Time to Listen

Danny Burns

The Participate team spent much of last week preparing for and engaging with the High Level Panel. The panel was very open and responsive to our message, and a number of panel members filled in the postcards that we provided, asking them to indicate how they might engage with Participate. These are all positive signals, but apart from the usual worries about how whether politicians and other decision makers will really listen, or retreat back into long held political positions and entrenched development assumptions, I have a concern about how the process itself might undermine the possibilities for real engagement.

Since we started this process ‘time’ has been an issue. It was raised again at the High Level Panel meeting.

Participate has always seen itself as working to three separate time frames.

(1)  We are trying to support the deliberations of the panel through meaningful engagement with participatory research with the poorest and most vulnerable, but we are also aware that there is only so much that can feed into this process because it is proposed that the draft report is already written by February 2013 which is just after their second meeting.

(2)  So our second key milestone is the September Special Session of the UN on the future of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). We are planning to have both of the big synthesis reports (of past and current participatory research), our participatory video and the documentary film, ready before then to provide strong evidence from the ground about how poverty really plays out.

(3)  But the real underlying agenda is the longer term. If we accept the premise that participatory research should be feeding into the policy making process, then it follows that it should be built into every stage of the development process  – from program development, to implementation, to evaluation and accountability processes. In other words if those living in poverty and those who are most marginalized are to really be listened to, participatory processes need to be embedded into the development programmes that follow from the new framework.

In many respects (3) is the most important of all of these. This was highlighted by a number of panel members on Friday and is reflected in the work of  ‘the Participatory Research Group’ projects which are at the heart of the Participate process, as these will continue beyond the lifetime of this decision making process.

Given the short time line for the panel it is my view that this sort of framing for the future of development is more important than arguing for the inclusion of this new goal or that new goal.  Establishing the principle of meaningful stakeholder participation at every level of the process might also be something that the panel could agree on.

But there is an even more fundamental question about time that I think it is important to reflect on. If the panel is reporting in February, panel members will quite literally have only just begun to get to know each other.  The panel meets three times (November 2012, late January/February 2013 and probably March 2013). At the first of these sessions they were only in dialogue with each other for just one day.  With 26 people present, this hardly gives them time to offer each other their own experience let alone to bring in what is necessary from outside.

Participatory research takes time. We and all of our participatory research partners can do good work over the next eight months or so, but it is important that time is allowed for the right conclusions to be drawn, for these to be tested in other contexts, and to be validated by the communities from where the knowledge was generated. The same is actually true for the UN Development Group (UNDG) 50 country consultations which have been rolled out on a punishing time scale which will lead inevitably (in most cases) to rapidly cobbled together reports – the driving force behind which is meeting the time table.

It is not enough to affirm the importance of listening to the voices of those living in greatest poverty when we know that the decision-making time-table will not allow this to happen as it should.  I think that we collectively need to have the courage to say that it is more important to get this right, than to rush headlong in to a process that doesn’t have real ownership, because the time which is needed to listen hasn’t been given.

Danny Burns is a Co-Director of the Participate initiative and Team Leader for the Participation, Power and Social Change research team at IDS. 

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