The post-2015 consultations – does quantity add to quality?

A women's group meeting in Bangladesh as part of a CAFOD project to improve food and livelihood security in the context of climate change

A women’s group meeting in Bangladesh as part of a CAFOD project to improve food and livelihood security in the context of climate change

Ever since the United Nations (UN) were created, civil society fought to establish and strengthen their position as crucial stakeholders in UN processes. So how could civil society ever say no, if consulted as part of a UN process? But looking at the consultations on the post-2015 development framework, I wonder if there is point when consultations cannot serve their purpose anymore.

Just to be clear – I am a great fan of consultations, the more transparent, inclusive, participatory and well resourced, the better. The statement on consultation criteria put together at the CSO conference on post-2015 as part of the CIVICUS World Assembly provides the parameter for how consultations should take place. Consultations should:

  • be well planned and communicated in advance,
  • be clear about what happens with the input,
  • involve a two-way communication,
  • consist of a mix of meetings and calls for papers/input,
  • have enough time, resources and technical support to ensure inclusivity.

The full statement co-signed but many CSOs can be found here. UN Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson’s response to the statement is very encouraging:

“the Secretary-General and I feel very strongly about the critical role of civil society to the work of the United Nations, including the ongoing processes on the definition of a new development agenda beyond 2015” and welcome the “intention to establish a direct dialogue and working relationship with the Secretary General’s High-level Panel [on post-2015]”

So let’s see how the current post-2015 consultations compare against these criteria.

What does the current picture of the post-2015 consultations look like?

At the moment the average civil society organization can now choose to contribute to up to 11 thematic and 60 to 100 national consultations, each one of them using several outreach media – e-consultations, meetings, papers, expert groups, panels, twitter, video, facebook hangouts – multiplying the input opportunities ad infinitum..

In addition, the UN High-Level Panel on post-2015 and their outreach team have set up their own consultation mechanism consisting of a mix of meetings and on-line questionnaires.

Finally, there are still processes waiting to be established: the Open Working Group on Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the intergovernmental process who will ultimately negotiate the post-MDG framework.

Consultation overload?

It is great to have a whole mix of outreach methods, albeit a bit heavy on the online-side. The web platform bravely attempts the gargantuan task to provide an overview of this myriad of activities. However, it leaves web-surfers confused rather than enthused. This sheer number of options to input jeopardises clarity and advance planning, and presents a real risk for inclusivity. Paracelsus, a medieval physician, believed that all things are poisonous – it just depends on the dose. I’m starting to believe that too much consultation could be bad for one’s health.

Naturally, nobody is expected to contribute to everything and people should prioritize. But the vast range of ways to contribute – compounded by the fact that it is not always clear what opportunities will spring up next – make it extremely difficult to pick strategically. A multitude of differing consultations poses a real risk of losing or muffling valuable voices since only those NGOs with enough time and resources are able to cover all the bases to get heard.

Too much to take in?

My favourite criteria from the above mentioned statement is: ‘Before engaging in consultations and providing input to any of the processes, civil society must have a commitment that all inputs will be fully considered’. But who could ever read/hear/watch all contributions, let alone know how to pick the most relevant and synthesize them into bite-sized summaries for decision-makers? What is the threshold beyond which the number of submissions makes any attempt to consolidate and synthesize the outcome a futile exercise?

In all likelihood, confronted with the sheer amount of input, those receiving the input from these consultations have to pick and choose where to engage and will probably fall back on trusted sources or be drawn to the loudest voices. Vital contributions from marginalized voices will fall by the wayside.

Civil society will never just get their heads together in an orderly fashion, agree on priorities and pass them on neatly packaged to decision-makers. But multiple overlapping conversations on the same topic will certainly not help towards focussed outcomes.

Fighting to be ignored?

Though fuelled by the best intentions, the post-2015 consultation frenzy is not the first time civil society has been engaged in consultations which have no impact. At Rio+20 – which was set to be a shining beacon of good consultation practice –  the top ask coming out from multiple consultations was to tackle fossil fuel subsidies. In the Rio+20 outcome document UN member countries merely confirmed to address fossil fuel subsidies in the same way they had prior committed to and invited others to do the same. Not exactly a sign that civil society input was taken seriously.

Often, despite grand claims to be ‘an unprecedented and unique opportunity’, consultations (for example with youth) turn out to be a tokenistic gesture, a box-ticking exercise with little prospect of impacting on the actual decision-making processes.

How to fight the consultation blues?

Looking at all this, my recipe to drive away the post-2015 consultation blues is:

  • More concrete and targeted consultations (for example, comments on draft versions of outcome documents will be a lot more productive and effective).
  • Provide on more strategic and effective opportunities to input, even if that means that the number of parallel consultations has to be cut down.
  • Ensure that turnaround times for consultations and applications are significantly longer. In this way, a broader audience can be reached and the quality of the results improved.
  •  Dialogue – not just input – needs to happen.
  • Communicate the road map on time and don’t change plans or add consultations at the last minute.

So what next?

The start of this New Year is a good opportunity to tidy up and make fresh plans. Here is a little to do-list for the UN bodies and Member States in charge of the different consultations:

1.   The thematic and national consultations already underway need a comprehensive, accessible and understandable consultation mapping that covers everything from now until the UN MDG summit in September 2013. The inequalities consultation timeline is a good example.

 2.   More importantly, this mapping needs to clarify how the different components of the same consultation are linked together and how they will contribute to the overall process.

3.   The UN HLP should clarify how they will use all the inputs received from e-consultations and outreach days and how they want to consult with stakeholders on draft versions of their report, due in May.

4.   Any future stakeholder engagement, from the UN MDG summit in September 2013 to the process negotiating the post-MDG framework in 2015 needs to be planned now based on existing recommendations. Clarity on mechanism, road map and resources should be available by March 2013.

And last but most certainly not least (and that is why it deserves the final word in this blog)

5.   Ensure that the perspective and priorities of people directly affected by poverty and injustice are not drowned out by a cacophony of voices. Only a tiny percentage of all these consultations is using participatory methodologies to engage with those who should ultimately benefit from the post-2015 framework. ‘Participate’, a CSO-driven initiative is living up to this task but high-quality, in-depth research like this takes time. The results are due by the 30th of July, but now is the right time to make space and get ready to receive the ‘knowledge from the margins’.

3 Responses to “The post-2015 consultations – does quantity add to quality?”

  1. Inputting to a black hole: what will the HLP report deliver? | Serpents and Doves: A development policy blog Says:

    […] colleague has commented previously what makes for good consultation practice. The one that’s lacking at the moment is what has happened with the input. There is no way the […]

  2. Open Working Group on SDGs is ‘getting down to business’ | Serpents and Doves: A development policy blog Says:

    […] with civil society and other stakeholders? The High Level Panel and the UN were exhaustive in their approach to consultations. The OWG should match them on the consultations and up their game by adding a two-way exchange of […]

  3. 15 Seconds of Fame - Why Post-2015 Doesn't Need More 'Participation' Says:

    […] broadly about the consultation process, Bernadette Fischler, Policy Analyst on post-MDGs for CAFOD, suggests that the volume of discussions has reached its maximum “dosage”, cheapening individual […]

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