Participation and post-2015 goals: Rhetoric as usual?

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Tom Thomas

As global governments begin to negotiate and agree on a framework for a development agenda post-2015, it is heartening to note that unlike the MDGs that were developed in a top down manner, development of the post-2015 framework has been consultative, at least via CSO mediated processes. Efforts such as Ground Level Panels (GLPs) by Participate and Praxis attempted to push the consultation to the next level of direct talk by people living in poverty. A wealth of inspiring, deep and not always inward looking recommendations have emerged from people living in poverty. Equity and equality stand out as the core of people’s concern, and ‘People, Planet and Participation’ have emerged as the three most important pillars on which to build the post-2015 framework.

These welcome beginnings notwithstanding, the larger question that begs an answer is how participation will be placed in the post-2015 framework. Rhetoric as usual or will the UN and governments be more imaginative to infuse into the framework a participation that has the potential to deepen democracies and produce superior outcomes?

To not miss this opportunity to push participation up by a few notches at the minimum, it is imperative that we ask some key questions:

 1. Whose participation?

While it is desirable to have all citizens participate, the critical non-negotiable ones are whose lives the framework is meant to directly impact – the most marginalised and excluded communities. Aggregating the entire group of people experiencing complex layers of exclusion and marginalization into a single entity of community has always been problematic and it will need to be unpacked for deepening participation.  It must be recognized that there will be many sub population groups that will be normally invisible and ignored, even through ‘participatory processes’ – both by commission and omission. While a certain amount of discussion has taken place over the past decade about the invisible sub groups like the disabled, the elderly, the lower caste, religious minorities, women, etc., not enough has been said about the ignored population. Youth and children are a classic example of groups that get ignored as many of the processes are designed with an able bodied adult male as the active participant. As we move forward, it is important to recognise and include both the invisible and ignored population in the framing of post-2015 and beyond.

2. Participation in what?

Are we talking about participation in just framing the post-2015 goals and targets? Not unless we want to relegate people living in poverty as mere recipients of welfare measures doled out by a benevolent world. Raising communities to the level of active participants and partners in the framing, roll out and monitoring, will not merely make the targets more achievable, but also raise the self esteem of communities, an essential factor to help them stay out of poverty and better theirs and their communities’ lives.

 3. What kind of participation?

If equity is a concern and reducing inequalities is a goal, it requires participation of a different kind and not the one that limits it to an invited space[1] to pick from a pre-decided menu. It would require a participation that can challenge and change the way production relations are tilted in favour of the elite, a participation that can subvert the power equation in favour of the poor and a participation that can also challenge and make consumption more equitable. Participation must be seen as a ‘means’ and as an ‘end’ in itself. The first, ‘as a means’, is easy and has been universally accepted. Even the most ardent supporter of the ‘top-down’ approach would agree that participation of users will enhance efficiency. I don’t think we will see a disagreement on that from anyone, irrespective of whether you are left, right or centre. But what we need support for and champions from the member states, is to move participation from a mere ‘efficiency coefficient’ to an ’empowerment coefficient’. It is not just CSO speak, but a well documented and accepted fact that an ’empowered citizen’ is better equipped to move herself/ himself into better health, education and livelihood. Unleashing the empowerment coefficient of participation has the potential to, as Thomas Isaac, ex-finance minister of Kerala[2], says “engage at ’empowered deliberative democracy’ in an attempt to, produce superior outcomes to a traditional representative-techno bureaucratic democracy”, in promoting equity and improving the quality of citizenship, to keep the government accountable, the state equitable and society alive and kicking.

Capacity and costs are often cited as excuses for making participation a ‘good thing to do’ but not an ‘essential’ one. Let me cite an example where Praxis used community members as evaluators for a pan Indian UNDP programme: The cost was fractional to that of a parallel evaluation by ‘experts’ and the insights achieved were far more grounded and actionable. There are some think tanks that put the cost of monitoring the ambitious post-2015 goals and targets set out at a whopping USD$254 billion! But, are they talking about community and participatory monitoring? Not one bit. The estimates are for expert led monitoring that as the authors themselves admit will finally at best yield estimates. The question then is: Do we want a monitoring process that gives us accurately wrong information by experts or approximately correct information led by communities? Participatory monitoring not just gives you approximately correct data, it also engages communities in understanding and analyzing data thereby making them active partners.

And on capacity, the myth that people living in poverty cannot think or imagine beyond their daily needs would be busted by even a cursory reading of the GLP reports or the Participate synthesis reports of the various participatory processes with poor communities from across the globe. These are testimonies of people’s capacities to vision for a future that is achievable. One of the members of the GLP organised by us, an elderly urban poor person said, “we stride forward in the hope of success despite being weighed down by our predicaments”. But yes, for those hardest to reach it will be a challenge that we must embrace if we want to ensure that we leave no one behind. I would like to close with a quote from another panelist, a person who is paraplegic and hence, speech impaired, who asked: “Is it that the government doesn’t know about our issues? They do, it’s just that they don’t care”.

I think the post-2015 framework offers us the opportunity to emphatically say, ‘yes, we know, we care and we are serious about leaving no one behind’. If a space for a deeper participation is not envisioned in the post-2015 framework, it will be important to train our guns at helping communities and even CSOs to claim those spaces. It doesn’t take much genius to know that a business as usual post-2015 framework will fail the big push and people miserably.

Tom Thomas is CEO of Praxis, Institute of Participatory Practice, a member of the Participate network; he forms part of the Steering Group. 

[1] John Gaventa, Power Cube – http://www.powercube.net

[2] An Indian state described as a ‘development wonder’ for its high ranking on social indicators despite low economic growth.

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