‘We are living in unprecedented times’ is a phrase that has entered our taxonomy since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. This is, in many respects, certainly true. However, restrictions on civil society participation and threats to human rights defenders are neither unprecedented, nor new, but are in fact growing trends. CIVICUS reports that 87 per cent of the global population are now living in nations where civic space is deemed closed, repressed, or obstructed. The meaningful participation and inclusion of peoples and civil society actors as the “real agents of change”, a principle at the heart of SDG 16, has been increasingly challenged over the last decade and this downward trajectory is having detrimental impacts on the most vulnerable among us.

According to the V-Dem Institute’s ‘Democracy Report 2021’, there is an “accelerating wave of autocratization” affecting 1/3 of the world’s population – 2.6 billion people, and impacting developing and developed countries alike. This includes threats to freedom of expression and media, repression of civil society and disruption of democratic practices. Many of these challenges have been exacerbated by the ongoing pandemic. For instance, pandemic response efforts have seen an expanded use of emergency powers and laws infringing on the economic, social, cultural and political rights of different population groups. 60% of countries have regressed on basic rights in 2020 because of measures to tackle the pandemic. While necessary in many instances, there is a risk that – if unchecked, disproportionate, unnecessary, unjustified and not in accordance with law – these may lead to curtailment of human rights and civic space and these approaches will be the ‘new normal’.

The Secretary-General’s Call to Action for Human Rights identified public participation and civic space as one of the key areas to focus the UN’s attention. Under the overall aspiration of the Call to Action, the newly adopted UN Guidance Note on the Protection and Promotion of Civic Space emphasizes that more strategic and effective civic space action hinges on stepping up work around the “3 Ps”: participation of civil society in UN processes, protection of civil society actors through clear protocols and procedures, and promotion of civic space and participation in national decision-making processes, both online and offline.

In many ways, the 3 Ps are foundational to the work of the UN and the principles it espouses. A whole-of-society approach is a cornerstone of the 2030 Agenda and ensures that the SDGs address issues that really matter on the ground. And a ‘whole of government’ approach to localizing and achieving the SDGs is equally essential to create space for civic participation. This involves engaging local and regional governments and institutions as well as continuing to connect with local human rights organizations and statistical offices. The business community is becoming aware of the value of the civic space in defending fundamental freedoms and strengthening the enabling environment and ensuring that everyone has the opportunity to participate in, promote and protect it.

Meaningful participation in global reporting mechanisms such as the High-Level Political Forum (HLPF) and its follow-up, can be an example of how both ‘whole of government’ and ‘whole of society’ approaches can be deployed. They can be critical to accelerate SDG delivery and, by including civil society and citizen engagement, meeting the commitment to ‘leave no one behind’. Here we can look to the inclusive process that the Government of Malawi used in the drafting of its very first Voluntary National Review (VNR) at the 2020 HLPF.

Even though the VNR process was conducted in a challenging environment, especially due to COVID-19, the Government through its National Planning Commission helped ensure the process was inclusive, transparent, and benefitted from active participation of the UN system, NGOs, academia, and other key constituencies. Information gaps, which were identified in a VNR drafting retreat were addressed through stakeholder engagement, consultation, and workshops as well as online surveys, informant interviews, and case studies. Disaggregated data was, to the extent possible, collected and validated through a series of consultations, including with Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Intersex (LGBTI) groups and Persons with Disabilities to affirm their knowledge and substantive participation in Malawi’s SDG process.

Malawi’s VNR process and the UN’s Guidance Note on the Protection and Promotion of Civic Space teach us that open civic space and inclusive processes are not only principled measures in their own right, but preconditions to achieve more inclusive and sustainable outcomes. In light of this ensuring more equitable and inclusive COVID-19 recovery processes will require deliberate and sustained efforts to achieve structural change, not only among power holders and decision-makers but among individuals and groups across all sectors of society. And acting on the “3 Ps” – participation, protection, and promotion – is a good and necessary place to start.