secure the sustainability of social investments. This pilot experience will help to adapt the escalation of the project to the national level through the Social Development and Inclusion Program funded by the IDB in support of the Ministry of Social Development of Panama, potentially benefiting over 5,000 children.
CSOs also contribute to creating social capital by mobilizing the time and talent of thousands of volunteers. According to the 2017 National Survey on Volunteering, 21% of Panamanians practice volunteerism, and 42% of them through an NGO. Volunteerism creates bonds of trust and collaboration among people and promotes citizen participation, both of which are essential ingredients for the proper operation of democratic institutions.
But if Panama wants CSOs to continue being a force for change that promotes the achievement of the 2030 Agenda, it should include them in the formulation of policies, thus creating an enabling environment that helps to amplify their impact.
Initially, it is necessary to perform a stakeholder mapping by creating a unified database of the different organizations in existence, indicating their type, location, reach and services. Today, this information is scattered among at least 3 government agencies, which prevents creating partnerships, avoiding duplications and better channeling the scanty human and budgetary resources available. The IDB’s georeferenced platform WiConnect3 helps to determine who does what and where in the region’s development sectors, thus contributing to such a mapping. It is in the CSOs’ best interest to register and keep their institutional profiles updated so that public and private development partners can easily identify them and generate synergies to promote local development.
It is also important for to keep improving the technical capacities of CSOs. In addition to their knowledge of the field and their natural ability to build social and cultural relationships at local level, CSOs can gain opportunities and reach by training their members and optimizing their execution and accountability mechanisms.
A system of national measurements should be institutionalized in order to assess CSOs’ contribution to development. One of them is the incorporation of volunteerism measurement and its economic contribution to national statistical instruments in order to quantify the contribution and impact of volunteers to SDGs.
Additionally, it is important to create the conditions for CSOs to accomplish their mission. One specific step in that direction is to improve the efficiency and transparency of government requirements to legally create a CSO by providing public, accessible and timely information. Today, the process can take up to two years and no indication is ever provided as to the status of the process. Creating an information system that facilitates registration of an organization and compliance with fiscal obligations would save on transaction costs and remove the barriers to associativity in the country.
Furthermore, there is great potential for establishing public-private partnerships for the sustained provision of quality public services. Given their closeness to the population and their knowledge of the field, CSOs are in a privileged position to inform policy design based on their experiences and to bring services to poorly connected locations more efficiently. This is an advantage the public sector may leverage on in its efforts to close existing gaps. SDGs are a great opportunity for governments to work in conjunction with CSOs on the identification of barriers and challenges that hamper the achievement of SDGs and to set up common agendas for overcoming them.
Especialista de Protección Social y Salud, BID