By Dhananjayan Sriskandarajah, Secretary General of CIVICUS, in The Guardian Global Development Professionals Network, 24 November 2014.
One of the biggest complaints levelled at the millennium development goals (MDGs) is that they were a technocratic creation, aimed at increasing and focusing aid flows, and produced without public consultation or ownership.
By contrast, the United Nations insists that when it comes to agreeing what will follow the MDGs, there should be an “open and inclusive consultation process, led by member states and engaging all stakeholders” (pdf). While the process so far has certainly been more open than almost any other intergovernmental process of this nature, it is still unclear whether civil society inputs will make a lasting difference or indeed whether the goals will truly reflect what citizens want.
The UN’s open working group (OWG) has been the primary vehicle for identifying what the new sustainable development goals (SDGs) should look like. The group recommended 17 goals and 169 targets which will form the basis of the formal government negotiations expected to kick off in January 2015, culminating in a new global framework for development at the Post-2015 summit in September 2015.
Since the process began civil society organisations have been able to join thematic clusters, working to ensure all issues on the table have a strong citizen voice. Representatives were also invited to brief the Kenyan and Hungarian working group co-chairs, and ‘major groups’ – representing the key sectors of society – have also had their opportunity to contribute, some of which is included in the final report.
But the working group process has not been the only mechanism for participation. The My World survey asked people all around the world to rank a set of priority issues. A more nuanced attempt was made by the Participate Initiative that collected views from the most marginalised groups, including through their innovative ‘ground level panels’, a response to the UN’s high level panels.
As with any initiative led by organisations in the global north, a real barrier to inclusion has been the frequency and location of meetings. This has resulted in a process dictated by government missions based in New York, often with varied positions from their respective capital cities, resulting in a disconnect between global priorities and local realities. With high air fares, expensive accommodation and monthly meetings set over a 14-month period, it is almost impossible for most citizens or community organisations to bring their cause or complaint to the UN.
So as we head into the next stage of negotiations, there is a strong chance that diplomatic horse-trading and interventions by capitals will start to dominate and the voice of citizens will be completely silenced. But is civil society foolish to expect otherwise?
Our intergovernmental institutions have been built on the assumption of the primacy of member states and, while there are now more opportunities than ever to participate, the process is still owned by governments. Until we redesign our global governance institutions to be more accountable to the peoples of the world we will never get intergovernmental agreements that are reflective of what those citizens want.
The other danger here is that civil society will spend too much of its time trying to get a phrase inserted here or a word changed there in the final document, rather than invest in ways to hold governments to account for the commitments they make. New technologies make it easier than ever to monitor development progress, from citizen-reporting on public service delivery to tracking aid expenditure. The post-2015 goals could offer a powerful global framework for promoting national-level or even local-level accountability.
Very few people around the world are likely to care about the finer details of the post-2015 agreement, but many more would seek this information if they knew what their governments were up to and how that activity impacted upon their daily lives. Those of us in civil society should do our best not just to ensure an ambitious set of goals, but also to connect the dots back to the people we say we represent. We must ask of ourselves this difficult question: if in September next year the goals we set out to monitor are not the same as the things people most care about, will we also have failed?