Echoing voices from the ground vital for post-2015

Posted on 26/09/2013
By Vijay Krishnarayan

Every September New Yorkers give up part of their city to the United Nations happening that is the General Assembly. Not only does it attract 193 governmental delegations, but interest groups from every conceivable sector, including a vibrant civil society presence, writes Commonwealth Director, Vijay Krishnarayan in New York.

The Commonwealth Foundation has joined the throng this year so that we can share the outcomes of our joint work with the United Nations Millennium Campaign (UNMC) that took soundings from across the Commonwealth on a future internationally agreed development framework. Given the array of civil society organisations here, it is also an opportunity to consolidate relationships and establish new partners as well as to learn from others sharing our objectives. 

Our joint project with the UNMC convened civil society organisations in 20 countries where they reflected on: progress towards the MDGs; the usefulness of the MDG framework for civil society; the contribution of civil society to the attainment of the MDGs; and issues for a post-2015 agenda to consider. The Foundation documented the results for 14 of those 20 countries and produced national papers as well as a synthesis report: Commonwealth Perspectives: Ideas for a New Development Agenda. It showed that there are particular issues that Commonwealth citizens want to see addressed post 2015 including: gender equality; the development needs of small states; and Non-Communicable Diseases. But it also showed that Commonwealth citizens care as much about the way that development is done.  They are not alone. 

This week has provided a focus for several initiatives that have been canvassing citizens’ voices on what should follow the MDGs post 2015. These include the UN’s own project “The World We Want” which reached a million people through 88 national consultations and on-line engagement. The UN’s Non-Governmental Liaison Service consulted with 120 regional civil society networks. Participate – an initiative co-convened by the Institute of Development Studies and the civil society network “Beyond 2015,” used participatory action research to hear from people in 29 countries. 

The striking thing is the degree of convergence across these pieces of work. Citizens: acknowledged that the MDGs provided a focus for development efforts; experienced development in a way that left them disappointed with implementation; and wanted to see future priorities feature decent jobs, care for the environment, accountable governance and peace.  The UN Secretary General’s (UNSG) report “A Life of Dignity for All,” which was presented to the General Assembly clearly has citizens’ fingerprints on it. He calls for goals that are measurable and adaptable to both global and local settings. He says these goals should be universal— applying to all countries. He makes specific references to a sustainable development-based agenda with quality employment and a new global partnership for implementation. 

From here the process of developing the post 2015 development framework becomes increasingly governmental. In the UN system, attention shifts to the so called “Open Working Group” – 30 UN member country representatives nominated by different regions, which will use the UNSG’s report as a point of departure for further thinking on the new framework – there will be opportunities for civil society to provide inputs until February 2014. The Open Working Group will present its report to the next General Assembly in 2014 with the seal being set on the new framework in September 2015. 

For civic concerns about participation and accountable governance to prevail through this process, the representations from the well organised and articulate civil society organisations represented here in New York need to echo the voices of those working at the local, national and regional level. In turn, opportunities need to be found that continue the in-country discussions that have started. It’s only through these national exchanges that civil society and governments will begin to appreciate each other’s position – realise that they have some things in common and begin to deconstruct the somewhat abstract concepts of participation and governance into tangible tools for more effective development.  The Foundation can play its part by supporting dialogue and the engagement of all stakeholders in setting development objectives. These national and regional dialogues will help governments take account of citizens’ voices as they move through the UN’s process. 

Governments may well agree on the need for a single set of goals addressing poverty and sustainability, but the extent to which issues of governance and peace show up is a moot point. The themes that civil society organisations have highlighted are currently at the margins of governmental concerns: while these might feature in preambles, effort is needed at all levels to see these translated into goals or targets. If these issues are to stand any chance of making it on to the new development agenda the discussions between civil society and governments need to continue through until the new framework is agreed in September 2015.