The UN High Level Panel looking at development goals after 2015 has been in London for the past three days for an intense round of meetings. In the late afternoon of Friday 2 November, about a third of the panel members met around 200 representatives of civil society organisations in a “town hall” style meeting – i.e., no speeches by the panel, everything driven by questions from the floor.
In my last post (26 Oct) I expressed myself pretty biliously about British development NGOs, saying that their default mode is to focus on discreet issues to the detriment of a vision or a real discussion of development as a whole. Today, given the chance to make masses of short comments to the High Level Panel (HLP) they failed to exceed my dismal expectations.
To be fair, it’s difficult as an NGO rep in that sort of situation to know what else to do with your “no more than two minutes, please,” except to rap out a few sentences on your NGO’s key issues. So health people spoke on health, population on population, birth control on birth control, breast-feeding on breast-feeding, water on water, transparency on transparency and so on.
And none of these issues are unimportant even if the moderator did try hard to get the comments from the floor onto the theme of jobs and livelihoods, which, together with human development, encompassed what the HLP wanted to discuss in London this week.
But as a brake on my runaway generosity, there were some speakers who got away from that logic. Most of them were young and had been participating in discussions about youth earlier in the day. Another was a sharp and impassioned voice from the Niger Delta, and she didn’t speak about the delta but about the people who are normally excluded from this kind of consultation. And there was one question about how to achieve change on the complex and connected array of big issues wrapped in the food, water and climate crises when in the background loomed the creaking state of the global financial architecture.
That was certainly the most challenging question of the day. The moderator responded by chiding the questioner for being less disciplined than others had been. You’d think it was extraordinary but actually – back to my bilious feeling – it’s par for the course. The questioner was trying to connect issues into a whole; the previous more “disciplined” (as in “house trained”) contributions from the floor had been on the disparate issues, right where development NGOs tend to have their comfort zone.
As for the HLP members, not surprisingly, at the end of three days of intense conferring, peppered by diverse issues, they found it hard to muster much by way of come back. One comment from John Podesta was sort of double-edged. I think he was intending to reassure the meeting that the HLP took their concerns seriously but what he said was, “Everything you have raised has already come up in our discussions.” Which is also a pretty devastating indictment of a collective failure to surprise, innovate or challenge.
Podesta did also emphasise the importance of addressing the problems of poor governance, fragile states, violent conflict and chronic insecurity, though nobody invited to speak from the floor had asked about those dimensions of the development challenge.
Almost the last response of the day came from Tawakel Karman, the 2011 Nobel Peace Laureate. And much more than any of the other panellists, she at last made connections – that development is peace, sustainable environment, respect for human rights, that poverty is not to be ended by focusing on poverty alone.
It was a good sign off but it should have been the starting point.
Postscript: In case you think I’m just too negative about the development NGOs at the moment, take a look at a couple of other reflections on not only the “town hall” part of the HLP’s London visit but on earlier sessions as well, which seem to have been better. One is by my colleague at International Alert Chris Underwood, and the other is by one of the youth reps present on the day, Katie Washington. And if you’re a glutton for this sort of thing, watch the full “town hall” session on video.