Report: 4th SDG16+ Forum Asia 2024




Asia Development Alliance (ADA), together with partner organizations, organized the fourth SDG16+ Forum Asia to promote this goal’s approach to the implementation of the 2030 Agenda and to respond to common challenges in the spirit of global solidarity. 

Day 1 – Monday, 22 April 2024

The event aimed to facilitate conversations focusing on SDG implementation, foresight, and accountability to build a more just, inclusive, and peaceful world. In a context where the SDGs implementation is already halfway through and facing big challenges, this dialogue gathered inputs from participants on the future outlook, reflecting on current trends, potential difficulties, and opportunities for strategic innovation, particularly in governance and accountability. Some of the key questions for discussion included: What trends are creating pressure on civil society and their operations? How are we responding to these pressures? What approaches are we taking to tackle these problems? What challenges are we currently facing?


The first exposition was carried out by Jay Hung, CEO of Zhi-shan Foundation, Taiwan. His presentation touched on the challenges faced by civil society in Taiwan due to strained relations with China, discussed the broader geopolitical tensions between the two countries, and highlighted three main observations affecting civil society. First, travel between Taiwan and China has been becoming increasingly difficult, hampering exchanges and collaboration. Second, the term “civil society” is considered taboo in China, which has led scholars to use alternative terminology that limits the scope and activities CSOs can perform within the country. Third, the rise of misinformation and disinformation on the internet is a growing concern, with authoritarian regimes clamping down on speech while democratic countries struggle to manage extreme speech online. The speaker envisioned a future where AI technology helps identify misinformation, fosters smarter cross-cultural communication, and enhances transparency and accountability in governance. He also called for a deeper appreciation of civil society’s value in decision-making and governance, hoping for a world guided by truth, goodness, and mutual assistance.


The second presentation was led by Jamila Asanova, Executive Director of the Civil Society Development Association (ARGO), Kazakhstan, who addressed the trends and challenges faced by civil society in Central Asia. Some of the key issues of her exposition included the system trends impacting development, signals of change indicating potential shifts, and transformative recommendations for future support. Civil society in Central Asia, emerging post-Soviet Union, has been facing ethical and institutional challenges. The CIVICUS Monitor classifies the region as having a closed civic space, and while Kyrgyzstan and Mongolia have joined the Open Government Partnership, other countries face limitations due to human rights issues. The Universal Periodic Review (UPR) mechanism provides a platform for human rights evaluations, with ongoing negotiations between governments and human rights organizations. Moreover, external geopolitical influences from Russia, China, Afghanistan, and Iran pose significant challenges for CSOs, along with domestic issues such as narrowing civic space and restrictive laws on foreign representation. Asanova calls for a paradigm shift from SDG implementation to new goals, strengthening innovation and think tanks, creating cross-sectoral platforms, and building local NGOs’ capacity to directly implement development programs. Collaboration and capacity building are crucial for addressing regional and global challenges, with a focus on human rights, equal opportunities, and regional development initiatives.


Afterwards, there was an intervention made by Urantsooj Gombosuren, Chair of the Centre for Human Rights and Development (CHRD), Mongolia. She spoke about the challenges faced by her country, positioned between Russia and China, in maintaining neutrality, especially during the Russia-Ukraine conflict, keeping in mind the solidarity with people advocating against war. Although civil society in Central Asia has been growing, in Mongolia, organizations are still experiencing significant capacity gaps between urban and rural areas, especially in terms of advocacy. Additionally, Mongolia is undergoing significant legal reforms, with around 40 laws being revised following a constitutional review. Gombosuren stresses the need for local civil society to engage in these reforms and for the upcoming elections, in particular in the fight against corruption and the implementation of a new National Action Plan on Business and Human Rights.


Invited speakers from Korea and Japan contributed to the discussion, emphasizing the  importance of promoting peace and justice in Northeast Asia. Also, they spoke about the need for solidarity and mutual understanding among CSOs in Asia, advocating for increased communication and collaboration to address regional and global issues effectively.


Aoi Horiuchi, Senior Advocacy Officer of Japan NGO Center for International Cooperation (JANIC), as well as Deputy Director of THINK Lobby, was in charge of the closing remarks. He highlighted the spirit of cooperation and active participation seen during the event, and encouraged ongoing dialogue in future forums and summits. 


Day 2 – Tuesday, 23 April 2024


The following session of the SDG16+ Forum Asia had the objective of engaging in strategic conversations about the future of the civil society sector, reflecting on current trends and how they may evolve to shape the work of Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) in Asia and globally. Participants aimed to collaboratively identify signals of change, challenges, and opportunities for strategic innovation, with a special focus on governance and accountability. The discussion also highlighted the concerns regarding regression of specific SDGs, particularly SDG16 and SDG13, and the lack of progress on SDG5. Other topics that were to be discussed were the decreasing funding for CSOs, shrinking civic spaces, and the absence of crucial voices from community levels, calling for solidarity and proactive engagement in shaping a more inclusive and accountable future for civil society.


Zia-ur-Rehman, National Chair of the Pakistan Development Alliance, was the first participant to open the discussion, examining challenges that civil society in Asia is facing. He shared striking figures, like the fact that 80 million people are living in Asia with less than $1 a day, and 1.7 billion below $2 a day. This information indicates severe economic inequalities and a growing disconnect between state and society, which is exacerbated by states prioritizing their agendas over societal needs, and eventually leads to the criminalization of human rights defenders and shrinking civic spaces, particularly in South Asia. In recent years, populist nationalism has become stronger throughout the region, and attacks on democracy are prevalent, with state institutions often supporting state narratives, further marginalizing civil society. To address these issues, Zia emphasized on the need for civil society to reclaim civic spaces, re-embrace rights-based approaches, and collaborate on common platforms to mobilize resources and advocate for freedom of expression, association, and human rights.


The following participant was Iwan Misthohizzaman, Executive Director of International NGO Forum on Indonesian Development (INFID), who structured his presentation around trends, changes, and transformations affecting civil society and global development. As context, Iwan mentioned the multidimensional crisis resulting from COVID-19: the pandemic has also been used by some groups to spread misinformation, leading to an “infodemic” situation. Additionally, the United Nations has raised concerns regarding the prolonged and unequal economic recovery, with millions falling into poverty. This is why a call for better global collaboration is urgent to mitigate the adverse effects of the crisis.


Two points the speaker focused on were the relevance of humanitarian assistance and the slow progress regarding the expansion of rights and opportunities for women. He mentioned that the current funding for humanitarian operations is insufficient and highlighted the need for increased support, since currently funds only meet between 50 and 60% of the required amounts. Also, on gender equality, he exposed that there are still big challenges to face, which, without accelerated actions, will be very hard to overcome. 


Furthermore, the speaker points out the severe financial challenges faced by many CSOs, particularly in Indonesia, which threaten their operations and ability to contribute to SDG16+ goals. To address these issues, Iwan suggested a number of transformative actions, including: adopting a rights-based approach to reduce international development disparities, ensuring that basic needs and protections are met, and putting civil and political rights in the forefront to eradicate poverty, with global monitoring mechanisms established. Increasing investment in resilient infrastructure and systems is also essential, together with the strengthening of actions to protect civilians before, during, and after conflicts. His last point was the importance of donor collaboration as a key way to effectively address challenges and support the global SDG 16+ fund.


Ahmed Swapan, Executive Director of VOICE, from Bangladesh, gave the next presentation, which discussed the most important issues facing civil society and democratic institutions in  South Asia and the Asia-Pacific region. As a starting point, he mentioned the general trends of shrinking civic space in the region, as documented by the CIVICUS Monitor, with freedoms of expression, assembly, and association being severely restricted. This decline is evident in both physical and digital spaces, in the context of a broader democratic deficit in the region, as democratic values and institutions continue to weaken, and lead to increased human rights violations and social divides, including gender-based violence. The state of public institutions was also discussed, as they are increasingly dysfunctional, undermining accountability, transparency, and public participation. As a conclusion, the speaker highlighted the importance of solidarity and collaboration among civil society actors to address these multifaceted challenges, despite the growing authoritarianism and populist trends supported by segments of the population.


Later, there was a questions and answers session, where the importance of citizen participation in democratic processes was discussed. Zia-ur-Rehman argued that citizens should have the ultimate authority in deciding their governance and leadership through democratic processes, but this is sometimes challenged by military forces or other establishment institutions that frequently disrupt democracies. Moreover, he mentioned another significant problem, which is the lack of involvement of citizenship in state agendas and development processes, since governments often exclude citizens from these discussions. He stated that it is only through active engagement that societies can ensure effective decision-making and leadership that reflect the true needs and aspirations of the people.


When asked about the ideal visions for the future, the speakers had different perspectives. Iwan emphasized the need for evidence-based information and advocacy to ensure that initiatives are well-received and accepted by stakeholders with minimal resistance. By relying on research and surveys to provide solid evidence, he believes that the civil society can build trust and credibility, making their advocacy efforts more effective and impactful. Moreover, Ahmed discussed how despite challenges related to political corruption, diminishing human values, and the reduction of development aid, he finds hope in the collective efforts of civil societies. He acknowledged the global tensions and crises but believes that continuous collaboration and advocacy by civil society can still foster positive change and keep their dreams and visions alive.


Finally, the closing remarks were led by Arjun Bhattarai, Secretary General of the NGO Federation of Nepal (NFN), thanking the organizers and emphasizing the importance of continuing discussions on civic space, peace, human rights, and democracy. He stressed the need for collective efforts among civil society leaders to advocate for better support and resources from donors and governments. They called for converting projects into campaigns to engage more people, especially the youth, and emphasized the urgency of working together to achieve SDGs and address other critical issues like climate justice.