Civil society consultations: worth the effort or window dressing?

Development Policy01 Jul 2013Edith van Ewijk, Rosalie de Bruijn

One of the main criticisms of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) was that they were largely thought up by high-income countries without involving partners in the South, let alone wider groups from civil society. To ensure that the post-2015 process is inclusive and participatory, various global, national and regional consultations have been organized. Involving civil society organizations in the drafting phase is important as the effective implementation of the new set of goals largely depends on their commitment. 

The UN High Level Panel (HLP) on the Post-2015 Development Agenda took the criticism of the MDGs seriously and, in preparing its report, consulted more than 5,000 organizations and 300 business corporations in 121 countries. In total more than 500,000 people were involved in the debates and consultations, as well as in surveys on internet and even through mobile phones.

As more civil society consultations are being organized, the question comes up whether they really serve their purpose. Several development cooperation experts have been sceptical about the usefulness of consultations at grassroots level. Saskia Hollander and Cheshta Panday (The Broker) rightfully pointed to a number of concerns, including low levels of participation and the high representation of ‘usual suspects’. Although there is much reason for scepticism, we believe that it is important to support these initiatives for a number of reasons. Having participated in various consultations in the Netherlands, we would like to discuss their added value in this contribution.

A focus on the Netherlands

In the first six months of 2013, several consultations focusing on the UN’s Post-2015 Development Agenda were organized in the Netherlands. Besides the expert meetings organized by the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs, consultations have also been organized by knowledge institutions and civil society organizations.1 In order to involve a wider audience in the debate, several initiatives have been supported by NCDO, the Dutch expertise and advisory centre for citizenship and international cooperation. These included consultations with youth representatives through collaboration with the National Youth Council (NJR), private development initiatives through the platform MyWorld, and consultations by and for the African diaspora. Also, a short survey was carried out among Dutch citizens to ask for their views on the post-2015 agenda. Furthermore, the multimedia platform OneWorld, part of NCDO, is running an ongoing blog series ‘2015: The Future We Want’, to which a wide range of actors have contributed, including experts in the field of development cooperation and sustainability, journalists, representatives of the diaspora, internet experts and especially young entrepreneurs.

Looking at the main findings which emerged from the various civil society debates in the Netherlands, it can be concluded that the key issues addressed in the consultations are well represented in the HLP report. First of all, the responsibility of the higher-income countries to achieve future goals was frequently addressed. A stronger focus on policy coherence (although often framed differently) for development was also emphasized, referring to the need to ‘look beyond ODA’ and focus on broader policies that affect development in other countries. An increased focus on fair trade was particularly mentioned as being important.

Secondly, participants in nearly all the consultations expressed the opinion that a wide variety of actors – including international institutions, governments, the private sector and civil society organizations, as well as citizens – should contribute to achievement of the future goals. Increasing transparency on progress towards the new goals was mentioned in most debates as an important condition to increase involvement.

Thirdly, the participants in the debates widely embraced a new agenda in which development and sustainability goals are merged. This was at variance with the view of the Dutch public. A survey clearly showed that Dutch citizens do not associate development cooperation with sustainability: only 3% mentioned this as one of the most important topics for the future agenda. Furthermore, few people still feel that the future development agenda is ‘an agenda for all’.

Why broaden the debate?

It is seriously arguable whether all the work that has been done at local level was worth the effort or has mainly been ‘window dressing’. Especially as, in the words of Saskia Hollander, ‘the HLP report is only a first step in the political process of formulating a future global development agenda’. It has yet to be seen which key messages and goals will survive in the negotiation processes between the countries represented in the Open Working Group on Sustainable Development Goals.

There are, however, many reasons for arguing that these consultations are worthwhile. Firstly, the voices of various groups – including youth representatives, private development initiatives and the diasporas – which are more fragmented and less organized, deserve a platform as they play a valuable role in development cooperation or provide a valuable additional perspective.

Secondly, if a wide variety of actors all over the world are to be involved in implementing a future framework, it is also important to involve them in discussions about how that framework is formulated. As one of the participants in a discussion mentioned, people do not feel engaged in the current MDGs; they are seen as goals for the South only, on which groups in the Netherlands can have little impact. The future agenda should be an agenda for all and offer more opportunities for various groups to be involved.

Thirdly, the post-2015 discussion provides a momentum which inspires many people to become engaged in the discussion about the future of development cooperation. So far, the OneWorld blog includes about 70 contributions from a wide range of actors and is followed by about 10,000 visitors a month. This engagement is valuable in itself, especially at a time when it seems the wider public have lost interest in international issues.

Fourthly, it is important to learn more about the views of civil society groups and the Dutch public on the post-2015 agenda. As the findings of the debates indicate, Dutch citizens do not associate development cooperation with sustainability and do not feel it is the responsibility of a wide range of actors to be part of the implementation process and achieve the future goals. While this might not come as a total surprise, the findings are still important as they underline that more work has to be done to engage citizens in the current and future development agenda.

As has already been pointed out in the debates on the HLP report, one of the key challenges is how the fine words in the report can be translated into practice. This concern was also expressed by key participants in the civil society debates in the Netherlands. If a variety of actors should feel committed and be part of achieving the new goals, an open process with opportunities to participate at all levels – including at the grassroots – remains crucial. As one of the participants in the discussions mentioned, ‘we want to be involved but we need to know how we can make a valuable contribution’.


  1. Like the building blocks compiled by the Society for International Development (SID) Netherlands, the Institute of Social Studies (ISS), the entrepreneurial development bank (FMO) and NCDO, and the report of the consultations with Dutch civil society organizations working in international cooperation, organized by Partos (the Dutch association of NGOs working in international cooperation) and EEN (an initiative of the Dutch Millennium Development Goals Platform) and supported by NCDO.