Participate: Response to the High Level Panel on the Post-2015 Development Agenda Report


Joanna Wheeler and Danny Burns Joanna Wheeler mini photo Danny Burns photo mini

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

This response is based on in-depth participatory research with people living in poverty and marginalisation, from 18 organisations working in over 30 countries worldwide, which together form the Participate initiative’s Participatory Research Group network. The research has included people with disabilities, older people, people with mental health issues, urban dwellers, people living in slums, rural communities, indigenous communities, farmers, people affected by natural disasters, youth, vulnerable children and children outside of parental care, marginalised women, sex workers and sexual minorities.

Read the full response here

Citizens at the Centre

It is encouraging that the Panel has evidently listened closely to some of the issues raised by people living in poverty and marginalisation. The focus on eradicating poverty, promoting sustainability, addressing conflict and violence, and protecting human rights and dignity are welcome. The strong stance on gender equality reflects the gendered nature of poverty and discrimination articulated by people participating in this research across the world. The acknowledgement that strong accountability and the participation of the poorest and most marginalised is essential but most of all, the commitment to ‘leave no one behind’ marks a potential shift in the global approach to development.

However, ultimately the High Level Panel report does not go far enough in its focus on those most affected by poverty and marginalisation.  A ‘people-centred’ agenda is one in which the transformation of societies is led by citizens themselves—including the poorest and most marginalised. This must be the guiding principle that underpins the new global development framework.

Whilst the report emphasises transformative shifts, it does not fully recognise the most important transformative shift of all—recognising the ability of those living in poverty and marginalisation to act to address their own situation, and then building a global development framework that supports them rather than reinforcing existing powerful interests. Going forward, the UN process needs to take the perspectives of those living in greatest poverty much more seriously in how the agenda is set.

Transforming Shifts?

The High Level Panel Report proposes 5 ‘transformative shifts’, needed for the new global development framework.  If these transformative shifts were seen through the perspectives of those living in greatest poverty and exclusion, there would be some important differences.

Participate’s full response to the High Level Panel report analyses how the post-2015 framework must go further if these shifts are truly going to be ‘transformative’:

  •  ‘Leave no one behind’—but don’t lose sight of who is getting ahead
  • ‘Put sustainable development at the core’—but don’t force people to make impossible choices
  • ‘Transform economics for jobs and inclusive growth’—but growth isn’t always good
  • Build peace and effective, open and accountable institutions for all’—but don’t ask if you won’t really listen
  • ‘Forge a new global partnership’—but it must be led by citizens

Participate offers further critique on the agenda proposed by the High Level Panel around their proposals for data disaggregation; the need to understand intersecting inequalities, and challenge discrimination and unequal social norms; and the need to address gender equality across the development framework.

The High Level Panel report provides a welcome input to the global discussions on the post-2015 agenda. As advocates in this process, Participate looks to the Panel members to continue to articulate the importance of inclusion of the poorest and most marginalised people in on-going debates and processes of policy formulation, as well as the design, implementation, monitoring and evaluation of the successor framework to the Millennium Development Goals.

Read other recent blog posts from Participate:

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.

Read other recent blog posts from Participate:

What Matters Most? Participate Initiative presents research to post 2015 High Level Panel


Catherine SetchellCatherine_Setchell200

This post previously appeared on 24 March 2013 on the Participate blog. Subscribe to their blog for regular updates on the Participate initiative.

The High Level Panel (HLP) of Eminent Persons appointed by the UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon met for the fourth time at the end of March in Bali, Indonesia to debate the future global development agenda after 2015, when the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) expire.

The Participate initiative, co-convened by IDS and Beyond2015 was there to present the findings of its synthesis research report‘What Matters Most? Evidence from 84 participatory studies with those living with extreme poverty and marginalisation’

Participate presented the early findings of their research synthesis at the second HLP meeting in February in Monrovia, Liberia to panel members and their advisors. Since this meeting, Participate has completed the analysis of 84 participatory research studies, and aims to inform the post-2015 policy discussions with evidence from people living in extreme poverty. The findings will be shared with the High Level Panel, civil society organisations and policymakers as part of a ‘town hall’ session on Citizens’ Voices for the Post-2015 Agenda at the Bali meeting.

The key messages that emerged from the research include the following:

  • In 83 per cent of the studies, social inequalities were identified as persistent and perpetuating exclusion at all levels of development.
  • A recurring message appeared in 63 per cent of studies that the very poorest are unable to access the infrastructure, services, support and opportunities that others who are less poor can.
  • 73 per cent of the studies identified the need for meaningful participation of marginalised people in development which will lead to local ownership and the sustainability of development approaches.
  • 44 per cent of the studies highlighted that poor governance reinforces poverty for the poorest and most marginalised.

Based on the findings from the research, Participate will be highlighting to the HLP in Bali that the success of the future post-2015 framework rests on its ability to respond to:

  • Highly dynamic contexts                     

The landscape of poverty is increasingly characterised by crisis, shocks, conflict, uncertainty and volatility. Policies and approaches need to be more adaptive to continuously changing environments and circumstances.

  • Social norms that discriminate

Systems and institutions that support people’s claims to rights can be undermined by intolerance and prejudice. Challenging unfair power structures that entrench inequalities is critical for positive change in people’s live.

  • Complex relationships between different problems.

Answering one part of a problem does not produce sustainable outcomes for the poorest unless all interrelated issues are simultaneously addressed. Policies need to be underpinned by a deep systemic understanding of people’s everyday lives. Agile learning and processes for generating feedback are required at local, national and global levels.

The research shows that people living in greatest poverty and those most marginalised want a different kind of development, where interventions and public policies enact principles that are inclusive and sustainable.

Participate’s key recommendations, based on the findings of the research are:

  • The post-2015 framework should aim for the eradication of extreme poverty and reduction in inequalities.
  • The post-2015 framework should strengthen the individual and collective capacities of people living in greatest poverty and marginalisation
  • Participation should be prioritised throughout the post-2015 framework.

Read other recent blog posts from Participate:

UN High Level Panel engages with the Participate initiative in Monrovia, Liberia


Catherine SetchellCatherine_Setchell200

This post previously appeared on 12 February 2013 on the Participate blog. Subscribe to their blog for regular updates on the Participate initiative.

This month the UN High Level Panel (HLP) on the Post-2015 Development agenda met in Monrovia. At the meeting the Participate initiative  , based at the Participation, Power and Social Change team at IDS, ran a 90-minute interactive workshop session with members of the HLP and their advisors, to share a synthesis of early research findings that would inform the post-2015 debates. Panel members explored key recommendations from those who are living in poverty and who are most marginalised.

Panel members engaged with the perspectives of those in poverty via:

  • An early findings synthesis report of participatory research programmes from over 57  countries;
  • A short film about an indigenous people’s housing project in Chiapas, Mexico
  • Small group discussions based on case studies from the research.

These case studies generated lively debate amongst panel members and their advisors as they tackled questions posed by Participate, around the implications of the key messages for international development and national economic transformation, and how they could translate these into principles and guidelines that could be built explicitly into the High Level Panel reports that will inform a post-2015 framework for development.

The case studies provided illustrative examples for the panel members to discuss the complex realities of people living in poverty and their experiences of development assistance. They looked at some of the reasons for why programmes have failed in the past, and what key lessons can be learnt from these mistakes, so that a new development framework reflects the real needs of those living in extreme poverty and marginalisation.


A local resident featured in the Chiapas film explains why a state housing project failed

Key messages resonated with some of the panel members’ and advisors’ own understanding of the complexity of poverty and the failings of some development interventions. Members of Participate’s Participatory Research Group (PRG) – James Kofi Annan, Challenging Heights, Mwangi Waituru, The Seed Institute, and Masiiwa Rusare, African Monitor – reinforced these messages with first-hand stories.

Discussions centred around the message that development programmes are too often top-down interventions, based on simple cause-effect assumptions that fail to respond to the everyday realities of those in poverty, and only serve to reinforce long-term dependencies and an increased sense of powerlessness. They recognised that extreme poverty is characterised by difficult trade-offs and impossible choices that make the benefits of mainstream development inaccessible for the very poor.  The panel reflected on the need to engage much more with power, social norms, customs, attitudes and behaviours, and that building relationships and greater participation of local communities, would contribute to more effective and sustainable development.

The High Level Panel debates of Thursday and Friday followed Participate’s workshop session.  Participate asked the HLP to take some of the main lessons and reflections from the session with them as they debated a post-2015 framework for international development and economic transformation. Participate will continue activities to bring the voices of those most marginalised to the policy debates.

Catherine Setchell is a Research Communications Manager for the Participate initiative, based at the Participation, Power and Social Change team at IDS

Read other recent blog posts from Participate:

Post-2015 civil society consultations: our shared perspectives


Danny Burns2 photo miniDanny Burns

This post previously appeared on 29 January 2013 on the Participate blog. Subscribe to their blog for regular updates on the Participate initiative.

Yesterday saw the opening of activities related to the High Level Panel (HLP) meeting in Monrovia.  Civil society organisations (CSOs) from across the world engaged in discussions about what to present to the High Level Panel at the official CSO Outreach meeting on Wednesday. We were interested to see whether the issues that were being generated through civil society representation, resonated with the early messages that are coming out of our participatory research. These are some of the things that struck us:

Development does not reach the poorest and most vulnerable

Many civil society contributions stressed the fact that the most marginalised aren’t being effectively engaged and their perspectives need to be taken into account – which of course is the core purpose of Participate. The disability groups in particular were concerned that available statistical data was not disaggregated to show disability. This is one of their key demands of the post-2015 framework, and was echoed by others, who pointed out the inequalities that are hidden in statistical averages.  One speaker from Bangladesh explained that whilst education enrolment has extended to the vast majority of children in Bangladesh, this has not been the case for disabled children, where only 10 per cent of disabled children have access to education.

This theme of inequalities was recurrent in the debate with civil society groups and speaks to one of the key findings from Participate’s first analysis of participatory research – that even development that has had demonstrable positive impacts on society as a whole, frequently fails to reach the most excluded and those living in greatest poverty. We will talk more about the research findings in our blog on Thursday, when the High Level Panel will have explored the implications.

Civil society groups come together ahead of the High Level Panel meeting in Monrovia

Constraints of consultation

One of the civil society representatives spoke about how they are engaged with the formal consultations on the post-2015 framework. She recounted how “rigid” the questionnaire was and that participants were unable to express the qualitative issues that they wanted to talk about. This resonates with underlying Participate principles that genuine enquiry needs to start with people telling their stories and articulating their issues in their own words, without being constrained by pre-constructed questions.

Rights-based approach

A large number of speakers stressed the importance of a rights-based approach to the post-MDG framework. This is clearly strongly supported across civil society and may be one of the major points of tension with established institutions and governments, who lean towards quantitative measures of growth and development. The Beyond2015 campaign also stresses the importance of a rights-based approach.

Commonality of causes

One of the paradoxes of both this meeting and the wider process is that the debate is structured around different constituencies, for example, children and youth, people living with disabilities, women, older people, etc. – with the NGOs that are advocating on their behalf, fighting for space to get their voices heard in the MDG process.  At the same time they recognise the commonality of their causes. Participants gave strong examples of the interconnection of constituencies and issues. One delegate talked about how one of the great burdens for older people is childcare, particularly in African contexts where for various reasons, grandparents are primary child carers, and so outcomes for children are closely connected to the wellbeing of older people.

Finally and inevitably there was a great deal of discussion about prioritisation of issues and goals over one another.

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

Read other recent blog posts from Participate:

Participation and voices everywhere, but going nowhere (post-2015)?


Joanna Wheeler

Consultations, surveys, on-line polls, social media posts, campaigns, forums, blogs, protests in public squares—everywhere there are claims to know what people really want, claims to represent poor and marginalised people.  As interests coalesce and the politics heat up around the questions of what a future framework for development should look like post 2015, everyone wants to claim that they represent the authentic‘voices of the poor’. Everywhere there are claims to legitimate participation, meaningful consultation  and a stated intention to represent citizen voices. The High-Level Panel on the Post-2015 Development Agenda met recently in London, and the co-chairs as well as several members called for the perspectives of those affected by poverty to be heard. Yet, all the talk about participation is not adding up to real influence or engagement between decision-makers with the diverse perspectives and realities of those living with poverty, marginalisation and injustice.

In a recent session for some NGOs on how to apply participatory approaches to working in conflict contexts, a government representative told me with excitement that she really believed in the value of participation:  ‘I always talk to my driver in any country I go to,’ she said. Is talking to the poorest and most marginalised really participation?  In fact, most of what is being labeled as ‘participatory’ at the moment is really no more than this:  a conversation in which the questions are framed by someone else, and the answers are used for an agenda that the‘driver’ never agreed to.

A major shortcoming of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) has been their lack of legitimacy in the eyes of those most affected by development.  As Francess Fornah said in her blog last week, the MDGs are largely irrelevant on a daily basis to those most closely engaged with improving the lives of those living in poverty.  A related and serious flaw with the MDGs is the lack of any provision for the poorest and most marginalised to hold governments and international aid agencies to account for the goals that have been set.

The track record of global agreements is not encouraging—the participation of ‘the poor’ is most often sought when it legitimates the decisions of the powerful, or when there is a political need to be seen to listen to them.  Previous attempts to use participatory approaches to bring the perspectives of those most affected by development to bear on its direction have had mixed results at best. Many global participatory consultation processes have been experienced as extractive listening projects, as opposed to on-going negotiations – with people left feeling that their contributions have been used for political ends which are not their own.  Failure to ensure meaningful participation has occurred in the past because 1) so-called participatory consultations can be highly exclusionary in terms of the voices and perspectives that are edited out or never make it to the table in the first place, 2) the purpose of people’s participation is often pre-determined in a very narrow way, so that any decisions affected by people’s participation are not the ones that really matter; and 3) there has been a lack of mechanisms for holding decision-making to account for the way that policies that have been shaped through participation are implemented (or have failed to be implemented). In sum, many attempts of large-scale participation to influence the direction of development have been a failure.  They have failed to truly connect the realities, experiences and priorities of people living in poverty, marginalisation and injustice in a meaningful way with the decisions that are made on their behalf.

Yet the impulse to hear from those most affected by decisions is not wrong.  When done well, participatory approaches can have huge potential to show unexpected and essential insights. Participatory approaches can provide fresh perspectives into intractable problems, demonstrate the complexity and interconnectedness of issues in people’s lives, and challenge assumptions about how change happens and what development interventions work.  For example, Reality Checks – a participatory initiative developed in Bangladesh – showed how legislation to curb the abuse and harassment of girls led to increasing bullying of boys and issues of low self-esteem. In Nigeria, a citizen score card exercise on the national economic empowerment strategy found that despite a new scheme to allocate farmland to youth, family and women’s groups in the Area Councils, a third of those people involved felt that access had worsened, and accessing farmland through the government was perceived as very difficult. As the rate of change accelerates in many contexts, participation is even more important to shed light on rapidly shifting realities.

If the post-2015 process to agree a future framework for development does not get the participation of those most affected right, it will fail. To avoid the mistakes of the past, it is essential that the participation of those living in poverty is used to question established ways of looking at social, economic and political issues. Participation must help frame the debate, and not just provide sound bites to justify the decisions of politicians. This time, talking to the driver will not be enough.

This article was originally published in the independent online magazine

Joanna Wheeler is a Research Fellow within the Participation, Power and Social Change research team at IDS.

Read other recent blog posts from Joanna Wheeler: