Participation – Going beyond the rhetoric

Tom Thomas, Chief Executive of Praxis, recently addressed United Nations member states at A post-2015 agenda for people and the planet – Echoing voices from civil society, an event organised by Beyond 2015, the Permamnent Mission of Denmark to the United Nations and other organisations to brief them about developments in discussions on the post-2015 agenda. The broad focus of the discussions were on the vital importance of the inclusion of equality across all levels and themes of the post-2015 framework, and addressing all dimensions of sustainable development through implementation and accountability mechanism.

During his presentation, Tom built a case for deeper participation and raised a few vital questions about whose participation we envisage, in what areas and what kind.

Here are some excerpts from his speech:

“A wealth of inspiring, deep and not always inward looking recommendations have emerged from people living in poverty. Equity and equality stand out as the core of people’s concern, and People, Planet and Participation have emerged as the three most important pillars on which to build the post 2015 framework.

These welcome beginnings notwithstanding, the larger question that begs an answer is how participation will be placed in the post 2015 framework. Rhetoric as usual or will the UN and governments be more imaginative to infuse into the framework a participation that has the potential to deepen democracies and produce superior outcomes?”

Pointing out the need for exploring and unpacking ‘community’, which is a conglomerate of excluded and marginalised identities, he calls for the inclusion of not only invisible groups such as disabled, lower castes and religious minorities, among others, but also ignored groups like youth and children.

“It must be recognized that there will be many sub population groups that will be normally invisible and ignored, even through ‘participatory processes’ – both by commission and omission. While a certain amount of discussion has taken place over the past decade about the invisible sub groups like the disabled, the elderly, the lower caste, religious minorities, women, etc., not enough has been said about the ignored population. Youth and children are a classic example of groups that get ignored as many of the processes are designed with an able bodied adult male as the active participant.”

Limiting participation to the process of goal setting would be a big mistake as it will reinforce their identity as receivers of dole.

“Raising communities to the level of active participants and partners in the framing, roll out and monitoring, will not merely make the targets more achievable, but also raise the self esteem of communities, an essential factor to help them stay out of poverty and better theirs and their communities’ lives.”

Participation should not be the kind aimed at increasing efficiency of a project or goal, but rather the kind that aims at empowerment. An empowered citizen, he says is better equipped to claim rights essential for better living.

“… what we need support for and champions from the member states, is to move participation from a mere ‘efficiency coefficient’ to an ’empowerment coefficient’.”

Rejecting the two big barriers cited for seeing participation as an essential component of any planning or implementing exercise, Tom points out examples of Praxis’ experience on how involving people cuts down the cost and increases the accuracy of information.

“The (high) estimates are for expert-led monitoring that as the authors themselves admit will finally at best yield estimates. The question then, would be, whether we want a monitoring that gives us accurately wrong information by experts or approximately correct information led by communities? Participatory monitoring not just gives you approximately correct data, it also engages communities in understanding and analyzing data thereby raising their critical consciousness and self esteem and make them not just recipients, but active partners.”

And last, but not the least, as Praxis experience with the shows, these are “testimonies of people’s capacities to vision for a future that is achievable”.

Tom ends with a call for action, urging the audience to help communities and civil society organisations claim spaces of participation within the post-2015 framework.

You can read the full speech here

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