Whose knowledge should really count in decisions about the future of development? As members of the post-2015 UN high-level panel meet today for the first time, we want to know how they can be sure the decisions they take will be informed by the perspectives of those most affected by poverty.
For policymakers to really understand the complexities of lives led by people who are marginalised and living in poverty, they need to experience in a real way the choices that people have to make on a day-to-day basis. For example: what are the risks a woman living in a city slum has to negotiate to go to the toilet? Why can’t people with disabilities access their local health clinic? Why do some children in rural Uganda have to give up school to get clean water? What happens when your village is swept into the sea by coastal erosion and all of the land behind it is owned by someone else?
The high-level panel, which is co-chaired by Liberia, Indonesia and the UK, will make its decisions based on how members of the panel understand poverty and its causes. And yet, the experience of poverty is very distant from the lived realities of most of the members of the panel. There are many ‘experts’ in development, but those that have the most important knowledge, rooted in direct experience, are the people that live in poverty themselves. Yet these people are systematically left out of decisions on global development structures.
To help address this, the Participate initiative (a global collaboration between the Institute of Development Studies and Beyond 2015) invites members of the high-level panel and senior decision makers in the post-2015 process to join our programme of ‘immersions’ in order to come face to face with these realities, and to enter into dialogue with members of communities living in extreme poverty.
An ‘immersion’ involves living, eating, sleeping and working with people living in poverty for a number of days and nights. The process gives decision makers the opportunity to relate to people on a personal level and to learn firsthand from their experiences. It can offer unexpected insights into the realities faced by communities living in poverty.
Participate will also organise a ‘ground level-panel’ which, like the high-level panel, will deliberate on the future of development. The participants will be dwellers of city slums, pastoralists who walk with cattle across bush lands in search of water, refugees from war, and small farmers whose crops have failed in response to climate change. Mirroring the high-level panel, the ground-level panel will produce their own recommendations.
The Participate initiative is working with civil society organisations and NGOs to draw together an extensive body of participatory research in more than 25 countries, to ensure that a future development framework reflects the priorities of those directly affected by poverty and injustice. We hope to create spaces for people living in extreme poverty to pose their own questions and share perspectives based on their own experiences about how sustainable change is possible.
As Co-Directors of this initiative we are excited about supporting a different way of engaging with global policymaking processes. We’ve launched Participate in response to substantial criticism of the current Millennium Development Goals (MDG) framework – that the process of designing and implementing it was driven by a development elite, and as a result had very limited ownership, failed to engage with crucial issues, and adopted an approach that often further marginalised very poor people. By ensuring marginalised people are a central part of the post-2015 process, we hope to ensure a new framework doesn’t make the same mistakes again.
Joanna Wheeler is a Research Fellow and Danny Burns is the Team Leader for the Participation, Power and Social Change research team at IDS.
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