The Secretary General’s Report: My points of disappointment

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Mwangi Waituru

The United Nations Secretary General’s (UNSG) has taken a look at the progress made in articulating a Post 2015 development agenda and released a synthesis report- the Road to Dignity by 2030: Ending Poverty, Transforming all Lives and protecting the Planet.

The report comes after close to four years of a multifaceted civil society campaign for a people centred Post 2015 development agenda; a poverty eradication agenda that engages people not only from their points of vulnerability but also recognises and harness their potentials.

If what I feel is a correct understanding of what the Secretary General is saying, then we– the civil society, have not been effective in placing people at the heart of the discussions. The general feel I get from reading the synthesis report is that the reports of the various consultations and negotiations that the Secretary General synthesised do not present citizens as active participants in the development process. For me, the ‘feel’ is that this process still treats people more as recipients of development than drivers of change.

My experience with the Post 2015 development framework has been one of struggling first for people’s participation to be recognised as essential and secondly for the member states to understand what participation actually means. Member states see participation as participation of the member states particularly in terms of the least developed countries (LDCs). Member States recognise the need of these states to be facilitated to participate in the determination of the content of the post 2015 development framework. Beyond that, there is the contested participation of the civil society in what is regarded as a members states processes. But what has been mostly out of the picture is the participation of the people who live in poverty. Wherever the two terms- people and participation are mentioned in the same breath, the space is occupied by the civil societies who are called upon to speak for the people. Over and above this anomaly, the greatest omission I have experienced is that of people’s participation in the development process; that is, people’s agency to act or active citizenship. This kind of participation has many routes of which volunteering either by community groups or individuals stand out. The strongest proposal by the secretary general is that this participation should be engrained in the texture of the framework: an inbuilt means of implementation.

Prior to my engagement in this process as the co-chair of Beyond 2015, I was part of a coalition of civil society organisations that carried out poverty hearings in four African countries. Teams of eminent persons (Clergy, Business, Media and Civil Society Luminaries) listened to people narrate their lived experiences with poverty. After listening to testimonials that were presented in dignity and honour, Arch Bishop Ndungane of the African Monitor, told me,

‘The greatest hope is in what the people are saying to us. They are not just seated waiting for charity. People did not ask for handouts, they are asking for an opportunity to eke out a decent livelihood for themselves.’

Beyond 2015 and the Institute of Development Studies were later to convene a research network of 18 organisations working with people who are in one way or the other suffering marginalisation to carry out participatory research: Participate. People excluded and marginalised were supported to frame and carry out participatory research amongst themselves using a variety or participatory methods.  For me, as I interacted with these groups, the supremacy of people’s agency to act and make decisions in their lives was evidenced again and again throughout the process. Of course the participants of the studies faced impossible choices in their lives and generally development including MDGs did not reach them, yet this did not dampen their spirit to take charge of their lives. All they asked was – ‘work with us.’

In the words of GCAP Co Chair, Marta Benavides:

‘it is not for these people to accompany development but for development to accompany these people’.

But, it is not just disappointment that I have to cope with after reading the synthesis report; I also have some traces of anger in me. When the secretary general listed the consultations that have taken place, he only listed those that were organised and driven by the UN system. Mention of civil society was only in as far as they participated in these UN controlled spaces. Having been part of initiatives initiated by the people, my anger is understandable. It is not only the governments that are providing leadership; the people have provided leadership too. In fact, just as the UN system and the Member states invited the people into their spaces, the people also invited the UN and Member states into their spaces. Reports from these spaces were widely circulated within the UN. You can therefore imagine how I felt when I read the list of consultation- High Level Panel, UN Task Team, Business led process and the Open Working Group process and the sentences end with a full stop before any mention of the Participatory Research that Beyond 2015 and IDS conducted, the National Dialogues that GCAP, IFP, CAN and Beyond 2015 organised or the September 2014 climate march.

What about the Campaign for People’s Goals? Are they doing their thing far away from the UN for the member states to take note? What happened to the transformational shifts proposed by the Africa Working Group on Post 2015?


What next for participatory research for policy influence?

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Thea ShahrokhJoanna Wheeler

Participate partners have been critically reflecting on the participatory approaches they have employed in attempts to shift power in policymaking – including the engagement with the post-2015 process.  In this final blog of the series, Thea Shahrokh and Joanna Wheeler share their recommendations for future participatory research for policy influence.

Knowledge from the Margins: An anthology from a global network on participatory practice and policy influence draws together reflections, both collective and personal, on the experiences of using participatory research to try and influence policymaking processes, including those at the global level. Compiling it was our opportunity to draw together reflections, both collective and personal, on the experiences of using participatory research to try and influence policymaking processes, including those at the global level.

Through the process of editing the anthology we have been inspired and challenged by people living in extreme marginalisation and poverty to take these lessons forward; we have become clearer about our own assumptions of how change happens and what we can contribute; and we have also been able to shed light on the gaps that persist in trying to connect people in order to shift power in policymaking.

Based on our experience in Participate we offer the following recommendations for future practitioners, advocates and supporters of participatory research for policy influence.

1. Continue to champion participatory research as
a means to help people in the margins gather their own evidence, present their own viewpoints and work together to build relationships with policymakers and service providers to identify more appropriate solutions to problems and to help them realise their rights.

2. Promote a ‘see-feel-change’ approach over the prevailing ‘analyse-think-change’ paradigm as an effective means to create the empathy needed for change. Whilst enhancing the empathy of policymakers has been tested under Participate, there may be value in helping people in the margins to better understand and empathise with the position and constraints facing policymakers as well.

3. Recognise that urgency, passion and commitment emanate from the ‘see-feel-change’ approach and that these are the greatest catalysts for change. Seize serendipitous opportunities to maintain urgency. Numbers, reports, and statistics alone rarely spawn urgency.

4. Recognise and support methodological experimentation, creativity and new uses for technology in research approaches of this kind. What is possible can be expanded and changed, but only if innovation and risk-taking is encouraged.

5. Give more weight to understanding the constraints and impediments which prevent policymakers from engaging with the reality of poverty. Recognise the risks, both personal and political, and creatively find ways to help them to engage directly and to challenge received wisdom (including creating safe spaces to doubt).

6. Exercise care to ensure that people living in
 the margins champion their own causes, raise their own voices and use ways they find most appropriate and effective to influence change, and are not exploited for other’s ends. Keep constant vigilance that external actors remain as facilitators not managers of processes of change.

7. Continue to support initiatives like Participate which bring together participatory research experiences and enable collective and collaborative reflection around supporting conditions for change.

We hope that the Participate initiative and this anthology will give others ideas of how the voices of those
who are marginalised can be amplified. We hope it will provoke action to bring policymakers and people living in poverty together face-to-face. There is much to be done by many: Participate should not be a one- off, but should reinforce and inspire a broadening range of initiatives post-2015 to put those who are last first. This anthology is the start.

Knowledge from the marginsKnowledge from the Margins: An anthology from a global network on participatory practice and policy influence


Welcome to the Data Revolution Advisory Group – but will it be a revolution driven by people?

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Neva Frecheville

Article by Neva Frecheville, originally posted on CAFOD policy team blog, Serpents and Doves

A warm welcome to Ban Ki-Moon’s new independent expert advisory group on the data revolution. While the data revolution conversation has been bubbling away over the last year, it’s been difficult to see how it will be brought into the official post-2015 process. With the announcement of the expert group, that missing piece of the puzzle has become clearer. The group will be tasked to input to the UN SG’s much anticipated Synthesis Report, providing input into the fourth chapter on the accountability framework (the other three covering the background, goals and targets proposed by the OWG, and financing).

Benita, 4 years old, from Ruyenzi, Rwanda uses a phone

So far, so good. But looking at the press release, a couple of questions occurred to me. As I’ve previously pointed out, the data revolution is in danger of missing out on the key constituency who are meant to benefit most from the collective endeavour to create a global development agenda: the very people who on a daily-basis experience poverty, injustice, discrimination and exclusion. Yet reading through the list I failed to spot anyone who would obviously champion this perspective. When the Secretary General High Level Panel was formed in 2012, Graҫa Machel, among others, supported the perspectives of people living in poverty, and many Panellists reached out to engage with different groups.

This contributed to the strength of the Panel’s report, which understood that the post-2015 development agenda needs to place people at the centre and to hear their stories. (In comparison to the Intergovernmental Committee of Experts on Sustainable Development Financing, which was heavily criticised for failing to open its doors to stakeholder participation.) While I understand that the Data Revolution Advisory Group is planning to consult with civil society, how will it hear the perspectives of people on the margins within such a tight timeframe?

The expert group should remember that data is not just technical and that the data revolution should be more than statistics, new technologies, and number crunching. The data revolution must also be about power. Information without a purpose is meaningless but who and how that purpose is defined is inherently political. Qualitative data, gathered from people’s experiences, stories and histories, play an important part in understanding what sustainable development is and how it is delivered. The Participate initiative, which gathered knowledge from the margins for the post-2015 process, is a good place to understand this contribution.

The Data Revolution group is called to assess opportunities to strengthen accountability across the national, regional and global levels. The newly convened group would do well to remember that accountability should be towards people, and within the post-2015 process, it is our duty to hear the perspectives, experiences and realities of those who are most often ignored or unheard, who are most often powerless.

I was also surprised that there seem to be no representatives from countries who genuinely struggle with a lack of capacity in National Statistical Offices. Although the Panel has 24 members, I couldn’t find an expert from an LDC among them. I think this is a shame – if we’re serious about addressing the obstacles to implementing a new development agenda, we should hear from the countries that have the least resource to support it.

For what revolution was ever successful without people?

Three recommendations to the Panel to wish them well:

  1. Be open to learning from different perspectives that complement traditional data collection methodologies. Participate resources are a good place to start.
  2. Include an expert who will champion grass-roots realities and understands data collection from people’s perspectives. An organisation like Spatial Collective in Kenya is one option.
  3. Give enough time for civil society consultations for marginalised people to participate, not just large, well-resources NGOs.

Digital storytelling for transformation

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Participate has developed a number of innovations with the goal of collapsing the distance between the grassroots experience and global policymakers tasked with creating the post-2015 framework. Participate PRG members Gill Black and Pegalia Tusiime describe how sharing deeply personal experiences through Digital Story Telling (DST) can bring the real challenges of living in marginalisation and poverty to the attention of decision-makers.

Digital storytelling (DST) is a creative, participatory audio-visual process that brings people’s stories to life through the use of digital technology. A digital story is a short (two-three minute) film sequence made up of static images that is consciously prepared and told as a first person narrative, from the heart.

Digital Storytelling South Africa

Digital storytelling is a powerful self-reflective process that asks participants to share memories and emotions with honesty

DST has become an increasingly popular approach for development practitioners to work closely with community members. It is a way of gaining deeper understanding of the multiple and complex ways in which people’s lives are affected by social issues. The process is carried out with the intention of building new knowledge, skills, connections and self-confidence for the storytellers.

The process invites participants to explore their personal experience through a creative and expressive lens, and many have experienced DST as empowering. The collective process of sharing honest emotions, being reflective and working creatively builds a bond between participants that enables both personal strength, and also the identification of collective challenges to be overcome.

The application of DST is far-reaching; the resulting stories can be used, for example, to evaluate learning, generate research material, and spark discussion and debate at local, national or global levels. Collective viewing of digital stories can be an effective approach for inducing reflection and action of community actors, organisations and institutions. They can also facilitate the understanding of policymakers.

The Kawempe action research on slum health issues and health research engagement by HEPS Uganda, encouraged community members to engage with each other, local authorities and policymakers to increase the visibility of health needs in their communities using DST. Community researchers created four digital stories around the health work and their own perspectives in the slums.

Gilbert, who lives in the slum, shared his story during the drama presentation in Katanga community. He expressed how he is confronted with multiple issues and daily challenges that impact on his health and wellbeing. Gilbert’s story places emphasis on the positive impact of the digital story telling initiative on the development of his community, in particular how it is changing the environment around him. The storytelling process has also helped transform Gilbert’s negative perceptions of Katanga, and there is an opportunity for a shift in the perspectives that the wider society have towards people living in slums as well.

Being poor in the poorest slum in Uganda means being invisible in plain sight of power, wealth and millions of fellow citizens. Digital stories have been a powerful and empowering way to tackle this invisibility by the slum dwellers themselves. By conveying people’s experiences, a more socially accountable form of urban slum development has been encouraged which involves citizens in an evaluative role, and supports citizen action for social change.

Knowledge from the marginsThis blog is an edited version of Gill and Pegalia’s contributions to Participate’s latest publication ‘Knowledge from the Margins: An anthology from a global network on participatory practice and policy influence’ .

Gill Black is the director of the Sustainable Livelihoods Foundation (SLF) and works in community-based TB and
HIV research.

Pelagia Tusiime is Community Empowerment Program Manager at the Coalition for Health Promotion and Social Development (HEPS), Uganda.


Pathways of participation in policy influencing

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Lisa Van Dijk

Ahead of the UNGA post-2015 stock-taking events this month, Former Director of Programs for the Center for Development Services in Cairo, Lisa van Dijk describes the ‘pathways of influence’ taken by the Participate initiative to bring the voices on the ground into global policymaking. What have these pathways looked like, and what are some of the key lessons we can learn from these?

The past two decades have seen a proliferation of opportunities for the perspectives of people experiencing poverty and marginalisation to input into global policymaking. So far these efforts have been contested, with attempts to embed participatory methodologies falling into many pitfalls. While Participate was built on learning from previous attempts 
to influence global policy, we aimed to further understand participatory processes, and advance practical ways for participation at every level of decision-making, from local to national and global.

The knowledge generated through Participate has been used at a variety of levels in different policy spaces, creating multiple policy-influencing pathways. The map illustrated below was developed by several members of Participate’s Participatory Research Group (PRG) to illustrate some of the multiple pathways in which knowledge from participatory research was used 
to influence policy processes at local, national and global levels.

System map

People’s capacity

Central to the policy influencing process presented
 in the system map  below is the capacity of people living in poverty and marginalisation to create knowledge as ‘evidence’ of their own issues, and to recognise the value of that knowledge through participatory research processes. The research methods and approaches that were used to generate this knowledge are discussed in other sections of this anthology. Participatory research, such as Participatory Video (PV)Digital Storytelling (DST), and in-depth participatory inquiry aims to enable local people living in poverty and marginalisation to do their own research for social change on their own terms.

The participatory research methodology aspires to a proactive role for local people at every stage of the research. As well as designing the research, people living in poverty and marginalisation collected and interpreted the information. Through the research initiative, participants created their own space in the debate by engaging with their own community members as well as external stakeholders. For example, in Ghana, children identified lack of knowledge around sexuality as a key driver of teenage pregnancy, and used video to present their findings to their peers and community in an attempt to change attitudes. Testimonies prepared by a group of sexual minorities in India using participatory video were shown to their own members during their Annual General Body meeting, as well as being displayed at the ‘Work With Us’ exhibition at the United
Nations (UN) headquarters to influence the global post-2015 debate. Where people in poverty and marginalisation generated evidence of their issues and priorities, they often felt increased ownership and were motivated to use this evidence to drive change at local and global levels.

Lessons learned

Bringing the voices on the ground into global policymaking is a process of incremental change following multiple pathways with multiple types of engagement.

Participate aimed to bring the perspectives of those in poverty into decision-making processes, however this is not enough: the global decision-making processes must feedback to the local and national levels, and enable people living in poverty and marginalisation to take action and advocate for their rights.

If we believe that people have the right to have a meaningful say on the global policy that affects them, then it is our responsibility to learn how to do this in the most effective and ethical way. Participate was built on the learning from previous attempts to influence global policy.

Reflecting on whether we were successful in achieving what we aimed to set out to do: it is probably too early to tell. We were successful in getting local messages synthesised to the global level, and this has had some influence on the outcomes of the post- 2015 debate.

Knowledge from the margins

This blog is an edited version of Lisa’s and other partners’ contributions to Participate’s latest publication ‘Knowledge from the Margins: An anthology from a global network on participatory practice and policy influence’.