Global Policy Forum

Give Grassroot Groups a Real Say on What Comes Next in Development


The upcoming Sustainability Development Goals due to replace the MDGs in 2015 are expected to have a “people-centered agenda”. However, civil society organizations (CSOs) have little voice in international decision-making, nor are there any mechanisms created to change that process for the SDGs. Moreover, grassroots CSOs in the global south in particular are often unable to participate, unlike larger northern NGOs that are well connected, have better funding and are ideally situated to lobby at international conferences. As a result, addressing root causes of poverty, inequality and environmental destruction, predominantly seen in the global south, are unlikely to have the desired impact without the input of local CSOs, which have a real understanding of these issues. For the SDGs to achieve greater success there is a need to enhance CSO involvement as stakeholders rather than background voices.

By Mark Dearn

February 22, 2013

For 13 years international development policy has rested on a set of goals written in "relative casualness". So casual was the manner of the small team working out of a basement office of the UN in New York that they initially "forgot" to include an environment goal – what became millennium development goal (MDG) seven on environmental sustainability.

Those targeted by the MDGs, and from 2015 by their successor when the MDGs expire, do not forget the importance of the environment. More than 100 million people could die by 2030 from the impact of climate change without an immediate shift in our consumption and production. According to a report commissioned by 20 governments, 90% of those deaths would be in developing countries.

This is just one example of how the poorest people are most affected by international development concerns. But their voice continues to be largely absent from the northern-led, top-down way of creating policy and practice. This process operates at two levels: one is the dominance of northern governments in international institutions and official decision-making processes; the other, the continuing exclusion of civil society organisations (CSOs) and social movements from government processes.

This is of particular concern for global south groups, many of which remain closer to their grassroots constituencies than some big northern NGOs, which hold privileged access to and close ties with northern governments, and have the resources to maintain an international lobbying presence.

Soon after the final meeting next month in Bali of the UN high-level panel (HLP) on the post-2015 development agenda – co-chaired by UK prime minister David Cameron, Liberia president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Indonesian president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono – a report on how to move beyond the MDGs will be submitted to UN member states.

It is expected that a set of sustainable development goals (SDGs) – an outcome of the Rio+20 conference – will replace the MDGs. Hope remains that where the MDGs failed, the SDGs may succeed such as replacing a focus on outcomes with prioritising processes to address the causes of poverty, inequality and environmental destruction. An overarching aim, expressed by the "people-centred agenda" described in the Monrovia communique, will be placing grassroots voices at the centre of the procedure to determine new goals.

This time round, far more effort seems to be being made on consulting with civil society. But appearances can be deceptive.

Clearly, it is impracticable to expect the nearly 2 billion people living in poverty to be reached by consultations, online or otherwise. And if not reflected in policies, consultations will be no more than symbolic. A clearer marker would be the inclusion of southern CSOs and social movements working with grassroots constituencies in the official process that continues long after the HLP.

The UN's roadmap for post-2015 outlines a phase to build "intergovernmental consensus" beginning after the UN general assembly in September and continuing until 2015. It is here that the new agenda will be determined. And it is from this process that civil society voices remain marginalised.

It is because of this that movements such as the Campaign for People's Goals, comprising a diverse group of CSOs, movements and networks from across the south, have arisen not to simply feed into consultations but to wage a campaign including engagement at official meetings and protests to demand government commitments that reflect people's concerns. At the forefront of these are issues including participation, redistribution and human rights, and an overarching assurance of grassroots participation in decision-making.

At the HLP meeting in Monrovia in January, Cameron said pursuing growth superseded tackling inequality. His words were at odds with the call for "socio-economic transformation" in both the official and civil society communiques, and from southern CSOs, which believe it is relentless pursuit of growth through profit that creates and entrenches inequality. A fear for grassroots groups is that if Cameron won't listen to his fellow panel members, will he listen to them?

Rather than inclusion as stakeholders in decision-making processes, the most "civil" of civil society voices are at best tolerated at international conferences. Against such a backdrop, how realistic is it that the grassroots can drive the post-2015 agenda and its anticipated goals? The UK government has not been shy to profess its self-interest in helping developing countries prosper. But the extent to which such governments will relinquish their role in determining the boundaries of that prosperity is questionable, and may largely depend on a global reconstitution of political-economic power.

There is much fanfare on civil society engagement in the post-2015 agenda. But the months to September and beyond will reveal if the next generation of policy will pay more than lip-service to a supposed new era of people-centred international development.


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