Citizen voices post-2015

    The United Nations "My World" survey website is accessed on a tablet. Photo by: Eskinder Debebe / U.N.

    The post-2015 development agenda gets its first real airing this month, when U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon receives a report on new directions for post-2015 development. Authored by 27 members of a high-level panel, the report is expected to reflect open, inclusive consultations that have involved civil society, the private sector, academia, and research institutions from all regions, in addition to the U.N. system.

    But the post-2015 agenda is unlikely to succeed unless it follows through on commitments to put people’s needs at the center. How the agenda gets implemented is as important as the agenda itself. For all stakeholders in post-2015 development, the focus now should be on sustaining citizen engagement beyond the consultation phase, so that as the agenda is defined and refined, citizen concerns remain a priority.

    If we can sustain that inclusive principle in the implementation of the post-2015 development policy, we have a much better chance of delivering meaningful development outcomes. If we revert to “top-down” implementation, we will fail.

    Governance, voice and accountability

    Sustainable development depends on accountable government. In other words, development works best in countries where government responds to people’s voices and delivers services to meet people’s needs. Accountable government, in turn, begins with an activated citizenry that can oversee government actions, from policy choices to public expenditures.

    There is real demand for a development agenda that prioritizes accountable government. The United Nations’ own My World Survey, as reported on Devex, shows that honest and responsive government is among the top priorities of citizens around the world. Based on responses from almost 400,000 people in 194 countries, the survey ranks good governance third out of 16 proposed goals, for both male and female voters.

    It is crucial for the development community to emphasize the local and national dimensions of good governance. For example, a communique issued in March by the high-level panel from Indonesia highlighted “reshaped and revitalized global governance and partnerships” as one of the five key areas where progress must be made, but the language in this document is insufficiently attuned to local concerns. Touting global good governance principles in the absence of tangible support for accountable government at the local and national level risks imposing outside agendas and overlooking local concerns.

    In practical terms, what should this support consist of? The high-level panel made a good start by seeking out and listening to people’s concerns. Now we must create the space for citizens to sustain their engagement, for instance through community scorecards for people to review services, or citizen charters whereby they can hold governments to account. Provincial competitiveness indexes — which rank the performance of local governments and provide the business community evidence for advocacy — are a powerful tool for accountability. Public expenditure tracking surveys, like those done in Uganda, hold local and central governments to account for school funding, helping to ensure resources reach their target. The results of these grass-roots efforts can be fed into parliamentary reviews and oversight procedures, and can later be incorporated into national budgeting and planning processes.

    The post-2015 agenda could pave the way for innovative approaches to linking citizens’ voices at the grass roots into national development plans, which would then be folded into international agendas, instead of the other way around. As Joanna Wheeler of the Institute of Development Studies wrote last April in her blog: “Citizen participation is a bold approach for the post-2015 framework, because it turns much of received wisdom about ‘aid’ and international frameworks on its head: It is not just about a small global elite ‘hearing the voices of the poor,’ but about creating sustainable and long-term mechanisms for citizens to be involved in decision-making at all levels (from local to global).”

    In short, while it is good that the high-level panel listens to citizens, it is far more important that local and national governments hear these same voices — as part of the systemic business of governing — and that the outcome of these deliberations informs international agendas, rather than the other way around.

    Read our previous Development Buzz.

    About the author

    • Ann Hudock

      Dr. Ann Hudock is executice vice president for strategy and growth at Counterpart International. Bringing more than 25 years of international development experience, Dr. Hudock leads efforts to grow Counterpart’s global program portfolio by cultivating new funders and building on the organization’s body of work with new approaches to promote civic participation and government accountability.