Displacement activity or real engagement?


Over the last twenty years or so I have seen a number of attempts to engage stakeholders in the negotiations at the UN. These include:
  • Public, stakeholder or civil society hearings (they are often called different things)
  • Speaking slots at intergovernmental negotiation sessions
  • Participation in Round table (where there is a round table with stakeholders participating eg UNEP GC or High Level events with Heads of State)
  • Presentation as an expert on a panel
  • Stakeholder Dialogues with member states (UN Commission on Sustainable Development 1998-2002)

Of these the last three are the ones which have had the biggest impact and the first two the least impact. There is a very good review of this done by Stakeholder Forum from around 2009 that is worth reading.

Probably one of the best examples of impact was the stakeholder dialogues from the 1999 CSD where for 12 hours, yes I did say 12 hours,  there was an exchange between stakeholders and governments facilitated by the Chair of the CSD Simon Upton from New Zealand. One of the reasons why it was so successful is that only three (not 9) Major Groups were in full participation in each three hour session. Half the time went to governments and half to stakeholders -  It did enable each Major Group over the 2 days to have their say on a particular issue that was relevant to them in at least one of the sessions and it did enable much more in-depth discussion.

How was this possible you might ask?

Well, stakeholders had to produce their papers by December for a May CSD. There was then a comparative analysis done by the UN Division on Sustainable Development and four areas were identified for discussion in the four sessions of three hours. This enabled a much focused discussion on issues such as financial leakage in the tourism industry or tourism sustainability codes. The outcome was a ‘Chairs text’.

The final aspect that made these dialogues so successful was that the New Zealand government then entered the ‘Chairs text’ as an official New Zealand position into the negotiations (which Simon Upton was also chairing) so then governments had to argue to have the text removed not to have it added.

In any UN process the earlier you are able to get your views infront of governments the best. The SDG OWG is a very good example of how experts on panels can have an impact on government thinking. As these were early in the process.

Post 2015 processes Stakeholders or Civil Society?

That brings me to the present discussions around the Post 2015 process and the Finance for Development process.

But before I do that I want to explain again the reasoning behind the Major Groups concept and why the civil society concept is outdated and not helpful.

What the civil society concept does, is group together everyone who is not government or industry. So in discussions with governments there is one voice for industry and then everyone else is included in the other voice. This reduces or in some cases eliminates the space for stakeholders from 8 to 1 space and stakeholders such as youth, women, Indigenous Peoples, local government and community based organizations etc lose their individual and vital voices.

The civil society process is also often dominated by the larger NGOs which tend to be from the well-funded north. The stakeholder discourse on the other hand recognizes those different sectors in society and enables them to have their own voice. The definition of stakeholder is:
“Stakeholders are those who have an interest in a particular decision, either as individuals or representatives of a group. This includes people who influence a decision, or can influence it, as well as those affected by it.” (Hemmati, 2002 – from Multi-stakeholder Processes on Governance andSustainability)

The UN presents this as the Major Groups – the nine agreed in Rio. I have argued since the early 1990s that the Major Groups was an opening that should be expanded to other sectors of society where relevant. This does not include NGO or multi-stakeholder coalitions. The NGO coalitions should work through the NGO Major Group and multi-stakeholder coalitions through different stakeholder constituencies or just lobby as a coalition.

So what should be happening around the 2015 process is a process of Major Groups and other stakeholder and not a civil society process.  

One comment in passing about the Major Group organizations that are elected as Organizing Partners, they have a responsibility to expand those they serve particular from developing countries. I would like to see who they are actually servicing registered in a transparent way so that it can be clear they are enlarging the community they serve.  

What at present is happening is a mess. Whoever came up with different Steering Committees for the different negotiation sessions clearly doesn’t understand the approach of the last twenty years and is failing to see the co-relation between formats and channels for participation and the actual quality of engagement and potential for impact. This mess is causing huge a amount of displacement activity and time wasting - and for what? To coordinate input to for a 2 or 3 hour hearing with member states? Where very few member states engage in the sessions and of course these happen after governments have come to the viewpoint for that session so are less open to taking any notice.

If stakeholders who want to develop advocacy strategies and engage in the process do not know by now what they want to see in the different sections of the Outcome Document that will be adopted at the Summit in September - in the Declaration, the SDGs, the Moi and the Follow Up & Review and Global Partnership sections – and what is the concrete strategy they will deploy to maximize their chances of achieving it, then there is little point in participating.  

That participation will fall short in terms of real contribution, engagement and influence. If they know what they want, then they also know that they need to use ALL their time - and I mean ALL their to talk to governments informally and to be ready to produce substantive, relevant and political savvy input with agility, timeliness, cross-constituency coordination and rigor. With six negotiations sessions left until the summit, this is NOT a time for new people who are not familiar, experienced or trained on UN processes and stakeholder engagement in these processes to participate and expect to be effective and have real impact.

Governments have little time for working out if the new people coming convey the messages of a constituency that they should listen to or whether it’s rather the message of a particular organisations or worse still a Non Governmental Individual (NGI). Governments need and want stakeholder input that is adapted to the current stage of negotiations.

The richness and freshness inherent to having new people deserves adequate formats to make the best out of these assets. And the incorporation of new people should not have as co-lateral consequence the removal of stakeholders with familiarity and experience or training on UN processes and stakeholder engagement in them.

New people can use this time to start understanding the process, support existing coalitions, build a profile for the future, meet donors, organize side events or network with other organizations.. These are all valid reasons to be there.

I worked with Beyond 2015, Civicus and DSD in running training session at the last session In January and will do the same in February and March because as new people come in they do need proper training and should be taking up leadership roles in the future. Those of us around now have a responsibility to share our skills and approaches to that next generation.


If you are new then I do suggest that you buy my and Michael Strauss’s book How to lobby at intergovernmental Meetings – Mine is a CaféLatte which gives you a  lot of the tricks to the trade. If you see me in the Vienna Café and have a question I’m always available to help.

If you want to understand where and how decisions are taken in intergovernmental meetings then read From Rio+20 to a NewDevelopment Agenda: Building a Bridge to a Sustainable Future by Felix Dodds, Jorge Laguna Celis, Liz Thompson 

 If you want to read about sustainable development over the last forty years the success and failures at the intergovernmental level then read ONLY ONE EARTH The Long Road via Rio to Sustainable Development by Felix Dodds, Michael Strauss with Maurice Strong



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