Opening up Sustainable Development decision-making at the UN?

By Adrian Ely, in Rio de Janeiro

The Rio+20 conference has been enriched by a process to engage civil society  the Rio+20 Dialogues forSustainable Development.  While innovative and pioneering approaches like this should be encouraged, there is much room for improvement in the future.

The Rio Dialogues were initiated in April by the Government of Brazil and carried out with the support of the United Nations.  In each of ten different themes, they involved a multi-stage process including:

    • Online discussion, facilitated by academic organisations from around the world
    • Selection of 10 recommendations from the online discussion
    • Open (online) voting on those ten recommendations
    • Presentation of the online discussions to a panel of 10 experts in Rio
    • Live discussion by this panel at the main Rio+20 venue, Rio Centro
    • Voting by the live audience on the ten recommendations from the online discussion
    • Articulation of a further recommendation by the panel
    • Presentation of three recommendations from each theme to a roundtable of leaders gathered for the high-level segment of the Rio+20 conference


Tens of thousands of participants took part in the online discussions, and the voting process saw more than 63,000 people from 193 countries cast nearly 1.4 million votes.  This is an impressive attempt to open up the intergovernmental process to other actors by the hosts Brazil, who have also provided leadership in other areas of the negotiations.
However, how will the outcomes of the dialogues really contribute to the conference outcome, and how can we best profit from the process – into which so many have dedicated their time and efforts?  These questions deserve serious thought if such efforts to open up to civil society are to be improved into the future.
Even now, writing from Rio, the answer to the first question seems unclear beyond the reporting from roundtables to the plenary at the end of the conference.  There seems never to have been a well-articulated process through which the ‘Rio Dialogues’ outcomes will be introduced into the inter-governmental process, from which they have been isolated from the outset.
If these kinds of institutional innovations are to play a role in future conferences, the involvement of governments, and a commitment from Member States and the UN – at least to respond in writing to the recommendations – should be a pre-requisite.  More detailed planning and a much longer period of engagement would also be needed for this complex process to be co-ordinated successfully.
With regard to the second issue, the knowledge and ideas captured through the online process is much broader than the recommendations themselves.  In many cases, detailed discussions and considerations around implementation appeared in the online fora. Without attention to the recommendations that have been ‘voted out’ along the way, and the detailed discussions online, the Rio Dialogues risks losing much of the richness of the process as they narrow down to three one line recommendations.
Colleagues from IDS (Matthew Lockwood, Melissa Leach, Adrian Bannister) and I helped to facilitate the theme ‘Sustainable Development for Fighting Poverty’.  With academics from Brazil and South Korea, I presented the outcomes of the online discussion to the expert panel at Rio Centro.  From the ten recommendations identified, three were finally fed to the roundtables.
Beyond these, however, the dialogues process gathered together a diverse range of views and novel ideas which cannot be communicated in three bullet points.  These are unlikely to be relayed to leaders through the roundtables, and it is unclear whether they will be taken into account as the outcomes from Rio are taken forward.
Much of the STEPS Centre’s ‘designs’ work and thinking around ‘methods and methodologies’ highlights the need not only to broaden out the inputs to policy appraisal, but also to open up the outcomes of such processes in order to profit from the plurality of views that they contain.
I believe that these kinds of institutional innovations should be encouraged, and that experiments such as the Rio Dialogues should be further developed in future UN processes.  Personally, I hope that the Dialogues – not only in terms of the 3 (or 10) recommendations selected but also the knowledge gathered throughout the process – can be taken forward in the implementation of what is agreed over the final days of the conference.
Future approaches for engaging civil society in UN negotiations (outside the major groups architecture) deserve to be supported, but must also be sufficiently resourced and realistically planned, if they are to strengthen what is already a complex and difficult process.