Seeing the world through a different lens

Danny Burns2 photo miniDanny Burns

The Secretary-General of the United Nations was expected to publish his report to the General Assembly on the MDGs and the post-2015 development agenda on 12 August. How much of his insight will have been informed by listening to the voices of the poorest and most marginalised?  Participate partners have been critically reflecting  on the participatory methods they have employed in attempts to shift power in policy making.  One such approach, the Participate Ground Level Panels (GLPs) created a participative space for people living in poverty and marginalisation to deliberate what is needed from the post-2015 global policy process.

 In 2013, Participate partners hosted three deliberative meetings between those living poverty and those with political authority through Ground Level Panels (GLPs). The idea for a GLP aimed to provide a mirror to the deliberations of the United Nations (UN) High Level Panel (HLP) but from people who lived in extreme poverty or marginalisation.

The Ground Level Panels took place in Egypt, Brazil, Uganda and India. Each panel comprised a group of 10-14 people with diverse and intersecting identities including urban slum dwellers; disabled people; sexual minorities; people living in conflict and natural disaster-affected areas; people living in geographically isolated communities; nomadic and indigenous people; older people; internally displaced people; and young people. Each panel created relationships, shared experiences, connected the local level to the national and international development contexts and provided a critical review and reality check on the five transformative shifts as outlined by the UN High Level Panel.

The GLPs saw the world through a different lens to the HLP. The people in the Panels understood the dynamics of change facing people living in poverty and this gave them the ability to say if these policies were meaningful. While economic growth is an unchallenged assumption in the HLP for the Brazilian GLP it was seen as part of the ‘death plan’. For the Brazilians the critical issue is not ‘poverty’ per se, but ‘misery’ and ‘dignity’. While the HLP focused on service provision, the Indian Panel’s desired goals largely focus on social norms, behaviour 
and discrimination.

There were some common themes which emerged in all of the Panels. People want to feel that they have meaningful control over the influences that impact their lives. In all cases structures for equal participation were highlighted as foundational. In almost all of the Panels there was a recurring theme of ‘self management’. People don’t want aid. They want the means to generate and sustain their own livelihoods. So if we are serious about moving ‘beyond aid’ in the new development agenda then empowerment must become the priority.

One thing that struck me was the difference in composition of the HLP and the GLPs. The HLP was made up of people largely from an elite political class. There was the odd member of royalty and a few interesting academics thrown in, but by and large they were high ranking politicians. There was very little diversity in the group, and the interests were narrow. The GLPs on the other hand were highly diverse. Slum dwellers sitting side by side with pastoralists, transgender people, and people living in refugee camps … It is easy to stereotype people as ‘poor’and see them as a huge sprawling undifferentiated ‘category’, but they bring far more diversity than people who hold power.

What defines the success of a Ground Level Panel? Is it the response of the national government or within the UN process, or is it also influence on policy at the local levels? For Natalie Newell who led the GLP in Uganda on behalf of Restless Development, the experience demonstrated the importance of the local level. 
”It is important to be clear with all involved about what can realistically be achieved from the GLP process. This includes considering the strengths and weaknesses of this approach, and what it can add to the policy debate. From the perspectives of those that participated in the Uganda process, the changes at the community level and for them as people were an important success.”

Listen to Nava and Richard’s reflections on the Uganda Ground Level Panel.

Read more about the Ground Level Panels in Participate’s latest publication ‘Knowledge from the Margins: An anthology from a global network on participatory practice and policy influence.’

Danny Burns is a Co-Director of the Participate initiative and Team Leader for the Participation, Power and Social Change research team at IDS. He can be found on Twitter at: @dannyburns2

Read other posts from Danny Burns

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