UN Sustainable Development Goals: The Power of Participatory Democracy
Millennium Development goals came out of the
UN’s Millennium Summit in 2000. And those set a series of high-profile benchmarks
for trying to reduce poverty and improve governance across the world.
What’s happening now at the UN is sort of the next wave of how do we build off of that progress.
And also broaden out the scope so the Sustainable Development Goals that are being negotiated
now focus on issues like climate and ecological sustainability and good governance and inclusion. One aspect of Goal 16 involves inclusive governance, participatory mechanisms. Mechanisms by which citizens can meaningfully influence the policymaking process. What makes this exciting is that it goes beyond poverty reduction to recognize that you can’t have effective pathways to economic equality without participatory decision making. Many times you talk about the need of more participation, more democracy. But we never
ask why. Right, why is it good? The promise of inclusive governance and participatory decision making isn’t that citizens feel good. It’s that policy is better. With participatory democracy the ownership that people in the community have over the
ideas that they have, it creates a whole different dynamic of stewardship and communities around people getting what they want and then feeling like they’re going to protect what it is
that they’ve achieved. U.S. democracy, while better than many democracies
in many respects, is still far from perfect. I think while we talk about the United States
being a beacon of democracy, the reality is there are many groups of people that aren’t
actually at the table making decisions and participating in the democratic process: people
of color, low-income people, etc. The most interesting question is what the
Sustainable Development Goals look like in the U.S. context. If we could engage citizens in their neighborhoods, in planning decisions, in resource allocation decisions, it could transform public policy in this country. Participatory budgeting is probably the forum that’s gaining the most traction. We have been initiating a process here in New York City where ordinary people, residents in their communities, get to decide how to spend public money directly. In Boston, we’ve done the nation’s first-ever youth-focused participatory budgeting initiative.
So we’re seeing park renovations, school renovations, items that young people designed
and said we really need this so that we can move about our city and be excited. And so
it really reflects what our society is going to look like in Boston, five, ten, fifteen
years from now. In Portsmouth, New Hampshire, the schools
were having a bullying problem. And the city manager had the idea to engage parents in
solving the problem. What he thought would be a one-time conversation
with parents actually stretched over two years and resulted in a very serious set of recommendations
that the city ultimately adopted. Now it’s become a mechanism called “Portsmouth
Listens,” and they routinely take up issues in their community. The United States can be inspired by alternative methods of engagement. In Brazil, in India, South Africa, and some of these other countries, we have far more
innovative democracies. They’ve created a better system, a kind of more supportive infrastructure for engagement for democratic innovation. For some, governments being inclusive means posting information on a website. It means
creating a 311 hotline, so that someone can complain about a problem.
There’s a range of ways in which we can think about creating more inclusive governance
and more participatory decision making, but we’re not having that conversation. The Sustainable Development Goals gives us that opportunity. Government succeeds when people trust their institutions, but also when they see that
the government acts with neutrality. So perceiving that everybody stands the same or maybe similar chance of making a difference. We’re finding that people that participate
in the process start to become more active agents of change in their communities around
a variety of issues. I think that the SDGs are an opportunity for
us to set goals as a people and to say that these are what our beliefs and our standards
are, and this is the kind of world that we’re trying to effect.
Participation as a goal is an important part of the common future that we build. And the
more we can build that to be a positive force, the further we can all go together.