A bold and practical proposal for the post-2015 framework

Joanna WheelerJoanna Wheeler mini photo

This post previously appeared on 22 March 2013 on the Participate blog. Subscribe to their blog for regular updates on the Participate initiative.

At the opening of the Advancing the Post‐2015 Sustainable Development Agenda conference in Bonn last month, Horst Kolher noted wryly in his opening remarks that UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon asked the High Level Panel (HLP) to be ‘bold and practical’ in its recommendations for the post-2015 framework.

So far, it would appear that many of the proposals circulating are neither. Many are extremely technical, and seem disconnected from the realities of people living with extreme exclusion and marginalisation.

As the High Level Panel prepares the report of recommendations for the post-2015 framework, due to be finished at the end of May, it is an important moment to critically reflect on what these bold recommendations might look like.  One of the civil society declarations from Bonn aimed directly at the High Level Panel called for structural transformation that addresses ‘the failure of the current development model, which is rooted in unsustainable production and consumption patterns and exacerbates inequality as well as gender, race and class inequities.’ This is certainly bold in comparison to the current MDG framework, which leaves inequalities largely untouched.

Whilst the panel appears to be listening to civil society’s recommendations – for instance the recent Bali High Level Panel Communiqué released after the HLP meeting at the end of March, refers directly to the civil society declaration in Bonn, around the need for a new framework to ‘manage the world’s production and consumption patterns in more sustainable and equitable ways’ –  there is still too little being said about how to achieve the massive changes that would be required for sustainable development and social justice to be achieved on a global scale.  Skepticism and wariness characterize the views of many in relation to what is likely to be a protracted inter-governmental negotiation process. These have not had a good track record lately.

Here’s a bold and practical suggestion for the High Level Panel (and all those involved in trying to influence the post-2015 framework): citizen participation.  Not just citizen participation as in asking people living in greatest poverty to tell people in the UN what they want, but citizen participation as in creating opportunities for people to have a real say in the decisions that affect their lives. Not just citizens as in people holding passports for a particular national government, but people everywhere with the right to have rights, irrespective of their official status, gender, sexuality, disability, age, race, or religion.  Citizen participation is a bold approach for the post-2015 framework, because it turns much of received wisdom about ‘aid’ and international frameworks on its head:  it is not just about a small global elite ‘hearing the voices of the poor,’ but about creating sustainable and long-term mechanisms for citizens to be involved in decision-making at all levels (from local to global).  What is missing from all the talk about how to make the new global framework tackle the big problems facing all of us, is a focus on who needs to lead that transformation: citizens, themselves. Early findings from the Participate initiative show that top down policies and interventions frequently fail to respond to the everyday realities of those living in poverty, and increase their sense of powerlessness.

If it is done well, citizen participation would shake the very foundations of the current global power structure, getting to the root causes of poverty rather than just the symptoms.

Citizen participation is also practical in that there is already a long-track record of a range of approaches and mechanisms to citizen participation, and a large body of research that points to some clear ‘do’s’ and ‘don’ts’ if you want meaningful citizen participation.  Consider where democracy is really flourishing at the moment:  while the US and many countries in Europe face financial crisis and political apathy, Brazil, India, South Africa, the Philippines, and others have been at the forefront of innovations in citizen participation.  There is a lot of evidence about how citizen participation can deliver better outcomes, in terms of citizens more capable of claiming their rights, states that are more accountable and responsive and societies that are more cohesive and inclusive.

According to the Participate initiative, the global framework could do at least two things to encourage meaningful citizen participation: strengthen the capacities of citizens to claim their rights (and of institutions to respond); and build in citizen-led processes of regulation and monitoring to really hold governments and agencies to account for their commitments in the post-2015 framework. (See Chapter 5 of ‘What Matters Most’ report).

This is not to suggest that citizen participation is a silver bullet.  It comes with its own potential problems and draw-backs, not least of which is the risk that it is used to keep people busy participating about relatively inconsequential questions, while the real power is exercised elsewhere.  It must be adapted to the particular circumstances and power dynamics in which it is used.  No global framework can really achieve a context-specific approach to addressing entrenched problems.  But a global framework can enable more opportunities for citizen participation that others can take up at local, national and regional levels.

The most compelling reason for taking citizen participation seriously in the post-2015 framework is not the view of a researcher at IDS (or anywhere else), but rather that it is a demand being made by people living in extreme poverty and marginalisation in over 100 countries. The Participate initiative has found that many of those living in the greatest exclusion and marginalisation believe that their meaningful participation can make development more inclusive and sustainable. People want to have a say in the actual decisions that get made about them.  If the international community were to listen, it would be truly bold.

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