Emerging Voices: “We the Peoples” – Global Public Participation in the Formulation of the Sustainable Development Goals

Emerging Voices: “We the Peoples” – Global Public Participation in the Formulation of the Sustainable Development Goals

[Otto Spijkers is Assistant Professor of Public International Law at Utrecht University and Arron Honniball is a Student of the LL.M. Public International Law at Utrecht University]

As the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) approach their target date of 2015, the international community has begun developing post-2015 goals; the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). A number of concurrent work streams were established, including the High-Level Panel of Eminent Persons on the Post-2015 Development Agenda (HLP). It was emphasised throughout the resulting report of the HLP and at the launch event on May 30, 2013 that various global public consultations shaped that report and will continue to shape the SDGs development process.

In this post we wish to assess whether there is a meaningful opportunity for global public participation in the formulation of the SDGs. Are citizens, individually or organized, provided with an opportunity to influence the development, implementation and/or evaluation of the SDGs?

For international lawyers and political scientists, it is especially interesting to look at this “experiment” in global public participation. Are we witnessing the start of a new process of global policy-making, with global public consultation as one of its principal steps? Such process would proceed roughly as follows: First the UN conducts a global public consultation; then a group of experts use the results of the consultation as the basis for a comprehensive report, and this report is then the basis of a UN-led negotiation process, which will ultimately lead to commitments accepted by the community of States.

To facilitate a global consultation on the SDGs, the United Nations has created various websites where individuals can express their opinion. The World We Want is an example. On the website, it is explained that the aim is to “gather the priorities of people from every corner of the world and help build a collective vision that will be used directly by the United Nations and World Leaders to plan a new development agenda launching in 2015.”  Individual people can suggest what needs to be included in the new development goals. A lecturer of the Hague University in the Netherlands, Helen Kopnina, has suggested that “ecological justice” should be included. She explained as follows:

[Ecological justice refers to] justice between species. It is shocking how much of the world we want is conceived in anthropocentric terms of natural resources without any regard for plants and animals that provide these so-called ecosystem services.

What effect does this suggestion have on the drafting of the SDGs? The process is still on-going, but it is already clear that ecological justice was not included in the list of goals in the HLP report. Perhaps that is just as well. After all, it is difficult to defend that a suggestion made by 1 of 7,095,217,980 global citizens alone can lead to the inclusion of another SDG, and determine the policy of 193 States for the next 15 years.

Perhaps the United Nations and its Members States are better served, not with a series of individual remarks, but with a majority opinion. And thus the UN also organized a global ‘MyWorld’ survey on the SDGs. It is worth taking a look at the results so far. The population of the Netherlands believes that the protection of forests, rivers and oceans ought to be the number one priority. The people in Oceania agree. However, this is not the world’s opinion. Globally, the number one priority is believed to be a good education. The protection of forests, rivers and oceans comes only at number 8. Around 670,000 votes were cast thus far, of which no less than 163,000 in Nigeria and only 23 in neighbouring Chad. These figures do show that the voting route is not without its problems. Some States simply cannot, or will not, be able to mimic Nigeria and mobilise vote collection through governmental-civil society partnerships. Such inequalities will inevitably damage the representative value of the results. On the survey’s website, one can read that the aim is to “capture people’s voices, priorities and views, so that global leaders can be informed as they begin the process of defining the new development agenda for the world”. But when comparing the results of the ‘MyWorld’ survey with the HLP report it is difficult to see how this survey shaped that report. Almost all the 16 priorities, which could be selected and ranked in order of importance by the participants in the survey, reappear in the report. Support for those who cannot work is the only priority not to be included in the report in some form. If I, as participant in the MyWorld survey, suggest political freedoms should be prioritised, what influence have I had if the panel recommends action on almost every priority I was offered? More importantly what influence have the thousands who voted for action on supporting those who cannot work had if this is not tackled? This goal ranked 11th globally whilst action on climate change ranked as the lowest priority globally. Yet climate change is emphasised throughout the report as both a cross-cutting issue and an element in two of the proposed ‘transformative shifts’ required in society. Sadly for the Dutch their number one priority – protection of forests, rivers and oceans – faced the unexplained anomaly of not a single mention of rivers in the report.

Looking further afield however, this online global consultation was just one of the participation routes open to those wishing to shape the HLP report. The report also benefited from regional, national and thematic consultations by both UN bodies and Member States. The HLP proudly noted that it consulted more than 5000 civil society organisations and 250 chief executives from 121 different countries. They held outreach days with ‘town hall’ style roundtable discussions as part of each panel meeting and reviewed almost 1000 written submissions. In terms of quantity that is a staggering amount of public engagement if one compares it to the MDGs development process. No wonder difficulties such as outreach fatigue began to become apparent to participants at later meetings!

If we think global public participation in the form of (online) consultation serves to (a) influence the process by contributing to informed decisions and (b) to increase public ownership, we can garner from the civil society responses that at least for that sector of society the opportunity has been credible and worthwhile. Save the Children, Bread institute, VSO UK and Cafod are examples of generally welcoming responses.

The next step is then to see what the UN Member States will do with the report. The goals included in an annex to the HLP report are only illustrative. But as the most visible input into the Secretary General’s report (anticipated in September 2013) those seeking to continue to influence the process will have to engage those goals. The report is just the first tentative step in a global consultation on the post-2015 agenda.

The remarks above present a mixed review in terms of influence, and thus it is questionable whether we are in fact witnessing the start of a new process of global policy-making with global public participation as one of its principal elements. But the process is still in development, as the UN itself often acknowledges, and the SDG-drafting experience could at least be seen as an interesting experiment in global public participation. Looking to this experiment as a whole, both the level of engagement, and the level of interest from the public are on the increase. The use of new technologies, such as twitter feed data mining, would suggest the UN is keen to continue and broaden the consultation process. The key task now is to make sure such consultations do not go to waste. Future consultations can be expected to be more extensive, but they also need to be more effective. The results need to not only influence the future SDGs, but also be seen to influence the SDGs. Only then will the public share the sentiments of the UN and NGOs on these exciting new opportunities.

Finally, we would like to hear what stakeholders think of the public participation options provided by the UN. Therefore if you have been involved in any of the consultations, whether it’s national, regional, High Level Panel or Open Working Group related consultations we would appreciate if you could spend a few minutes completing our short survey. Just participate in our Sustainable Development Goals Stakeholder Input Survey (click on the link). We would also love to hear from anyone who decided not to engage in the consultations. Thank you for your assistance, and we look forward to the results!

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[…] shaped that report and will continue to shape the SDGs development process. In a post on Global Public Participation in the Formulation of the Sustainable Development Goals, published at Opinio Juris, we assessed whether there is a meaningful opportunity for global […]