Partnerships for sustainability

By Siok Sian Pek-Dorji, from Bhutan Centre for Media and Democracy and CIVICUS member delegate to the EC Partnership Forum 2018.

pek1The energy was palpable as nearly 300 representatives of civil society and local authorities from across the globe gathered in Brussels on 26th July to discuss global partnerships. The aim was to strengthen partnerships so that we can make the world more sustainable and livable and to address the inequities so that “no one is left behind” in the 21st century.

“We’re all supposed to be singing from the same hit list” said one of the panelists – reminding the participants of the urgency of developing meaningful collaborations to make the Sustainable Development Goal’s (SDG) vision of the United Nation’s Agenda 2030.

The premise is that these partnerships, and indeed, the SDGs, will be a game changer. The 193 signatory countries are supposedly aligning their national goals with the SDGs – at least the developing countries are. And they have another 12 years to achieve them.

The partnership forum, supported by the European Union, provides a critical platform for countries to come together to discuss the goals we have adopted. The forum reminded us that we’re all relying on one another to create this global movement of change, while we also need to focus on specific needs in our own countries. There were calls for urgent work on gender equity and addressing women’s role in development. Recommendations were made to address the many discriminations that still exist.

CIVICUS, which publishes an annual state of civil society report warns us that the world is facing a shrinking civic space and a general decline in democratic space, polarising politics, and divided societies. It is not an optimistic picture but the voices at the partnership forum shows that civility remains in civil society space, and ideas and commitment abound. And that gives us hope for the future. All this is very relevant to Bhutan where civil society is emerging, slowly but surely.


A session at the forum focused on “Realising the transformational potential of the 2030 agenda and promoting an enabling environment”. This brought home the magnitude of the work that still needs to be done if we are to transform the model of development so it’s no longer “business as usual”.

The EU’s commitment to bring about systemic change is being demonstrated through strategic partnerships with civil society organisations and associations of local authorities at international and regional levels covering a range of critical issues today. These issues include good governance and decentralisation, anti-corruption, gender and rights, and decentralised cooperation.

The EU project highlights the critical role of civil society in the arena of global development and helps to amplify its voice in the development process. An implicit result of the partnership is the advancement of political, social and economic dialogue that will lead to greater understanding and, hopefully, deeper change.

For Bhutan, the forum highlighted the critical need for partnerships to address our own needs. The impetus provided by the government’s decentralisation push provides the right ingredients for a joint effort among government, civil society and local authorities to address societal needs. We are looking at growing social challenges and needs. While some people feel that civil society consultation merely constitutes a tick in the box for many in the development arena, we are at a juncture when civil society can be groomed to become active, effective, and critical partners in change for the “greater good” and the general well-being of the Bhutanese people.

A lesson for Bhutan is to go beyond the tendency of the state to drive all activities and the need to break down the silo-approach to development and create genuine partnerships across the board. Civil society partners are not just watchdogs or mere service providers, or simply agents of change. Civil society actors themselves must drop their hesitation and become a part of the journey and partnership for change. Without enhancing civic space, people will revert to our default mode of being mere recipients of development aid and services from the state.

At BCMD, we are reaching out to local governments in the towns of Paro and Samdrup Jongkhar through community development activities. The project aims to create more space for civil society actors to come together to work with local governments.

The many experiences shared at the partnership forum give us added encouragement. As a small country with a GNH (Gross National Happiness) development agenda that focuses on the well-being of people, Bhutan can make Agenda 2030 a possible goal. Its success depends on strong partnerships across sectors, something that needs urgent attention.

But we first need to address a fundamental change in mindsets so that civil society, local authorities, and private sector can work together on a common agenda for a sustainable future. We all need to “buy in” to the new paradigm and to think more holistically. Local governments and central authorities must make genuine effort to be more inclusive, and be open to partnerships with members of civil society and businesses.

As one panelist at the Brussels forum pointed out: “It is easier to produce “growth” and work for governments than to say we’re working for the next 30 years for the people of the world. We need to overcome our own personal behaviour to gain traction on the promises we see possible in Agenda 2030.”

Listening to the non-profits and civil society activists in Brussels, it is evident that there is much to do. And very little time in which to achieve the goals we have set for the world and for ourselves. But it is important that we begin, with the understanding that partnerships must go beyond mere funding. It is about co-creation, collaboration and co-ordination.

While we are generally optimistic in Bhutan, we ask the EU to conduct such a partnership forum in the landlocked kingdom so that we may expedite this change in mindset for the achievement of the sustainable development goals.

Bhutan has declared itself an “early mover country” and has prioritized the three goals in the medium term: Goal 1: Ending poverty in all its forms everywhere, underscoring the continued importance of poverty reduction; Goal 13: Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts, a commitment to the global community to remain carbon neutral for all time; and Goal 15: Protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, and halt and reverse land degradation and halt biodiversity loss.

The underlying emphasis is to leave no one behind.

Get to know more about the five CIVICUS members who shaped CIVICUS Delegation at the EC’s Partnership Forum.