Conversation Starter: Civil Society Consultations

14 May

On the morning of the 14 of May at UN headquarters in New York, four panelists reflected on an important regional consultation that took place recently in Guadalajara, Mexico with the support of the Mexican government.  The Guadalajara meeting was part of a larger process designed, in part, to assess and integrate regional civil society concerns in laying out follow-up processes for the post-2015 Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) framework and the Rio plus 20 Conference on Sustainable Development held in June 2012.

The speakers highlighted the value of more regional engagement as a post-2015 agenda begins to take shape.   Also noted was the need for clear feedback loops that can help civil society track their impact on documents prepared by States and the UN Secretariat to help guide movement on development going forward.

In listening to the speakers, I was both grateful for this attention by UN stakeholders to the needs and wishes of civil society groups and also dismayed by what seems to be the unwillingness of speakers to publicly identify some of the enormous challenges associated with conducting a genuinely consultative process at this moment in our collective history.  There are now so many civil society groups, so little civil society consensus, and some particularly ‘muscular’ non-governmental organizations (especially in New York) that brand their work in ways that deflect as much civil society involvement as they invite.   We in New York are too often prone to gate-keeping more than assessing and promoting a wide range of voices from diverse social, geographic and economic circumstances to help address shifting circumstances. Gate keeping, perhaps more than any other NGO activity, is anathema to the kinds of consultations which the panelists envisioned.

It is probably valid to say, as one or more of the speakers mentioned, that the initial MDG process in 2000 lacked a clear consultative element.  It is also true that we were in a different period then with respect to civil society involvement.   For one thing, there are so many more of us than there used to be, a great blessing to be sure, but one which makes fair and transparent consultation difficult to implement.  What is the dividing line for involvement–   a history with the issue, connections to groups in New York, or perhaps a defined skills set related to some sustainable development priority?

There are certainly no firm criteria for participation in consultations and certainly no consensus by civil society groups regarding how development-related issues should be articulated and supported, both politically and financially.   It is wishful thinking to think that it is otherwise, and it is disappointing to hear people talk as though the key to a good consultative process is merely wanting it to be so.

Moreover, there is an issue about how civil society interventions in consultative processes should be assessed.  Is it solely about the number of times when language favorable to our own organizational mandates appears in resolutions of the General Assembly or its constitutive bodies?   Given the uneasy relationship between resolutions and practical engagements on the ground, is resolution language alone the bar that we need to be reaching for?  Are there deeper levels of engagement to which we should be pointing, engagement that continues to reach out beyond the most widely known ‘players’ to the many new leaders and organizational assets anxiously awaiting their turn?

This is not a critique of the specific panel hosted by Mexico, but rather a reflection on the degrees of difficulty that we face when we try to organize a field (civil society) that is expanding more quickly and in more diverse directions than we can map its movements.   There are many challenges and limitations in our sector that we must address, such as when we settle for new resolution language when so many in the world are clamoring for just and robust implementation of existing resolutions; or when we endorse existing ‘seating’ arrangements at a time when there are so many more chairs that need to be set up at the policy table.

It is possible to be thankful to the Mexican government and speakers that there is more consultation moving forward on development priorities, and still lament all of the ways in which civil society participation is still very much a work in progress.   While there is an abundance of responsibility to share among different stakeholders, including governments and the UN itself, much of this development-related work is the responsibility of civil society groups themselves. We need development in our sector that can complement and enrich prospects for development on the ground.

–Dr. Robert Zuber

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