Post-2015: «There is a danger of consultation overkill»

Jens Martens. (Photo: IISD.)

The UN has launched an extensive worldwide discussion on the new development agenda that is to succeed the Millennium Development Goals in 2015. Jens Martens, long-time observer of international development and environmental policy, cautions in an interview against consultation overkill and calls on NGOs to develop alternatives that go beyond what is currently politically feasible.

Jens Martens, for more than 20 years now you have been following international environment and development policy. Have the international negotiating processes in these fields changed?

The negotiation processes are now much more informal. The 1992 Earth Summit in Rio was preceded by weeks of official preparatory meetings. For last year's Rio+20 Conference, preparations lasted only a few days, everything else took place informally behind closed doors. This makes it considerably more difficult for civil society to follow and influence the negotiations.

Has civil society's influence grown weaker?

Today they have far better opportunities for formal participation, they are more visibly represented at official negotiations, and are being invited to consultations and dialogues. But they are not involved in the actual decision-making processes and exert little influence. By comparison with 1992, it is sooner the influence of economic lobbies and large foundations such as the Gates Foundation that has grown stronger.

Is the involvement of civil society still a mere formality?

I wouldn't make such a broad generalization. It depends on the individual negotiation processes. Let us take the discussion on the Post-2015 Development Agenda and Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). In this case civil society groups are extensively involved even at the national level. This positively impacts civil society mobilization. But by no means does this signify that its international political influence is also growing, at least not that of critical civil society. Civil society too has itself become quite differentiated over the past two decades. There are very large transnational NGOs whose influence is still growing and which have larger budgets than small States. And there is a critical civil society that has tended more to withdraw from official negotiation processes.

In the 1990s and 2000s there have often been major mobilizations during international conferences. Have they given NGOs more clout?

They raised their media profile and helped to have some controversial topics placed in the official agenda, for example the fight against poverty. Key areas were still left out however. There was no success in placing the really explosive issues on the international agenda, like the question of economic power, the influence of transnational corporations or liability for the global financial and economic crisis.

But the fall-off in these mobilizations has weakened the influence of NGOs?

Has there in fact been such a fall-off? A good three years ago now, tens of thousands took to the streets during the major Climate Conference in Copenhagen. At last year's Rio+20 Conference, there were substantially more NGOs represented and more people in the streets than at the 1992 Earth Summit. A great many people and civil society groups are participating in the discussions on the Post-2015 Agenda throughout the world. That is evidence of an enormous rallying power. The problem is that it is not translating into political influence and change.

The global balance of power has also shifted, and it seems difficult today to reach a consensus on many critical issues.

The field of Governments is today considerably more heterogeneous than 20 years ago. The countries of the South have become differentiated, emerging countries such as China or Brazil have gained in influence and become much more confident at international negotiations, which is a good thing. At the same time the problems have grown, and the need for substantial changes is ever more evident. The political difficulty of enforcing these changes has less to do with the balance of forces between Governments than with the balance of forces within societies.

Is the main problem national power configurations, which also determine international policy?

There have already been cases of crucial matters being left out at international conferences, such as limiting the influence of powerful economic interests, regulating transnational corporations or radically changing consumption and production patterns in the countries of the North. It is indispensable for any future development agenda that there are breakthroughs and progress in this connection.

These will therefore be the core issues of a future Post-2015 Agenda.

In my view, the crux of the matter is that it should not become an agenda of the North for the South, for the so-called developing countries, like the Millennium Development Goals. It must apply to all countries. In the light of the global problems and challenges, all countries are developing countries and must continue to evolve.

In terms of content, what should be the priorities of the Post-2015 Agenda?

It should not be restricted to poverty reduction in the narrow sense. It should be centred on the preservation and protection of human rights, equality and justice, and respect for nature and environmental limits. But it must also aspire to a fair and supportive financial system as well as peace and disarmament – aspects that have received too little attention in the discussion so far. Without peace and disarmament there can be no viable and sustainable development worldwide.

Is there any hope that these problems will really be tackled?

To some extent they are already on the international agenda and are being discussed. But the chances of achieving a breakthrough and a consensus solution as we understand it by 2015 are slim. It would therefore make sense not just to seek a consensus amongst all 193 UN countries, in other words the lowest common denominator. Coalitions could also be formed under the UN umbrella consisting of like-minded people who are willing to go beyond that framework. That was what happened in the EU with the financial transaction tax. It could not be enforced EU-wide, but eleven countries nonetheless decided for it. This shows how progress can be achieved beyond the confines of a minimum consensus. It is also my hope for the debate on the post-2015 Agenda that given the explosive nature of the problems, individual Governments will have the courage to take action and forge ahead.

Civil society was not brought on board in the formulation of the Millennium Development Goals. Do the prospects actually look any better for the Post-2015 Agenda?

The UN and Governments have learned from the mistakes of the Millennium Development Goals and have launched national consultations in over one hundred countries. In addition there are worldwide thematic consultations taking place in the form of seminars and over the Internet. This is helping to inform and mobilize civil society groups at the national level. But there is also the danger of consultation overkill. Nowadays one could spend the whole day in front of the screen filling out online questionnaires.

A programme to occupy NGOs but with little impact?

The consultations are not misguided and the NGOs should participate in them. But we should not invest all our energies in such processes, only to dissipate them in the end. For my view is that the influence of civil society groups on the official decision-making process is negligible. NGOs should focus primarily on laying out their own positions, and in so doing not simply pursue pragmatically what is politically feasible at the moment. They should seize the opportunity to launch fundamental social debates both locally and internationally on issues such as the way our societies should organize themselves in future in view of the environmental and social problems, the real meaning of prosperity and social advancement, or what a solidarity-based society of the 21st century actually looks like. These are the crucial questions that must be debated today.

 Pepo Hofstetter

Jens Martens
Jens Martens has been Director of the European Office of the Global Policy Forum since 2004 and concurrently a Board Member of the Global Policy Forum in New York since 2009. The think tank monitors and analyses the policies of the UN and its Member States. From 2001 to 2012 Martens acted as Coordinator of the Civil Society Reflection Group on Global Development Perspectives. In addition, he is involved in Social Watch, a global network of over 1400 groups and NGOs (including Alliance Sud). He was a member of that body's Coordinating Committee from 2003 to 2009 and its Co-Chair from 2006 to 2009.

Source: Published in Alliance Sud News No. 74, Spring 2013