Looking back on the past year as part of the United Nations World we Want team working on engaging people in a discussion of what matters for their future, I feel compelled to come clean on the experience thus far.
Our work is driven by the hypothesis that bureaucrats alone cannot determine a future set of global goals for development. PJ Ladd and team engaged our team in a conviction that a global framework needs to get mud on its boots.
The idea is that this helps to make sure that a new global set of goals are grounded in people’s real experiences with climate change, loss of faith in their governments, and struggles with what is seen as an increasingly unequal socio-economic playing field. Some of these initial hunches have been vindicated, which is satisfying.
Beyond the small pleasures of being at least partially right, we also learned a lot along the way. This blog post is part one devoted to debunking myths.
Stay tuned for my take on dangers of a consultative processes in the next episode of confessions of a serial consulter…
Myth# 1: Asking millions of people what kind of world what they want will yield a cacophony of disparate pleas that no one framework can satisfy
Turns out that when you ask a lot of people for their opinion, it actually breeds a respectable level of convergence.
This is not to say that all people want the same exact things. Clearly there are regional differences. We tend to hear more discussion of economic transformation in Africa, more focus on the impact of global trade in Asia, and a shared focus on resilience and social exclusion in Latin America and Eastern Europe.
But what is striking is the general agreement on the basics. Even across very different countries, people who have voted on MY World choose a good education, better healthcare, better job opportunities and an honest and responsive government among their top five. This is as true for wealthy countries like the US and the UK as it is for Nepal or Rwanda.
It is hard not to notice the repeat performance of good governance high among peoples’ expectations of a future global framework especially in countries in Eastern Europe such as Ukraine, Serbia and Turkey where an honest and responsive government comes out as people’s second highest priority before even education and job opportunities.
(Interestingly, men in Eastern Europe tend to prioritize good governance more than women – for Eastern European men, an honest and responsive government is their first priority.)
This convergence of popular opinion doesn’t imply that negotiators will agree. Alex Cobham of the Center for Global Development told us in #Istanbulpost2015 about the “like Marmite” factor when it comes to including income inequality in the post2015 agenda. His experience with members of the United Nations Secretary-General’s High Level Panel on the post-2015 Agenda is that, like Marmite, the divisive condiment, they either loved the idea of making income inequality a part of what we use to measure global progress, or they wouldn’t touch it with a ten foot pole.
Perhaps it is most tricky once decisions become political because what I find is that when you talk to the so called “real” people – those who are not elected or otherwise paid to think about sustainable development - you do see a real centripetal force prioritizing education, health, the environment equality, and accountability.
Myth #2: Consultations are great for spunky grassroots quotes, but the experts already know what can and should be done
We have all heard political speeches or read technical reports which include real lives stories to illustrate a predetermined point of view. People don’t often object to anecdotal evidence used to add color to an otherwise analytical approach.
But over the past year, I have noticed a sense of unease when it comes to thinking that peoples’ direct experiences are on equal footing with our more tried and true sources of expert opinion.
Our team continues to document, communicate and advocate the results of what people have told us, not least in the massive body of work in A Million Voices: The Future We Want.
We take every chance we can get to share the views that we have collected. But after we document it and share it, we have a hard time knowing what and how to couple what we have learned with statistical projections or scientific research. Are these equal sources of data?
What we are finding is that the areas where peoples’ direct experiences are the most illuminating are often the fuzzier, cross-sector, integrated kind of development issues. These are the ones where even well-meaning public policy initiatives fail given their inter-dependence with other aspects of service delivery, policy coordination or economic incentives.
One compelling story was shared by an HIV-positive woman from Papua New Guinea during a post-2015 group discussion facilitated by UNAIDS. To continue fighting the disease, this young mother has to walk several kilometres to a nearby urban medical centre to receive her antiretroviral treatment. Due to increased criminal activities and an insecure environment, she sometimes forgoes her long walk out of fear of being raped or attacked. She needs to make a daily security calculation, which sometimes means she misses her regular treatment, threatening her health as an individual and as a mother.
This is one story among many that illustrates the tough choices people face – and these are dilemmas that even those of us who think about these issues on a full time basis can’t anticipate by instinct.
In my view, this story is as compelling as hard data in demonstrating the inadequacy of isolated approaches to health, protection from violence and the rule of law. Her story demands a collective response: Health services and policing efforts need flexible solutions to increase coverage in remote areas, and laws need improved enforcement and gender sensitivity. Is what Matt Yglesias calls ‘artisanal data’ as likely as statistical reporting to lead to policy change? Maybe.
It’s not anecdotal evidence, it’s artisanal data.
— Matt Yglesias (@mattyglesias) February 19, 2013
This type of story might even be more powerful in some settings where popular understanding of social issues matters more than data driven policies.
Myth #3: Consultations can only work with people who have the luxury of spending time talking about their problems
During this process, the 88 national consultations have tried to go (back) to the source and speak to people in a range of circumstances – women farmers in Togo, ethnic minorities in Ukraine, business leaders in Egypt, people with HIV and AIDS in Peru and gang members in El Salvador among many others.
We have talked to thousands of farmers, people living with HIV and AIDS, displaced people and people from LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bi-sexual, Transgender, Queer) communities.
Even in the tech-savvy MY World survey, most votes were registered offline with the help of outreach teams. Over 170,000 opinions were collected this way in Nigeria alone.
This is not the first, nor will it be the last effort to engage people in efforts to define their own future. And clearly we have not reached everyone…not even close.
But for the United Nations, this has been an unprecedented process of opening up and creating a platform for dialogue among the poor, the excluded, the business community and their governments.
This concludes my first segment confessing as a serial consulter.
Have you had similar or other experiences with consultative processes for public policy? Do confess!
In the next instalment of confessions as a serial consulter, I will reveal some of the dangers we experienced during this kind of work….