A Civil Society Voice for Sustainable Well Being

United Nations Association Ambassador on the Civil Society Voice on Agenda 2030

Inclusion, respect and cooperation are the values underpinning the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals to 2030 (UN SDGs or UN Agenda 2030). Virtually the whole world (193 nations) signed agreement to these values and goals in September 2015, including New Zealand.

Balance of the three indivisible essentials for sustainability — the natural world, human society, and the economy — is the aim of the seventeen goals. Each nation determines its own priorities and procedures. The SDGs express confidence in humankind to work together collaboratively and creatively for the common good within changing circumstances.

The specific strategy agreed globally in Agenda 2030 is—

  • government consultation with all involved.
  • to work with the interconnected nature of the complex systems that sustain us. That is, with each problem, to assess and address multiple relevant causes that are systemically interconnected (rather than treating each issue as if isolated using convenient, limited short-term intervention).

The SDG strategy aims to change our lifestyles and expectations to meet the capability of the biosphere to support us. To do this we must create societies that are flexible and which flow harmoniously within disruption and uncertainty.

Some of the pledges in Agenda 2030 we need to take up individually and collectively, are;
in the next 10 years,
‘… to ensure that all human beings can fulfill their potential in dignity and equality in a healthy environment;
… to protect the planet… by using sustainable consumption and production… and to take urgent action on climate change;
… we are determined to foster peaceful, just and inclusive societies which are free from fear and violence.”

The above values and strategies of the Sustainable Development Goals need to be expressed not only in how we act but also in the way we and our Government collaborate and make decisions to protect and enhance the future of our mokopuna and biosphere.

What could this collaboration look like for civil society?

One of several metaphors for successful cooperation is the evolution of wilderness unmanaged by humans. Natural ecologies show that life has been sustained over millions of years within widely varying physical conditions. The outstanding attributes of such biosystems appear to be—

  • inclusion of much diversity in interconnected community that
  • dynamically listens, responds and nourishes what supports it within cycles of disintegration and regeneration.

These attributes align directly with the aspirations and strategy of Agenda 2030. They seem likely to form an effective foundation for conducting civil society input to government on the future of Aotearoa.

Participatory deliberative civil society assemblies and forums based on such principles are being shown globally to give powerful mandates to Governments to enhance the sustainable wellbeing of their citizens.

Max Rashbrooke’s (IGPS) book “Government for the Public Good”, BWB 2018, chapter 13 describes more than a dozen successful schemes based on such civil forums— eg in mental health and transport (Canada), a crowd-sourced constitution (Iceland), public policy and participatory budgeting (Brazil), Ireland’s same-sex marriage and abortion laws, and Taiwan’s use of hugely subscribed online and TV policy discussion forums. Such assemblies are been increasingly discussed in academia and the media, eg Open Democracy and The Guardian.

These forums are not new. Their principles shaped ancient Greek democracy and have been used by many indigenous peoples to unify community action for centuries, including Maori and American Indians.

A recent and very informative korero on citizen assemblies entitled ‘Empowering the Civil Society Voice on Aotearoa’s Future’ was held by United Nations Association at Victoria University School of Governance [podcast with slides below].

Empowering the Civil Society Voice on Aotearoa’s Future

October 29, 2019

How to Expand and Empower Civil Society's Voice on the SDGs

United Nations Association of New Zealand

Speakers Kura Moeahu, Principal Maori Cultural Advisor at Parliament, described traditional Maori iwi principles and procedures on his marae. He endorsed legal mediation as a small-scale citizen assembly creating reconciliation between whanau. He called for a respectful Aotearoa way for our diverse citizens to work together.
Max Rashbrooke showed many recent remarkably successful citizen assemblies in politics around the world, and illustrated how research had dispelled common criticisms when procedures were well facilitated. 
Emily Beausoleil, Victoria University Lecturer, compared current Government-led democratic processes with citizens’ participatory assemblies, illustrating the latter’s power to produce constructive outcomes.
Rosalind McIntosh, Interfaith Peacemaker, related citizen assembly procedures to the values and strategies of Agenda 2030 in action, and described using such procedures in international peace work.

Agreement was remarkable between these speakers from different backgrounds on the approaches needed to produce unifying action from diverse participants.

The Power of Citizen Assemblies

Citizen assemblies could be expected to ameliorate some of the divisions in current governance. For example—

  • In democracies around the world, citizen trust appears to be fracturing in governments, in voting outcomes and other civic participation. Economic inequality has been linked with such division and disengagement.
  • Parts of New Zealand civil society are making efforts towards future sustainability — yet the need is expressed often for a stronger unified vision and more coherent, inclusively deliberated mandates to Government.
  • Current consultations with citizens can be top-down. Authorities seek opinions from selected individuals and groups and collate the result, yet action may be guided largely by their own political or financial views. Citizens then can feel undervalued, particularly those experiencing social, environmental or economic problems, or working directly to improve these.
  • Missing is citizens having opportunities to hear and find commonality in their diverse experiences and to inform each other in moderated, respectful and deliberative discussion. Then we have been shown repeatedly to be able to take strong collective responsibility to deliver unified and informed mandates beyond our own concerns and for the common good.
  • Our culture tends to educate for competition and to reward thinking in ‘silos’ that root our identity in narrow views of our group’s particular concerns. We train in debating to dominate with our own perspectives. We need to value instead the ability to expand our empathy and understanding by listening to those from different circumstances, and the creation of solutions that encompass support for ourselves, others, minorities and the less advantaged all together.
  • We can learn the skills to find solutions in which all participants find a satisfactory outcome (though not necessarily the outcome they first anticipated). We are capable of ceding personal advantage when we see that meeting wider interests will be more helpful to all (including for those we care about, eg our children).
  • Many current institutions are structured to favour immediate over longer term considerations. The latter may be more difficult to implement and extend beyond consideration of the next budget (Jonathan Boston, ‘Safeguarding the Future: Governing in an Uncertain World.’ BWB, 2017). But urgent matters developing over longer time are best heard and met constructively and creatively now.

The Summary findings and recommendations from The People’s Report for New Zealand on Agenda 2030 presented in New York in July 2019 says that we need to seek opportunities to learn about what is not known, to understand other people’s struggles and to act accordingly. I say that we need to proactively create opportunities to understand and act by inviting all to Citizen Assemblies/Forums and listening and responding as wisely and caringly as we know how in the interests of the future of all.

Four years after the SDGs were initiated globally, we cannot and should not wait for Government to organize civil society input. In a functioning participatory democracy it is our role to organize and inform ourselves and to tell Government what we expect. It is expected that politicians take responsibility for final decisions — but citizen forums can assure them of citizen engagement with others’ experiences and views, and that any comprises needed are understood.

A consultation strategy between citizens and local and national Governments for the UN Agenda 2030 and Wellbeing could be simple—

  1. We create Citizen Forums/Assemblies centered on the UN Sustainable Development Goals, Wellbeing divisions, or a combination. The Forums function for 10 years and beyond. Government is expected to recognize these Forums as major civil society voices on SDG topics. Participating civil organizations or individuals are free to consult separately with Government, to protest or engage in other ways.

  2. The essence of the Forums is that no person has more overall authority than any other member — all voices are listened to with respect and speak authentically and respectfully to and about others. Those of us who have experienced such forums have been astonished by the depth and generosity of agreements reached out of seemingly intractable long term (including religious) differences between participants. Because many of us are unfamiliar with deliberating in this way, clear guidelines for Forum procedures need to be agreed and facilitated well. (Eg, it is essential that discussions extend beyond (but include) protection of profits of dominating groups.)

  3. Included regularly in Forum deliberations are expert opinions and research outcomes. While consensus is sought, description of as many divergent views as necessary is an acceptable outcome.

  4. The task of each Forum initially is to comment to Government and the public on the targets of its goal from Agenda 2030 and/ or the living Standards Framework— how targets are being, and could be implemented and measured, and what additional targets are needed specific to Aotearoa.

  5. The new SDG website at Victoria University is an excellent platform for reporting and collating this information, activities and events.

  6. Because an essential aspect of Agenda 2030 and the Government’s Wellbeing work is collaborative action across ‘silos’, civil organizations may participate in multiple Forums. Eg, children are essential considerations in all aspects of our future.

  7. Such discussion groups are the foundation of a thriving democracy. Startup funding may follow but we cannot wait. Many of us work unpaid on matters of importance to us; of pressing urgency to many is the future ability of our country and planet to sustain life, and of our society to be inclusively engaged, stable, flexible, caring and just. We are likely to continue to donate time, money and expertise to these causes. It is essential to ensure that forum discussions do not give undue influence to their funding sources.

  8. Finally, to initiate the process, the number, topics and procedures of the Forums need to be decided. Then a prominent organization concerned with each topic invites other organizations with appropriate interests to initiate the relevant Forum. From first meeting all Forum participants are equal partners in proceedings. Forums create subcommittees eg, to ensure appropriately sized discussion groups working on a feasible number of targets, to work on local or regional issues, or to clarify input from a subgroup to be presented at more diverse forums. Widespread media and website information continues to invite representatives from other citizen groups to participate.

Comments and suggestions for improving this scheme on SDGs are welcome, as are better ideas serving the same purpose. Since writing this article momentum for citizens’ forums has increased. National and regional ones are been initiated for climate change (UN goal 13) and there are undoubtedly forums on other topics active and in planning in Aotearoa.

Rosalind McIntosh, PhD
United Nations Association Ambassador on the Civil Society Voice on Agenda 2030
Email: flowingmountains@yahoo.com; phone (04) 976 1931

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