I just got a notice from the UN Non-governmental Liaison Service that the United Nations has launched an online consultation with civil society organizations as part of a larger effort to increase “system-wide coherence” of the UN’s activities in the areas of development, humanitarian assistance and the environment.
The Secretary General earlier this year established a high level panel on system coherence to make recommendations on how to improve the level of coordination and efficiency in the institution’s work on development, humanitarian assistance and environmental work. As part of the work of the panel of experts, they are holding a consultation with civil society organizations on July 2 in Geneva. Read the complete background paper for details on the panel.
Naturally, attendance at these consultations is always tough to coordinate. There is a small population of mostly-Western based NGOs in Geneva and New York who are more easily about to get to these UN meetings, and a much larger population of mostly-Southern based NGOs around the world who usually can’t.
In the past, the only remedy has been to find external funding, usually from a friendly government, to pay for the flights and accommodations of some representatives of developing world NGOs to come to these meetings. But even there, resources are always limited and the organizing body is faced with the tough choice of which of the potentially hundreds or thousands of expert groups do you pick. I myself have been in that position a few times in the past, and it’s an excruciating process.
With the spread of access to ICTs, the UN has been experimenting slowly with various forms of online consultation, usually in the form of email submission forms or online discussion boards, such as at the “Habitat Jam” last year which I was a volunteer facilitator for. In my book e-Democracy and the United Nations I encourage the UN to explore various e-participation projects such as web conferencing, discussion boards and wiki spaces. So it’s great to see some initiatives starting.
That said, I see a number of ways it could be improved:
- The current system only allows for one means of inputting your views. World Bank e-consultations in the past have used a combination of email, discussion boards and even postal letters to increase participation. Steven Clift’s Democracy Online-Wire uses Groupserver technology, which combines the strength of email and discussion boards into one interface.
- Unclear relationship to official process. If you are going to get people to spend the time to read up, consider and respond to a complex and important set of questions, then you need to be up-front about where that input is going to be presented. Will it simply be compiled and then shelved? Will it be considered by each of the panel members? Will it be publicly presented to the Secretary General? Will a summary be produced and made available on the web? These are all important questions to answer if you want people to invest time in your process.
- Invite multi-lingual contributions. If this is truly going to be seen as an inclusive participatory process, than some provisions need to be made for contributions in languages outside of English. At the very least French and Spanish need to be supported.
I know of the financial and organizational difficulties facing NGLS and the UN in general. So I don’t want to be overly critical. This is still better than the mostly closed-door consultations with a few privileged NGOs that took place in the past. But there are cost-effective ways that we can continue to improve our e-participation projects for the future. More power to them.