Framing Civil Society Participation in the UN Sustainable Development Goals

Joanna Horton and Dr Kiah Smith

In December 2021, we presented our paper ‘Framing Civil Society Participation in SDG2 Zero Hunger’ at the Global Food Governance Conference, hosted by the Global Centre for Legal Innovation on Food Environments, Charles Perkins Centre, and The George Institute for Global Health. This paper examines the role of civil society in processes of SDG implementation, asking: How can ordinary people, grassroots movements, and community organisations enact the SDGs in local contexts? Are there mechanisms to ensure the meaningful participation of these actors – in accordance with the SDG commitment to ‘Leave No One Behind’ – or are they locked out of the process?

To explore these questions, we read and analysed six key policy documents[i] relating to SDG implementation. We wanted to discover the overarching approaches recommended for implementing the SDGs, and particularly how these approaches understand the role of civil society organisations. Specifically, we used inductive frame analysis to uncover the ‘problem-solution’ narratives of these documents: that is, how they presented the ‘problem’ of SDG implementation, and what their proposed solution was. The analysis also included consideration of the key vocabulary, concepts, metaphors, and imagery used in constructing these narratives. Through this analysis, we uncovered five main frames relating to SDG implementation:


The Empowerment frame rests on the idea that SDG implementation must be owned and driven by ordinary people, particularly the poorest and most vulnerable. While it tacitly accepts that previous development agendas have largely failed in this regard (that is, people have been left behind and left out, particularly those already socially disadvantaged), it positions the SDGs as a chance to address this by enacting inclusive and people-driven development. The level of empowerment and inclusivity in implementing the SDGs is taken to be its major metric of success; however, there are few details on how to actually achieve this.

Limits of Government

This frame suggests that the scale and complexity of challenges under the SDG remit are too major for government alone to address, and that the private sector can fill the gap in partnership with governments and communities. While the rhetoric of ‘partnership’ is widely used in this frame, much more emphasis is placed on business as a ‘key actor’ in ‘delivering’ the SDGs. While the Empowerment frame emphasises the power of civil society in shaping and implementing the SDG agenda, this frame focuses more on the responsibilities of non-government actors in providing services that would generally be expected of government. If not actively fulfilling government’s role, civil society actors are framed as “pushing” government to make the necessary changes.

New Complexity

This frame emphasises the unprecedented challenges and complexity of sustainable development, which ‘old’ approaches are insufficient to address. However, rather than emphasising the private sector as the natural leader in responding to these challenges, this frame focuses more on the need to transition towards ‘system-based thinking’ or ‘transformational development’. There is a strong emphasis on collaborative multistakeholder partnerships between all sectors of society, and these partnerships are positioned as uniquely capable of addressing complex development challenges.


This frame acknowledges the SDGs as a global agenda, but argues that local authorities should have the power to put it into practice. While civil society has a role to play in localising the SDGs in this way, local governments are seen as the primary facilitators of its inclusion, responsible for ‘strengthening’ civic participation. Unlike the Limits of Government and New Complexity frames, this frame does not assign a major role to business actors in a multistakeholder implementation process. Rather, local and regional governments are seen as the natural leaders of SDG implementation, via partnerships but also their own policymaking and governance structures. In this frame, participatory governance is largely indistinguishable from local governance; that is, the ‘local’ is seen as inherently representative of the voices and priorities of civil society.

National Governments

This frame positions national governments as the natural facilitators, organisers, and managers of SDG implementation. While this frame sometimes mentions civil society, its role is mostly to provide “input” or “feedback” to inform policymaking, and where civic actors participate in implementation, this is facilitated by government. (Contrast this to the Empowerment or Limits of Government frames, where citizens are seen as autonomous drivers of the SDG process.) Similarly, while corporate actors are mentioned as ‘stakeholders’ to be brought in via partnerships, they are not presumed to have a leading role in SDG implementation. 

Broader implications for SDG governance

Through this analysis, we can make a few general conclusions. Firstly, there was a lack of consensus in implementation approaches, with many of the narratives analysed here (e.g. Localisation and National Governments) directly contradicting one another. Furthermore, although the theme of ‘partnership’ or multistakeholder governance (incorporating business, government, civic, and other actors) was common across multiple frames, this was often fluidly defined according to the terms of the wider narrative. (For example, in the Empowerment frame, multistakeholder partnerships were presented as a mechanism for civil society to have its voice heard; while in the New Complexity frame, they were positioned as necessary for broad systemic collaboration.)

Many frames presented these types of partnerships in terms of a ‘shared value’ model, where the interests of all stakeholders are all essentially aligned with one another and with the agenda of sustainable development. However, a large body of literature has challenged this concept, arguing that multistakeholder governance approaches often translate into undemocratic vehicles for corporate capture – as in the recent critiques of the UN Food Systems Summit. This example – as well as the many other critiques of multistakeholderism in the development policy context – suggests that a more critical approach to the concept of ‘partnership’ in SDG implementation is warranted.

Finally, our analysis demonstrates that the role of civil society is muted across most frames, and there are very few concrete measures to ensure the participation of grassroots actors in the implementation of the SDG agenda. This is especially concerning given the concerns about corporate capture of the agenda, and is set to become even more pressing as the 2030 deadline for implementation approaches.

Read more about this research on Power to Persuade.

Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

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