Sitting on the plane back from the 2015 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Malta gives me time to reflect on the challenges that the world is facing, writes IABC UK Board member Marcie Shaoul.
This time the 53 Heads of Government from all over the Commonwealth, from Tuvalu to Tanzania, New Zealand, Botswana, Canada convened on the tiny walled and beautiful country of Malta to discuss the pressing matters of the Commonwealth for the next two years.
Notoriously at CHOGMs the country becomes locked down. The fringe events that happen in the wings, the Commonwealth Youth Forum, the People’s Forum, the Business Forum and for the first time the Women’s Forum are shunned by leaders as they sweep in for a two day retreat and a dinner with Her Majesty The Queen who is Head of the Commonwealth.
However since the controversial CHOGM in Sri Lanka in 2013, the world has continued to change. People power is increasing, reportage by the person on the street via social media is rife and the world and its leaders is having to sit up and listen. The civil society event, the Commonwealth People’s Forum, where NGOs gather and debate now not only feeds into the Foreign Ministers, but also engages with ministers in the run up to the biennial meeting.
But these events are seldom ground breaking. Whatever you think is on the agenda usually gets surpassed by current events, so in this case terrorism and climate change were the hot topics and planned interactions from young people, NGOs and women’s groups can be left floundering in the wings of the debate.
Flying people in from around the world to generate ideas is one thing, but the perception that they may be there to influence the agenda is a fallacy. If people want to communicate with their governments, they need to think smart about how they do that. Change doesn’t happen at one meeting, pressure is not always the best way to bring about change, and placards rarely make a difference.
Opening up debate
As a trained facilitator I often watch these events with a heavy heart. Knowing what they could achieve and watching what they don’t achieve is frustrating for the whole world. Demanding rarely makes people listen in an open-minded way, and locking intelligent and specialised people out of high level meetings causes them to rally. To my eyes this creates a non-productive log jam, out of which tenuous compromise is the only viable solution.
If governments opened up the process before the meeting to interact formally with groups to gain expert advice on the discussion topics (current affairs dependent) then they would be better informed and discussions could be streamlined.
And when lobby groups are invited to the table, demands should become discussions, conversations should be fuelled by people who are listening and responding, rather than those who are trying to say their piece. Fruitful conversations, common ground and alliances are what will change the world. Demands and ultimatums rarely do.
Marcie Shaoul is a senior facilitator in multi-stakeholder processes and has worked as an international civil servant specialising in areas of international concern. Prior to founding Communications for Development, Marcie was Head of Stakeholder Engagement and Communications at the Commonwealth.