Bali blog 2: "Major Groups and Stakeholders"

Major Groups and Stakeholders meeting

Now after three days of travel, I am finally in Bali, staying at a hotel quite beyond my budget but close to the conference center. The landscaping is really very nice, huge palm trees and ponds with large goldfish and water lilies and it is walking distance from the beach – not that I can do more than walk down to the water, take a look and a few pictures, then back to the hotel to get ready to go to work. There is a huge bed where I can imagine getting smothered to death by all the fluffy pillows. As a proponent of sustainable consumption and production, this is all extremely overboard. The bed is an apt image of how the system provides far more than one needs, while those in need are taunted with images of excess and waste. This is of course an image the rest of the world has of the US, and rightfully so.

The hotel has Internet, which I use to email and chat with my wife and daughter. This convenience costs me 40 cents a minute, which quickly adds up if you don’t watch out (even if you do). This feels like electronic heroin and I’m another addict with that insatiable need for my connection fix. 

When it comes time for breakfast, I rebel. The prices are outrageous. So I go without. It is now Saturday afternoon and I head off to the International Conference Center to participate in the Major Groups and Stakeholders Facilitating Committee. By now it is lunch time, but at the International Conference Center I also decide to go without lunch, the prices there also a joke.  However, I break down and buy a coffee, feeding my other addiction.

The Facilitating Committee, of which I am a new member, spends the next few hours discussing process and procedure regarding the group, its relationship with UNEP and each other, as well as the schedule, aims and logistics of the main two day Major Groups meeting, which begins tomorrow. With the previous Chair resigning to take another job, we elect Sacha Gabizon from a European women’s health and environment group to be our new chair for the rest of the year.

Throughout the meeting I am wondering how this switch from “civil society” to “major groups and stakeholders,” which was apparently recent, came about. I remember for years NGOs arguing that the term “civil society” should be reserved to public interest groups and not lumped together with Business and Industry, then expecting us to arrive at meaningful consensus-based statements. This whole discussion appears to have been pushed into some closet somewhere, as the idea of the Major Groups now dominates. However, while I know that the regional representatives here have each been elected through consultations in those regions, it is not clear at all where and how the representatives of the Major Groups are here. I can see some familiar names and faces from the Commission on Sustainable Development, but I do not yet see the path from there to here and the story of how that path was created.

So we have representatives from North America, Europe, Asia Pacific, Africa, Latin America and Western Asia. We also have representatives from Business and Industry, Women, Youth, Indigenous Peoples, Farmers, Science and Technology, Local Authorities, and a somewhat confused remaining group labeled “NGOs.” The problem with this last group is made anemic by removing women, youth, indigenous peoples, trade unions, and researchers, leaving only the environmental activists who are men, old, non-indigenous, non-union, and don’t do research or have scientific credentials. In addition to this problem, there is also the problem of limited time and inclination for the major groups to exchange their ideas, priorities and perspectives in the work of statement making and position taking. If any exchange and synthesis takes place, it is in competition for the time allotted to each group to concentrate on articulating its particular views.

The awkwardness of this configuration because apparent in those situations in which there is little time and resources allotted for providing inputs in the decisions and debates of the government policymakers. Rather than listening to one group that has done the work of synthesizing its key points, the governments are asked to listen to all nine groups – assuming the regional groups are not also asking to each be given a time slot.

With only two days to hear the list of experts and their presentations, the groups are allocated only a few hours in the schedule to meet and work through these constraints and develop and articulate their key points and messages, as well as discuss their common and differentiated objectives in this activity.

Obviously the process has room for serious improvements. The question is how to have that discussion and make those improvements after everyone has gone home.

Fortunately there are many smart and experienced people here who I can talk with about these concerns and hopefully leave with a better idea of what I can do as my part in this important project.

Bali, February 21, 2010