Participate’s global research findings say that people and institutions must ‘work together’ to address poverty and inequality

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Joanna Wheeler

Participate’s new report Work with us: How people and organisations can catalyse sustainable change’ argues that the wellbeing of the world’s poorest and most marginalised communities will only be improved if they are seen as active partners in efforts to tackle poverty and injustice.

Participation and realising the rights of all
The report brings together findings from the participatory research of the Participate Participatory Research Group that was undertaken by grassroots organisations, activists and citizens in 29 countries including Kenya, the Philippines, South Africa, Bangladesh, Montenegro, Egypt and Nigeria. The views, stories, and experiences of the participants were collected and shared through diverse mediums including participatory film-making, digital storytelling, public forums, public theatre and art.

The research makes an important contribution to ongoing international discussions about a new set of poverty reduction and environmental sustainability targets to replace the current Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) in 2015. These debates are currently riding high on the political agenda with world leaders about to gather in New York for the UN General Assembly and the Special event towards meeting the MDGs.

This research provides a clear message to leaders meeting in New York. Development policies have not met the expectations of the poorest and most marginalised, and this is largely because these communities have been excluded from crucial design and implementation processes. We have an opportunity to redress this with the post 2015 development framework, but the international community must demonstrate its commitment to working with all citizens to realise their rights, and recognise the role that people are playing themselves in transforming their own lives.

The reality of poverty
The ‘Work with us’ report highlights how the poorest and most marginalised communities’ experience of poverty is multidimensional, often characterised by low incomes, insecure livelihoods, limited or no assets, harsh living environments, violence and environmental degradation. These factors combine with multiple and interconnected inequalities, and close down the opportunities that people have to change their situation themselves.

In the report it is argued that development should focus on the very poorest and work with them to make the decisions that matter most in their lives. The research shows that development interventions, broadly speaking, are targeted at those who are easiest to reach, and based on strong assumptions about the experiences of the poorest, rather than building relationships with them to have a real understanding of how they experience poverty and inequality.

In order to address this it is proposed that a number of key principles must underpin future development policy and practice if the ambition of the post-2015 High Level Panel report to ‘leave no behind’ is to be achieved. These include:

  • Rights, dignity and equity
  • Inclusion, solidarity and collective action
  • Participation, accountability and democratic institutions
  • Services and policies which respond to the needs of the poorest

Through their efforts to tackle insecurity, youth researchers in Mathare slum, Nairobi, have learnt what they are able to do as a community, and where ‘working together’ will bring change that lasts. ‘Working together for change – Mathare Slum, Kenya’ (Spatial Collective, 2013)

Work with us exhibition launch
The report will be launched in New York at the opening night of an exhibition of the research findings from the Participate initiative. The exhibition tells stories from people living in the margins, and demonstrates the obstacles, complexities, and impossible choices of the most vulnerable and marginalised groups in developing countries. The stories show the depth of insight and ability of people affected by poverty to create sustainable and meaningful change in their own communities.

The exhibition is launching on Monday 16 September at 5-7pm at the Gallatin Galleries, New York University, 1 Washington Place at Broadway, New York 10003. The exhibition will run from 16-20 September at Gallatin Galleries, and from 21-27 September at RSPop, 501 Lexington Avenue, New York NY 10017.

There will be a panel event to discuss the research findings from the Participate initiative on Friday 20 September at 9-11am at NYU Wagner, the Rudin Family Forum for Civic Dialogue at the Puck Building, 295 Lafayette Street, Second Floor, New York, NY 10012-9604. The panel will be made up of representatives from the UN, academics, civil society and the Participate research network.

Participate is also hosting a screening of the documentary film Work With Us on Friday 20 September at 6.30pm at RSPop, 501 Lexington Avenue, New York NY 10017. This coincides with a month long series of screenings of the film in locations across the world including Kenya, the Philippines, South Africa, Palestine, Uganda and India.

For more information visit the exhibition website –

We stride forward in the hope of success

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Tom Thomas

Burdened by predicament and angst on the one hand and energised by hope on the other, the Ground Level Panel comprising of 14 people from across India, living in poverty and experiencing various forms of marginalisation, deliberated on development goals (Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and Post-2015) as it currently is, and how it should be.

“The poor give up under the weight of their predicament”, Usha, Indigenous Community, Gujarat, Panellist.

“We stride forward in the hope of success”, Nandalal, Citimaker from Delhi, Panellist.


“If democracy binds us as a family, then why do we get excluded and treated differently”- wondered the panellists. The panel dissected this and many more issues threadbare, not from an academic perspective, but from their own and their communities’ life experiences. They did not stop with raising issues, but went on to look at the role of different players, stumbling blocks, a way forward and institutional mechanisms for bringing about change. Ground Level Panels are definitely emerging as a powerful tool for democratising policy making and for intra- and inter-community dialogue.

It was a truly humbling experience to listen to this unadulterated, grounded take on the Post-2015 agenda. The breadth and depth of lived experiences that were shared during the deliberations make you wonder why, why are we deaf to the voices of people living in poverty, while making policies and taking decisions about their lives? Ravi, one of the panellists, struggling to form words due to his Cerebral Palsy, echoed the sentiments of the panel: “Is it that the government doesn’t understand our issues? No, they have deliberately chosen not to respond”. Shamsul, one of the panel members from the North East of India, likened it to the practice of cats being fed just survival ration, so that they would hunt rats – keep people in poverty and give them just enough crumbs to make them stand in lines to vote, once in five years. And so the unanimous voice of the panellists said that their lives should be “not doles, but identity and rights”.


So, I ask you this: How long can we be deaf to these voices? How long will we keep them on cat ration? The answer seems to be: Not for too long if the energy and optimism that the panel reverberated are any indication. Let us stride forward in the hope of success.

Awêre para Kisile: Brazil Ground Level Panel

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Mariana Guerra

Awêre para Kisile – “That everything goes well for those who don’t have a name yet”

What do we have in common?

We, caboclos, ribeirinhos (riverside-dwellers), people of African descendants, youth, slum-dwellers, Indians, men and women, human beings, assembled at the Tijuca Forest, in the month of July of 2013, send our message to the planet, trying to reach primarily the people with decision-making power over the policies that will affect our lives and that of our Mother Earth from 2015 and on.

While analysing the policies and programs created from the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and the proposals by the High Level Panel for defining a post-2015 development agenda, we did not identify in them our world views or the worries of our brothers and sisters. We recognise, however, some indicators that we do agree with, but which in practice do not produce the desired effect.

We feel that in this way we continue to develop a death plan for the planet and all its inhabitants. But we do not remain still, from our own diverse territories we fight for Life and here we present some elements considered necessary for a global life plan. In the global life plan, everything is interconnected. We depend on each other, humans, nature, government bodies, we are all part of a whole.

How did we make this work?

BrazilWe took our time getting to know each other and the reality we came from. As we explored the concept of “extreme poverty”, it was clear that each person had their own experience and their own way of talking about it. However, little by little, the group found common ground, and we built our own way to talk about ‘development speak’ (development, economy and dignity).

Working in small groups, and using various techniques allowed everyone to express themselves freely and comfortably, in talking about very complex issues, and at the same time relating it to their own lives. We used drawing, theatre (Augusto Boal), video (The history of stuff), network. It was a very artistic group and every night we played music together, read poetry and painted which gave us a sense of the diverse stories of the panellists. Reflection was also a key element to the week, as each day someone summarised and analysed the day, and we would watch the video the morning after.

Having such a diverse group made for an incredibly rich and interesting week, yet it undoubtedly presented some challenges. The panellists were really worried to be able to show that is possible for them to work together, and use their differences to enhance the process. There is no doubt in my mind that they achieved this. Rafael, from Espirito Santo, suggested that this group could continue to work together and monitor the proposals for post-2015 and the public policies created by the government from the ground.

Building a message

Together we felt that there were three “big points”:

  • The life’s plan
  • The locks
  • The ways

Our message is Awêre para Kisile which shows the diversity of the group and Brazil and the possibility for us to all to work together. Awêre is a Tupinambá indigenous word to say “that everything goes well”, and was used continuously by the indigenous panellists. Kisile is a Banto African word that means “those who don’t have a name yet” and was used to talk about the people we can’t leave behind. So we joined the two words to say: That everything goes well for those who don’t have a name yet.

*This is a video made by the panelists about their week together as the Brazil Ground Level Panel

Education 4 All

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Tom Thomas

What makes good education?

• Is it well-trained, knowledgeable and sensitive teachers who understand the uniqueness and contexts of children?

• Is it a joyous learning environment free of fear and reprimand?

• Is it well functioning Parent-Teacher Associations?

• Is it allocation of adequate human and financial resources?

Arguably, a good education incorporates all of the above and more as discussed by the participants of the ATD FourthWorld conference on ‘Building the Post 2015 sustainable development agenda with people living in extreme poverty’ in New York last month. The opinions of the diverse group coming from the global south, the inner cities of New York and Boston and from the hinterlands of Burkina Faso, Bangladesh, etc. were dialoguing the issue of ‘education for all that promotes cooperation among children, teachers, parents and communities’.

So, even as the teacher-child-parent axis of education is important, the bigger question is ‘what is the outcome we want from education for all?’

• Is it to maintain status quo, widen the gap or help build a more equitable society?

Education for an equitable society, not for the market

While all the participants were unequivocal that education must contribute to building a more equitable society, views on achieving this differed. Delegates from Burkina Faso expressed it as the role of education in building solidarity. Others expressed it in the Freirean pedagogy of education as a tool to raise ‘critical consciousness’. Though Paulo Freire spoke of it in the context of colonial suppression, participants felt that it is probably even more relevant in today’s context of subordination of education by market forces.

There was unanimity that education is not a value neutral global good. It is heavily weighed towards the needs of the market (often at conflict with the good of the society) and the resource rich. As it stands, it is aiding the widening of the gap between the rich and the poor and the Post-2015 agenda must recognise this and include effective steps to structure and resource education to make it a tool to build a more equitable society.

Participate: Response to the High Level Panel on the Post-2015 Development Agenda Report

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Participate 2015

This response is based on in-depth participatory research with people living in poverty and marginalisation, from 18 organisations working in over 30 countries worldwide, which together form the Participate initiative’s Participatory Research Group network. The research has included people with disabilities, older people, people with mental health issues, urban dwellers, people living in slums, rural communities, indigenous communities, farmers, people affected by natural disasters, youth, vulnerable children and children outside of parental care, marginalised women, sex workers and sexual minorities.

Read the full response here

Citizens at the Centre

It is encouraging that the Panel has evidently listened closely to some of the issues raised by people living in poverty and marginalisation. The focus on eradicating poverty, promoting sustainability, addressing conflict and violence, and protecting human rights and dignity are welcome. The strong stance on gender equality reflects the gendered nature of poverty and discrimination articulated by people participating in this research across the world. The acknowledgement that strong accountability and the participation of the poorest and most marginalised is essential but most of all, the commitment to ‘leave no one behind’ marks a potential shift in the global approach to development.

However, ultimately the High Level Panel report does not go far enough in its focus on those most affected by poverty and marginalisation.  A ‘people-centred’ agenda is one in which the transformation of societies is led by citizens themselves—including the poorest and most marginalised. This must be the guiding principle that underpins the new global development framework.

Whilst the report emphasises transformative shifts, it does not fully recognise the most important transformative shift of all—recognising the ability of those living in poverty and marginalisation to act to address their own situation, and then building a global development framework that supports them rather than reinforcing existing powerful interests. Going forward, the UN process needs to take the perspectives of those living in greatest poverty much more seriously in how the agenda is set.

Transforming Shifts?

The High Level Panel Report proposes 5 ‘transformative shifts’, needed for the new global development framework.  If these transformative shifts were seen through the perspectives of those living in greatest poverty and exclusion, there would be some important differences.

Participate’s full response to the High Level Panel report analyses how the post-2015 framework must go further if these shifts are truly going to be ‘transformative’:

  •  ‘Leave no one behind’—but don’t lose sight of who is getting ahead
  • ‘Put sustainable development at the core’—but don’t force people to make impossible choices
  • ‘Transform economics for jobs and inclusive growth’—but growth isn’t always good
  • Build peace and effective, open and accountable institutions for all’—but don’t ask if you won’t really listen
  • ‘Forge a new global partnership’—but it must be led by citizens

Participate offers further critique on the agenda proposed by the High Level Panel around their proposals for data disaggregation; the need to understand intersecting inequalities, and challenge discrimination and unequal social norms; and the need to address gender equality across the development framework.

The High Level Panel report provides a welcome input to the global discussions on the post-2015 agenda. As advocates in this process, Participate looks to the Panel members to continue to articulate the importance of inclusion of the poorest and most marginalised people in on-going debates and processes of policy formulation, as well as the design, implementation, monitoring and evaluation of the successor framework to the Millennium Development Goals.