Global Participation and the UN: An interview with Otto Spijkers

Global participation has been on the rise, from the protests in Hong Kong to citizens vocalizing their requests through government initiatives to include their citizens in decisions making (e.g.: the European Union). GVI is keen to understand more how global participation itself has begun to penetrate the UN system, including in the current planning for the post 2015 agenda. GVI interviewed Otto Spijkers, Assistant Professor at Utrecht University and author of the article Global Public Participation at the United Nations, to understand more about this.


1) What initiated your interest in public participation within the UN and the need for it?

Personally, I always had an interest in examining the individual and his or her role within the global community. If you take the idea of a global community seriously, you have to see it as more than an abstract idea. But compared with a single individual, the global community is, of course, overwhelming in size, and this has as a consequence that individuals might not think much of their role in it. At the same time, more and more individuals are beginning to be more assertive, and they do want to take responsibility and be more actively involved in this large global community .


It is truly fascinating; I happen to also be a philosopher and you can relate studies on cosmopolitanism to this. With cosmopolitanism, there is a strand that if you let go of nationality and replace it with nothing else, you become detached from citizenship and ties to a nation and you can wander about free in the global community, without the barriers of nationality. You are free in an almost absolute sense. But there is a second strand of cosmopolitanism, which focuses more on obligations towards the international community, that need to be regulated and institutionalized, rather than on loosening the ties with a particular (national) community.  


Do you feel that cosmopolitanism is entering the UN system?

Well, former Secretary General Dag Hammarskjold once compared the UN with a painting. You can either look at the UN as a weird abstraction painted by Picasso, or you can view it as a painting made by the world’s citizens themselves. This is what’s key to the success of the UN system: that the world’s citizens identify with the UN, that they see it as their organization. It should not be viewed as some toothless State construction, not as a deus ex machina to save us all. Instead, the UN should be viewed as an organization people associate themselves with.  People should ask themselves: “how do I see myself as part of the UN system?” Take the Ebola crisis as an example; many are under the impression that it’s the UN’s responsibility to take care of its eradication. But if we are the UN, and if we interpret our role in this way, then we should view it is as our responsibility as global citizens to combat the disease through the UN.  
2) Do you feel the prime setback of the United Nations is its lack of incorporating the general public in the decision making process of various initiatives, such as the MDG’s?

The MDGs weren’t inclusive to begin with as it involved a very select group of experts who came to the conclusion that these goals were priorities for the world at large. The problem with this is that when it comes to decisions that affect the public, you need to have input from the public. But in case of the MDGs, the international community did subsequently embrace these goals, and began to work with them.


3) Do you think that the SDG experience represents a significant trend towards more participatory global governance?

I think the SDG drafting process can be viewed as sort of a global laboratory for experimenting with the possibilities of global participation at the UN. It’s testing what was traditionally seen as vital, and examining it against the public’s views. An interestingexample is climate change. For years, NGOs and the likes have claimed it as vital for development goal agendas. But when the general public was surveyed on this, their opinion on the importance of climate change was low in comparison to other priorities such as health and human rights making it to the forefront. However, this is only an experiment, for, in the end, the main decision-making bodies at the UN are still constituted by State representatives, which is very conservative and traditional.


4) You mention different types of participation in your article – “co-author”, “rubber-stamp”, etc.  How would you characterize the SDG UN experience of consultations?

There are indeed many types of participation. With “rubber stamping” in general, participants are only asked to approve a particular policy after it has been made by the institution. Not really policymaking, but it has them approve or not approve a decision, which is not present in the decision making process for the post 2015 SDG goals.

Another kind of participation is problem finding, which instead involves the participants being asked to define the problem themselves. This is present within the SDG formation with online, national and international consultations taking place. Thematic consultations involve experts who are asked to express their views, for example on the topic of water or maternal health. And those with relevant experience are asked to clearly state the problem. The overall idea is, bluntly put, that the poor know best what it is like to be poort. Then there is the advisory type of participation that is the most important for the SDG process. These advisors provide expertise or experience to the decision making process in determining how to go forward with the 2015 agenda. For example, the SDG’s solution network, which is representative of the scientific community, would draft reports based on their research, and these would be used to steer decisions through processes related to the SDG’s, such as working with policy makers on deciphering whether of not the considered goal is feasible.



5) What kind of participation do you think will be most prevalent in the future at the UN, and why?  Will the post-2015 process be the game changer in this respect?

 I feel that now that we’ve opened the Pandora’s box for participation, there is no way back once initiated. Nobody would ever say that global participation doesn’t work in understanding global needs. That being said, we need to streamline this process and make it more effective. We need to look critically to see who the stakeholders are, i.e.  those that create policy and those affected by it. Some well-known NGO’s have the loudest voices, but the loudness of your voice should not be decisive in who gets to participate and how. So the UN may have to actively look at other stakeholders, and encourage their participation.


And there are many types of stakeholders; these can consist of corporations, small NGO’s, organizers of the process (UN subsidiary organs and regional agencies) and the scientific community. The UN should take into consideration who it would like to participate within the development process and invite them, instead of facilitating ways only for the loudest NGO’s to participate.


In the end, the most important stakeholder is the general public. They are the uninvolved, yet potentially affected stakeholder. But as they don’t present themselves to the UN, it would be up to the UN to invite and encourage them to participate.


To read the full article of Prof. Otto Spijkers, click here.


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