Ground Level Panels: Seeing the world through a different lens

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Danny Burns

The Secretary-General of the United Nations is expected to publish his report to the General Assembly on the MDGs and the post-2015 development agenda on 12 August. How much of his insight will have been informed by listening to the voices of the poorest and most marginalised?  Ahead of his report, Participate partners have been critically reflecting  on the participatory methods they have employed in attempts to shift power in policy making.  One such approach, the Participate Ground Level Panels (GLPs) created a participative space for people living in poverty and marginalisation to deliberate what is needed from the post-2015 global policy process. 

 In 2013, Participate partners hosted three deliberative meetings between those living poverty and those with political authority through Ground Level Panels (GLPs). The idea for a GLP aimed to provide a mirror to the deliberations of the United Nations (UN) High Level Panel (HLP) but from people who lived in extreme poverty or marginalisation.

GLP Egypt

Ground Level Panels were developed to bridge the gap between people living in poverty and national and global actors

The Ground Level Panels took place in Egypt, Brazil, Uganda and India. Each panel comprised a group of 10-14 people with diverse and intersecting identities including urban slum dwellers; disabled people; sexual minorities; people living in conflict and natural disaster-affected areas; people living in geographically isolated communities; nomadic and indigenous people; older people; internally displaced people; and young people. Each panel created relationships, shared experiences, connected the local level to the national and international development contexts and provided a critical review and reality check on the five transformative shifts as outlined by the UN High Level Panel.

The GLPs saw the world through a different lens to the HLP. The people in the Panels understood the dynamics of change facing people living in poverty and this gave them the ability to say if these policies were meaningful. While economic growth is an unchallenged assumption in the HLP for the Brazilian GLP it was seen as part of the ‘death plan’. For the Brazilians the critical issue is not ‘poverty’ per se, but ‘misery’ and ‘dignity’. While the HLP focused on service provision, the Indian Panel’s desired goals largely focus on social norms, behaviour
and discrimination.

There were some common themes which emerged in all of the Panels. People want to feel that they have meaningful control over the influences that impact their lives. In all cases structures for equal participation were highlighted as foundational. In almost all of the Panel’s there was a recurring theme of ‘self management’. People don’t want aid. They want the means to generate and sustain their own livelihoods. So if we are serious about moving ‘beyond aid’ in the new development agenda then empowerment must become the priority.

One thing that struck me was the difference in composition of the HLP and the GLPs. The HLP was made up of people largely from an elite political class. There was the odd member of royalty and a few interesting academics thrown in, but by and large they were high ranking politicians. There was very little diversity in the group, and the interests were narrow. The GLPs on the other hand were highly diverse. Slum dwellers sitting side by side with pastoralists, transgender people, and people living in refugee camps … It is easy to stereotype people as ‘poor’and see them as a huge sprawling undifferentiated ‘category’, but they bring far more diversity than people who hold power.

Uganda_GLP a

Ground Level Panel participants in Uganda discussed what they mean by ‘sustainable development’

What defines the success of a Ground Level Panel? Is it the response of the national government or within the UN process, or is it also influence on policy at the local levels? For  Natalie Newell who led the GLP in Uganda on behalf of Restless Development, the experience demonstrated the importance of the local level. 
”It is important to be clear with all involved about what can realistically be achieved from the GLP process. This includes considering the strengths and weaknesses of this approach, and what it can add to the policy debate. From the perspectives of those that participated in the Uganda process, the changes at the community level and for them as people were an important success.”

Listen to Nava and Richard’s reflections on the Uganda Ground Level Panels:

Knowledge from the marginsRead more about the Ground Level Panels in Participate’s latest publication ‘Knowledge from the Margins: An anthology from a global network on participatory practice and policy influence.’ 

This article was originally posted on the Participation, Power and Social Change blog


Documentary film-making connecting policymakers to people living in poverty

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Led by Real Time, Participate produced a 20-minute documentary film ‘Work with Us’  to influence UN decision-making processes. The film drew stories together in order to powerfully communicate the participatory processes involved, and the importance of their contribution. Film-makers Jackie Shaw and Clive Robertson reflect on the role of documentary film making as a way to engage marginalised groups in informal and formal policy processes.

Our documentary production role involved film-making collaborations with ten Participatory Research Group (PRG) partners and communities in seven countries, to bring together some of participant’s research stories in a visually compelling way to broadcast standard.

The film’s purpose was to use actual experiences to make a case for why dialogue with marginalised groups is needed, how participatory processes can generate missing contextual insight, and how this contributes to the policy agenda in building more equitable working relationships. The stories communicated in the film emerged from the PRG partners’ participatory research processes, and exemplify the importance of their knowledge for development decision-making.

Collaborative film making

Collaboration is central to the participatory practice envisioned within Participate

From the beginning we intended that the documentary would be co-constructed with the groups we visited, and focused on the stories that people wanted to show and tell. It would place them at the centre of communications by filming them where they lived, speaking directly to the audience in their own language.

The stories included in the documentary grew in different ways depending on the context. What happened during film-making responded to the needs of the particular partners, the specific activities they were involved in, and the stage reached in the research processes when the documentary 
visit took place. For example, with PRG partners
the Seed Institute and Spatial Collective in Kenya
 and with Praxis in India, documentary narratives
 were storyboarded as part of participatory video processes. Cross-over 
with film-making visits provided the opportunity to record them on the broadcast equipment to include in documentary. In comparison, Ecoweb’s non-visual participatory research in the Philippines had already been completed – so we ran shorter participatory video processes with participants to build trust and working relationships and raise production awareness before filming.

Our intention to maximise ground level story authorship during documentary production, was reliant on the PRG partnerships, and the relationships they brokered with people living in poverty. The challenges of adapting the film-making process to context also arose in part from differences in the participatory approaches used, the stage of the research, the way the PRG partners perceived Real Time’s potential contribution, and how we responded. Learning from experience during pilot documentary collaborations with Praxis <link> in India and UAM-X in Mexico <link> enabled us to develop practice guidance that informed contextual adaptation in later visits.

Reflecting on the implicit dynamic created by our position as outside film-makers, we concluded that we were more likely to engender trust and informed consent, if there was at least a short interactive process between Real Time film-makers and participants living in poverty. This was to establish collaborative relationships before production, even on film-making only visits. This was also important to us in fulfilling our commitment to reflect people’s realities, because it gave space for film-makers and those who appeared to get to know each other, and allowed people’s most pressing issues, feelings and perspectives on what was needed to emerge.

We defined Real Time’s documentary making activity as collaborative to distinguish it from participatory production. We used the term ‘collaborative’ in recognition of the relationships with PRG partners that enabled us to build film-making partnerships with people living in poverty, and also to acknowledge the co-construction of the resulting materials with the communities concerned. However, documentary production activities also reflected a much more typical film-making dynamic: we took 
on a responsibility to produce and direct the process in order to deliver a broadcast standard product communicating the meta-narrative to decision makers within the timeframe. As such, we encountered a tension: how to maintain group narrative ownership of the stories filmed, whilst maximising the opportunity to influence international policy through communicating the films wider message.


Knowledge from the margins This blog is an edited version of Jackie and Clive’s contribution to Participate’s latest publication ‘Knowledge from the Margins: An anthology from a global network on participatory practice and policy influence’. The anthology is a collection of honest accounts and critical reflections on participatory approaches to influencing policy – including the engagement with the post-2015 process.


Time for critical reflection on participation in the post-2015 process

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Palestinian women share their stories with the world through participatory film-making: Credit: MEND 2013From debates on post-MDG discourse to High Level Panel meetings, from Open Working Group sessions to General Assemblies – policy engagement on the post-2015 framework has at times been both exhilarating and exhausting.  As we leap from one milestone to the next, it is often difficult to find the time to pause and reflect on what our experiences have taught us and to share these with others. Yet, there is a huge amount to be gained from taking time out to consider what we have learned and then to try and apply it to our work.

At the end of 2013, Participate and its partners came together to do just that. The result, Knowledge from the Margins: An anthology from a global network on participatory practice and policy influence  is a collection of their critical reflections on participatory approaches to influencing policy – including the engagement with the post-2015 process.

The UNGA stock-taking exercise in September and the forthcoming report of the Secretary General on the post-2015 agenda make up a significant moment in the post-2015 process, directly influencing and shaping intergovernmental negotiations on the framework itself. However, the creation of this revised set of global goals for development is highly political, with diverse actors and complex interests involved. At these points of consolidation and synthesis within this global policy process it is critical that we reflect on the participation of people living in poverty and marginalisation and how their power, perspectives and choices are or are not being engaged.

Shifting the power in policymaking

This Anthology shares the journey of Participate so far and within this, our attempts to shift power in policymaking. As we move forward, it is a tool to help promote thought and discussion about how to use participatory approaches to influence policy at a variety of levels lessons on what has worked and what as not. The purpose of sharing this experience is to:

  • Share insights and lessons we have learned to help promote thought and discussion about how to use participatory approaches to influence policy at a variety of levels. This includes lessons on what has worked and what as not.
  • Give others ideas of how the voices of those
 who are marginalised can be amplified.
  • Provoke action to bring policymakers and people living in poverty together face-to-face.
  • Provide recommendations for future practitioners, advocates and supporters of participatory research for policy influence, based on our experience.

A collective vision for social change

Uganda TFD

Drama allows for creativity in storytelling approaches and helps bring them to life

Participate has developed a number of innovations with the goal of collapsing the distance between the grassroots experience and global policymakers tasked with creating the post-2015 framework.  Through participatory methods such as digital story telling, participatory video and Theatre for Development, people living in poverty and marginalisation have generated and shared knowledge about their lives and contexts in order to help build more connected relationships with policymakers. Mobilising the knowledge generated between local and global policy spaces of influence for the post-2015 process has involved engaging multiple pathways, and a  non-linear understanding of change. In Participate this has been made possible by a collaboration of networked organisations, the Participatory Research Group, the members of which have had individual and shared influencing strategies, and who engaged in a global synthesis process to weave together the diverse knowledge of people living in poverty and marginalisation in order to amplify their messages through a collective vision for social change.

Why knowledge from the margins matters

ATD 4W women

ATD Fourth World research participants engaged in a merging of knowledge process in New York

There have been challenges along the way, from the outset a number of risks and tensions have been at the forefront of our minds. One specific tension was around the adequate and authentic representation of highly marginalised groups across levels and spaces for advocacy and engagement. Designing more representative methods for participatory policy processes is an increasingly important task; the multiple barriers that prevent people living in poverty entering into different policy spaces can create trade-offs and there are important ethical implications that need to be taken into account where meaningful participation is restricted. The anthology shares our learning on the gaps that persist in trying to connect people in order to shift power in policymaking, and the key areas of lessons we have learned.

The experiences shared from Participate in this anthology highlight again how and why knowledge from the margins matters for inclusive and transformative decision-making. The intention in documenting and sharing our lessons and experiences is not to create a definitive how-to-guide for using participatory methods and research to influence policy, nor to suggest that we have found
all the answers. Rather, we hope that it will spark debate and prompt further reflection amongst others committed to bringing voices from the ground into global decision-making.

Knowledge from the marginsKnowledge from the Margins: An anthology from a global network on participatory practice and policy influence 

When World Cup football imitates the MDGs

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Mwangi Waituru

The World Cup game between Brazil and Germany was quite similar to the Millennium Development Goals in several ways.

In 2001, the MDGs came into effect.  Like yesterday’s game, they were eight goals. Last night, it was Germany, a developed country playing against Brazil, an emerging economy. Similarly, the MDGs represented a contract between the developed countries and the developing countries on a set of seven things (goals) that the developing countries were to achieve against a commitment for provision of funds by these rich countries (goal eight).

Strikingly similar, the eighth goal was to be achieved by the end of the planned period. I have always wondered how the developing countries could deliver seven goals by 2015; eradicate extreme poverty, create employment, fight disease and ignorance, promote gender equality and environmental cleanness and yet commitment for money to do the job wasn’t to be realised until the same 2015 target year. How were they expected to finance the delivery of the goals? No wonder the timing of the Brazilian goal was wrong. It could not redeem the team. Goal eight should have been achieved first. If Brazil scored first, would the game have been different? If post-2015, we prioritise means of implementing the commitments, shall we get different results?

BrazilvGermanyInterestingly, I was to watch the game with my friend and colleague from Brasil Naiara Costa and her Husband at their apartment on 44th Street, New York. I left the UN headquarters on time but on reaching her apartment, she informed me that Marie-Luise (a German for that matter) was calling me to meet with the German delegation. So the Civil Society ME, finds himself somewhere between the seven goals to be delivered by the developing countries and the one goal to be delivered by the developed countries. Not only do I end up with a great discussion around a successor framework to the MDGs with the German Delegate on the sides of the game, but I end up watching the game at the UN delegates lounge on second flour at the ECOSOC and Trusteeship Chambers where all these discussions and agreements take place.


Mwangi Waituru is Director of the Seed Institute/CGAP in Kenya and a former Co-Chair of the Beyond 2015 campaign. He is also a member of Participate’s Participatory Research Group and continues to represents this group as a member of the Beyond2015 network.

When ‘informal’ meets the ‘formal’: The challenges for civil society groups engaging in the OWG process

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The 13th session of the Open Working Group on Sustainable Development Goals is not the only post2015 event taking place in New York during July. Away from the UN, civil society organization members seeking to influence the final document will be working together at meetings across the city, discussing the latest goals and targets and formulating joint responses.

During the 12th session in June 2014, Beyond2015 organised a breakfast meeting between civil society groups and OWG members. Sowmyaa Bharadwaj from Praxis talks to Mwangi Waituru about some of the challenges she faced and the lessons she learned as a result of taking part.

Beyond2015 meeting_OWG12

Beyond2015 hosts a meeting between UN representatives and civil society organisations in New York during the 12th session of the OWG in June 2014.

“For each of the Sustainable Development Goals there will be hundreds of organizations that either endorse or disagree with the issues being put forward depending on their own agendas. Our aim was not to isolate stories of what happened in, for example, a small corner of Kenya or India or Brazil but to reflect the realities faced in similar ways across many different parts of the developing world. We also wanted to get the message across that what we were proposing was grounded in these realities and based on several years’ robust research.

The first challenge was the huge amounts of diversity in perspectives of OWG members because of each country’s different understanding of issues related to e.g. poverty and inequality. So getting 180 different people with their own political agendas to try and reach some sort of common consensus and to give you time to present your own agenda was one huge problem.

The second problem was that some of the missions we interacted with had very limited capacity – some, such as the Philippines, did not have a Chair which meant that they weren’t able to vote on some matters. This resulted in them trying to lobby for issues that their own countries were trying to push forward.

The third challenge was that there was a lot of diversity among the civil society itself which made presenting ourselves with a common face extremely difficult.

So what did we learn from this? The main lesson we learnt is that people are very willing to listen to your point of view if you have good evidence.

The second lesson is that you need to know about the person you are going to speak to both formally and informally. It was very important for us to know beforehand the stance of different countries on different goals before we actually approached them.

The third is the importance of having a meeting of minds, speaking the same language and delivering shared messages. Although it is impossible to have a universal voice from the NGO sector, it is important that we have five or six common issues that are non-negotiable. This will be very helpful in future actions taken.

Finally there should be equality in the representation from the northern voices and the southern voices and their agendas should be treated equally and not blown off because their attendance was just to meet a political requirement.”

Read Sowmyaa’s full report  ‘Where ‘Informal’ meets ‘Informal: Report on the 12th session of the Open Working Group on Sustainable Development Goals