Reinventing modes of participation in UN negotiations

Réinventer la participation aux négociations de l'ONU
Article Index
Sustainable Development Dialogues: a timeline
Sustainable Development Dialogues and collective…
Over-representation of highly developed countries
Political and digital divide

The development of information and communication technology makes possible a new participation of civil society in the development process of intergovernmental policies. What is the impact of these mechanisms developed in the Rio+20 framework? Do they influence the policies developed? Do they make them more legitimate?

Box 1 Box 2

Since Rio+20, new direct forms of civil society participation have emerged in UN negotiation processes. Often internet-based, they aim to enhance the ability of civil society actors around the world, organized or not, to express their perspectives, organize deliberations, take action and increase their participation and engagement in the creation and implementation of sustainable development norms and agreements. The proliferation of these new formal participatory mechanisms, which are coordinated by international organizations and governments, suggests that sustainable development norms and agreements are likely to have the best results if they stem from an open, inclusive and transparent process with broad multi-stakeholder participation.

While there are many channels for civil society participation in and influence on global policymaking structures, both official and unofficial, at international and national levels, this paper focuses on civil society participation during the 2012 Rio+20 Sustainable Development Dialogues (SDD), held within the framework of the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (UNCSD), and addresses three main questions:

First, why have formal participatory processes changed over time from a representative form based on the 'Major Groups model' to a mix of a representative system and a new direct form of participation that includes the use of virtual platforms and Internet-based surveys?

Second, are the innovative forms of civil society engagement (based on direct Internet participation) truly open and inclusive? This article assesses one of the variables of legitimacy - inclusiveness - in the case of the direct formal mechanisms for civil society participation in the Rio+20 SDD. This evaluation is based on the analysis of data that reveals the levels of participation of different civil society actors and different countries.

Third, does the broader access of civil society to intergovernmental policymaking necessarily influence negotiations? The last section of this paper evaluates the effects of the Rio+20 Dialogues on the official part of the conference (using the indicators of agenda setting and position shifting), and addresses the critical issue of determining whether there is correlation and causality between the inclusiveness and influence of civil society on intergovernmental negotiation processes and outcomes.

The shortcomings of the Major Groups model

Although the Major Groups model has been innovative in integrating civil society into intergovernmental processes at the UN, particularly with the Commission for Sustainable Development (CSD) which generated a number of good practices that have been tested in real life situations and have proven their value

For an assessment of the experience of Major Groups at the CSD, see Adams Barbara and Pingeot Lou. Strengthening public participation at the United Nations for Sustainable Development: Dialogue, Debate, Deliberation, Dissent. UNDESA/DSD, June 2013.

, it also raises serious issues about their ability to include all stakeholders and their impact on policymaking.

Dynamics of exclusion

As early as 2001 a UN Secretary General's report

Report of the Secretary-General on the Major Groups, United Nations, 2001.

on the Major Groups highlighted geographical imbalances in participation, stressing that the majority of stakeholder participants in intergovernmental processes continued to be from developed countries, with an under-representation of participants from developing countries (E/CN.17/2001/PC/4). In 2013, a report

Ibid. 1

commissioned by the Division for Sustainable Development of the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA), which is in charge of coordinating the Major Groups, reasserted this observation. The authors found that the Major Groups system was often perceived as North and New York-centric, and did not allow for a broad participation of social and people's movements.

These dynamics of exclusion are fuelled by various factors. First, exclusion is inherent to the Major Groups concept. By predefining nine categories of civil society, the Major Groups model has been seen by some as reductionist and exclusive: for instance, Foster and Anand (1999) argue that 'the list of Major Groups is arbitrary. It includes women but not men, the young but not the elderly, farmers but not fishing communities, trade unions but not professional associations... It is repugnant to allocate people to pre-specified groups rather than accepting whatever manner people choose to organize on a voluntary basis.' Indeed, the rigidity of the categories forces groups to adhere to definitions that do not correctly reflect their identity. Besides, the NGO Major Group is a residual category that allows for the inclusion of any civil society organization that could not identify with one of the eight other groups (Willetts, 2011). In light of its size and diversity, any consensus that stems from the NGO Major Group is more likely to reflect the interests of the most organized and powerful organizations rather than those of the most affected communities.

Second, relying on representatives may fuel exclusion. The Major Groups system is based on Organizing Partners (OPs) that act as focal points for their constituencies. OPs are well acquainted with year-round intergovernmental policy processes and can help their constituencies navigate the often complicated, opaque and unwritten rules of the intergovernmental negotiations (Adams and Pingeot, 2013:14). However, such professionalization of representation can foster exclusion if a Major Group lacks appropriate mechanisms to promote internal transparency and accountability. As a result, Adams and Pingeot further argue, professionalization may lead to power imbalances between the insiders (OPs and civil society representatives based within easy range of UN Headquarters) who possess the information and can exploit it to their advantage, and the outsiders (grassroots organizations).

Third, a lack of reliable funding for Major Groups is a substantial obstacle to the inclusiveness and participation of broad constituencies (Ibid.: 20-21). Most Major Groups depend on bilateral and multilateral institutions to fund their work. Yet, they can rarely rely on the funding granted through these institutions for their participation. For example, the UN services in charge of civil society, such as the Major Groups programme of the Division for Sustainable Development and the Non-Governmental Liaison Service (NGLS), are under-resourced, both financially and in terms of staff.

Fourth, inclusion is also hampered by the prevalence of English as a working language. Documents regarding intergovernmental processes are mainly issued in English and not often translated into other UN languages. This makes it more difficult for OPs to communicate with their non-English speaking constituencies and disadvantages those organizations and communities for which English is not a working language or not used at all (Ibid.: 19).

Limited impact on intergovernmental processes

While Major Groups may be given the opportunity to provide input into the intergovernmental process, they can rarely assess whether their preferences have been taken into consideration or have influenced the negotiations. Although the 2001 UNSG report on Major Groups acknowledges that participation in decision-making goes beyond the passive exchange of information and refers to the active presence of Major Groups in the design, execution and monitoring of sustainable development activities at all levels, the authors of the 2013 report commissioned by the United Nations Division for Sustainable Development (DSD) of the United Nations found that Major Groups members raised concerns about international organizations and member states providing many spaces for civil society participation without really ensuring meaningful engagement. This latest report further stressed that 'Major Groups pointed out that having access to a process could not be equated with influencing the process and warned against the risk of tokenism and civil society engagement becoming a box-ticking exercise.' (Adams and Pingeot, 2013:16).

Facilitated by the development of information and communications technology (ICT), other practices for civil society engagement in intergovernmental policymaking processes have emerged and are promoting the direct participation of civil society actors. However, it is open to debate whether the shift to the new practices for civil society engagement used in the Rio+20 dialogues adequately respond to the pitfalls of the Major Groups model. However, it is open to debate whether these new practices for civil society engagement, such as those used in the Rio+20 dialogues, adequately respond to the pitfalls of the Major Groups model.

The emergence of a new participatory process at Rio+20

The organization of the Rio+20 Dialogues

Organized by the Government of Brazil with the support of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the Offices of the Executive Coordinators for Rio+20, the dialogues aimed at fostering discussion on ten topics related to sustainable development and at engaging civil society in the decision-making process of the Rio+20 Conference. The dialogues consisted of two phases (Figure 1). From 16 April to the end of May 2012, they were launched through a digital platform

to provide individuals with a space for discussion. After filling a form, participants were able to enter this digital space and share experiences, express opinions, and contribute fresh ideas to the forum. The academic experts, in charge of facilitating the online discussions, and the participants then had the opportunity to present their own recommendations for the future they wanted. Once the recommendations were posted on the platform, members could express their support for their preferred recommendation(s) through the use of a 'like' feature similar to those available on social media. The academic experts then identified the ten most supported recommendations in each theme. The online discussions thus resulted in a set of one hundred recommendations which was submitted to the vote of a broader public through an open website.

The results of the final vote, including disaggregated data by continent, by human development index (HDI), by age and by gender, are available at

The final top ten recommendations (Figure 2) were then transmitted to the participants present at the conference site.

During the second phase, between 16 and 19 June 2012, top representatives from civil society engaged in 'open and action-oriented debates' at the conference site in Rio de Janeiro. Facilitated by a journalist, each dialogue gathered ten panellists and a physical audience of about 1,300 people who eventually agreed on thirty recommendations (three for each topic): the first recommendation was taken from the open vote on the Internet, the second was produced by the audience present during the live dialogues, and the third was formulated by the panellists.

This final set of recommendations was directly conveyed to the Heads of State and Governments present at the High-Level Roundtables convened in parallel with the plenary meetings of the Rio+20 conference. Additionally, the thirty recommendations were added to the annexes of the Report of the Conference (A/CONF.216).

Overall, the dialogues engaged 60,000 people from 193 countries. In particular, the discussions on the online platform generated over 843 recommendations which were submitted by more than 10,000 participants, garnering 11,842 indications of support. Additionally, 1.3 million votes were cast on the public website.

The emergence of direct participatory mechanisms: Towards enhanced legitimacy?

Inclusiveness: who actually participated in the Rio+20 online dialogues?

The voting results on the one hundred recommendations, disaggregated according to country, gender and age, give a primary indication of the inclusiveness of the online dialogues.

Participation was gender-balanced: 52% of the total 55,317 voters were women, and 48% were men. In terms of age categories, young adults and children were slightly less represented (27%) than voters from other age categories (36% and 37% respectively for 35-54 year-old voters and ''<55 year-old voters). Regarding the countries of origin of the voters, which were classified in four groups according to their Human Development Index (HDI) levels (low, medium, high and very high), participation was sharply unbalanced: although all 193 countries were 'represented' by at least one voter, more than three voters out of four came from a country with a very high HDI (Figure 3). Additionally, nearly 50% of the voters came from only four English-speaking countries: the UK (17.5%), Canada (12%), the US (12%) and Australia (8%).

Although the organizers of the consultation pointed out that the voting results were not intended to provide a complete representation of the world's opinion, the over-representation of voters from very high HDI countries was likely to bias the world's preferences. Indeed, in nine dialogues out of ten, the result of the global vote was convergent with the preferences of the voters from very high HDI countries, while this number falls to five out of ten when it comes to the preferences of voters from low HDI countries (Figure 3). In three dialogues in particular - related to Energy; Sustainable Development as an Answer to the Economic and Financial Crises; and the Economics of Sustainable Development - the votes from very high HDI countries alone determined the results, and therefore global preferences.

Furthermore, some recommendations received a significant number of votes as soon as they were uploaded onto the web platform. In some cases, this can be interpreted as coordinated lobbying: for instance, the most voted on recommendation from the Energy dialogue, 'Take concrete steps to eliminate fossil fuel subsidies', which received twice as much support than any other recommendation from any other dialogue, was in fact put forward by Avaaz who led an online campaign to encourage its network to vote. Thus, the civil society actors that were best able to get their preferences into the final top ten recommendations were those who were the most organized, that had significant financial and human resources at their disposal, and had communication and social mobilization strategies: participation from well-resourced, western and English-speaking NGOs was higher than that of smaller NGOs or social movements.

The results of the online survey of the participants involved in the dialogue on 'Sustainable Development as an Answer to the Economic and Financial Crises' show similar trends. Participation was fairly balanced across gender (58% were male, while 42% were female). Participation from young adults (34%) was higher than participation from 55 year-old or older (18%) but still lower than participation from 35 to 54 year-olds (48%). Although one out of four participants was Brazilian, very high HDI countries were overrepresented (58%) compared to medium and low HDI countries, accounting for 8% and 5% of the respondents respectively. All respondents were highly educated, holding a master's degree and in some cases a PhD, in environment and development studies (29%), public administration and political science (18%) or economics and finance (16%). It was therefore difficult to engage with actors beyond those that already had the knowledge and skills to participate: participation from grassroots organizations and individual citizens remained low, the latter being the most marginalized.

'If you go on these online platforms, it means that you are already informed. If you have the motivation to contribute, it means that you are already involved in the process and that you are part of civil society networks. It's not for the general public.'

Civil society representative

However, the organizers of the online dialogues were more successful in including people from outside of the UN's institutionalized civil society participatory channels such as the Major Groups. This is illustrated by the fact that only three respondents out of ten had previously taken part in a civil society consultation.

It is clear that ICT has a positive impact on inclusiveness, so long as people have access to the Internet and the ability to use it. The digital divide is still important both between and within countries. Globally, 4 billion people are not yet using the Internet, more than 90% of whom are from the developing world (Figure 4). The quality of Internet access is also unequal as differences in broadband speed persist between developed and developing countries.

The impact of ICT usage in civil society consultations on inclusiveness also depends on the outreach policies of the organizers. In the first phase of the dialogues, the online platform was based on an invitation system which was not completely open, as UNDP staff acted as gatekeepers reviewing the registrations according to the instructions given by the Brazilian Government. The latter wanted to include in the dialogues: (i) those accredited to participate in the Conference, (ii) those nominated by the facilitators, (iii) those nominated by and affiliated to the universities that were supporting the dialogues, (iv) those with an email from a pre-authorized server (e.g.;;, (v) those invited by the Brazilian Government or by the Offices of the Executive Coordinators of the UN for Rio+20, (vi) those nominated by a UN Major Group, and finally (vii) those invited by people already registered to the platform. It therefore seems that ICT can serve to promote inclusiveness if the organizers are willing to reach out beyond organized civil society networks.

Assessing the impacts: is quantity of participation influential?

Influence on the negotiation process

The Rio+20 Dialogues took place too late into the negotiation process to influence either the negotiation agenda or the positions of key member states. The agendas and the Conference themes were defined ahead of the first preparatory committee meeting for the Rio+20 Conference, held in May 2010 in New York. Civil society consultations and advocacy may have influenced the agenda setting for the negotiations when the preparatory committees, informal consultations, intersessionals and the UNCSD Bureau meetings were held in New York. However, given that the results of the online and onsite phases of the dialogues came out respectively on 15 and 19 June, immediately after the third preparatory committee and before the high-level segment of the conference, when the negotiations and the outcome document were being finalized, they could not possibly have triggered the inclusion of new items for the negotiations.

'When Brazil announced it would hold the Dialogues a few months before the Conference, our delegation already had doubts about their potential impacts on the official process leading to the summit and its outcomes. We faced a classical pattern where an ambitious process for civil society engagement is organized but its results in terms of influence on the official negotiations are minimal.'

Member state representative

Similarly, by the time the dialogues were carried out, the positions of member states had already been defined and concluded, sometimes in consultation with civil society at the national level. In Rio de Janeiro, delegates were too deeply involved in the negotiations to be able to attend the dialogues and to listen and reflect on the ideas generated by civil society. In addition, it would be naïve to believe that the positions of key member states can be modified overnight, without a government consultation on what such position-shifting would imply for the country's socioeconomic structures.

'Influencing negotiators 'on the spot' during international conferences is very complicated. It's a long-term job, and it's not in organizing these consultations back-to-back with the negotiations that civil society's voice will be heard. A consultation system should allow negotiators to have time to digest civil society's message, because the recommendations delivered by a highly diversified civil society, coming from many countries, should be analysed in light of the impacts these recommendations have on each country's territory. For instance on the recommendation on fossil fuel subsidies, it's not by getting the information on Monday that we will be able to decide whether we insert it or not into the negotiating text on Tuesday. Because there are a lot of impact assessments that we need to look at closely before agreeing on incorporating civil society input into negotiation outcome documents.'

Member state representative

Another indicator that further demonstrates that the dialogues had very little influence on the negotiating process is the reference to this mechanism in the statements delivered by the heads of state and government during the conference's plenary meetings. Indeed, the only country that referred to the dialogues in its statements is Brazil, the host country and dialogue organizer. In the fourth plenary meeting of the conference, Brazilian Minister for the Environment Izabella Teixeira hailed the results of the dialogues, hoping the formula would set a path for future conferences, while Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, in the closing session, highlighted the link between the results of the conference of heads of state and government and the dialogues and the Peoples' Forum. While some heads of state and government highlighted the importance of including civil society in decision-making processes at all levels in their statements - 30 countries out of 187

Only 142 statements out of 187 were available.

- only Brazil explicitly referred to the dialogues.

Influence on the negotiation outcome

Although Izabella Teixeira stated that 'the outcome document of [the] conference [was] undeniably influenced by the process that allowed people from all over the world to have their say', most of the civil society representatives who participated in the dialogues, as well as negotiators, did not feel the same way. Civil society actors regretted the lack of robust linkage between the dialogues and their outcomes with the high-level segment of the conference. A member of the team in charge of coordinating the dialogues even acknowledged that 'the dialogues and the negotiations were parallel processes. [...] There was no time and no way that they could actually influence each other at that time.'

The results of the dialogues did not have any influence on the substance of the outcome document of Rio+20 simply because the final text of 'The Future We Want' was produced by Brazil during the night of 18-19 June, and agreed ad referendum by the delegates on 19 June, before the conclusion of the dialogues and before the recommendations from civil society were presented in the high-level roundtables (20-22 June). However, it is interesting to note that there is some congruence between certain recommendations from the dialogues and 'The Future We Want': for instance, the issue of fossil fuel subsidies was already mentioned in the zero draft of the outcome document

§126: 'We support the eventual phase out of market distorting and environmentally harmful subsidies that impede the transition to sustainable development, including those on fossil fuels, agriculture and fisheries.'

and 'The Future We Want'

§225: 'Countries reaffirm the commitments they have made to phase out harmful and inefficient fossil fuel subsidies that encourage wasteful consumption and undermine sustainable development.'

, although in a less radical wording than the recommendation from the dialogue

'Take concrete steps to eliminate fossil fuel subsidies.'


At the closing of the Rio+20 Dialogues, Gilberto Carvalho, the Secretary-General of the Presidency of Brazil, stressed the following: 'this method of participation in the UN is here to stay.' The dialogues have indeed been more successful in influencing the procedures for civil society participation in subsequent intergovernmental policymaking processes on sustainable development issues. In particular, many civil society consultations carried out in the framework of the definition of sustainable development goals and a global development agenda beyond 2015 have built upon the methodology and participatory tools developed by the Rio+20 Dialogues.

'We have no doubt that the Rio Dialogues became the model that was used for the post-2015 consultations. The post-2015 consultations went even further in that the process was more driven by civil society, whereas the Rio Dialogues process was led by the Brazilian government only.'

UN officer

The UNDP for instance has used the Rio+20 Dialogues web platform as a basis to launch 'The World We Want' platform, a digital tool on which eleven thematic consultations were held. In co-designing the MY World Global Survey, the UN team on the post-2015 development agenda and the Overseas Department Institute (ODI) have drawn upon the voting system used for the Rio+20 Dialogues website.

'I think the combination of the Rio Dialogues and MY World has engendered a certain excitement and enthusiasm and recognition that these are valuable methods. For the UN it's a way to better engage with its principal constituency, it's a way for the process to genuinely be more representative, and it is without question forging new processes, new language and new literacy.'

Partner organization of the Rio Dialogues and MY World 2015

Among civil society and member state representatives, opinions about the procedural influence of the Rio+20 Dialogues are slightly more mixed. While some think the dialogues have created a precedent, others do not consider them as a milestone for civil society engagement in intergovernmental policymaking.


The Rio+20 Dialogues have complemented rather than replaced traditional forms of civil society engagement in the UN activities on sustainable development. Compared to the Major Groups, these direct participatory mechanisms theoretically allow everyone to engage in intergovernmental decision-making, through their openness and non-hierarchical nature, and contribute with fresh and innovative ideas. However, these new methods also have substantial limitations. First, they enhance access only for certain civil society actors, leaving the most marginalized behind, and may therefore favour the representation of the most powerful voices over those of a broader and unspecialized public. Second, when they are held back-to-back with intergovernmental negotiations, their influence on the process is minimal. It therefore makes it difficult to determine whether the lack of influence of the dialogues on the Rio+20 negotiation process and outcome is correlated to the lack of inclusiveness of the participatory mechanism.

To foster inclusiveness and influence, direct civil society participatory mechanisms should be organized at an early stage of the negotiation process. Participation can be further broadened and diversified by strengthening the capacities of civil society actors and by systematically combining web-based participatory methods with offline or ICT-based methods (i.e. SMS and ballot paper surveys, face-to-face dialogues) to bypass the digital divide. Improving the quality of participation is also key to more effectively influencing the negotiation process and outcome: while the organizers should establish a formal link to the official process and provide spaces for a real dialogue between civil society actors and member states representatives, civil society actors should refine their recommendations towards more practical objectives, with quantifiable targets and clear timelines.

By promoting interaction between civil society actors, the Rio+20 Dialogues have allowed participants to learn about new issues and build their capacities. In this way, the Rio+20 Dialogues have increased mutual understanding and forged new partnerships between civil society actors. It is through these new partnerships between different constituencies that civil society actors will have more influence on intergovernmental negotiations.

The rise of the participatory principle in global governance

The United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) held in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 is often associated with the beginning of the participatory turn of global sustainable development governance. It enshrines in its outcome document, the Rio Declaration, the principle according to which 'environmental issues are best handled with the participation of all concerned citizens, at the relevant level. [...] States shall facilitate and encourage public awareness and participation by making information widely available.' The plan of action of the United Nations for sustainable development, Agenda 21, underscored the need to gather expertise and build on the capacity from all groupings of society and institutionalized participation of civil society in intergovernmental decision-making with the creation of nine Major Groups1, which complemented informal (advocacy) and external (Peoples' Summit and World Social Forum) channels for civil society engagement. While other United Nations processes, such as the International Labour Organization (ILO), the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the Committee on World Food Security (CFS) of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), have used different frameworks for civil society participation, the Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD) and the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) have relied on the Major Groups system of representative participation to engage civil society in intergovernmental decision-making from 1992 onwards. In particular, the CSD, which was mandated to implement the sustainable development principles outlined in Agenda 21 through an inclusive process of deliberation and decision-making, integrated two-day multi-stakeholder dialogue segments into its annual sessions between Rio+5 and Rio+20. 1. The Groups include Business and Industry, Children and Youth, Farmers, Indigenous Peoples, Local Authorities, NGOs, Scientific and Technological Community, Women, Workers and Trade Unions.

Methodology for the assessment of participatory processes

The inclusiveness and influence of the Rio+20 Dialogues were assessed with several empirical materials. The inclusiveness of the online phase was assessed with quantitative data stemming from the answers to an anonymous web survey that was emailed to the 330 civil society actors that partook in the dialogue on 'Sustainable Development as an Answer to the Economic and Financial Crises' to gather socio-demographic data, as well as from the results of the global vote on the 100 recommendations that were disaggregated by gender, age and country.1 The influence of the Rio+20 Dialogues was assessed with qualitative data emanating from: (i) a review of the statements of member states delivered at the Rio+20 Conference and UN official documents related to the Conference (draft outcome document and the Rio+20 outcome document 'The Future We Want'); (ii) two open questions included in the web survey; and (iii) 22 semi-structured interviews with dialogue participants, organizers, and official delegates.1. The data was generously provided by Seed Media Group and UNDP.

Sustainable Development Dialogues: a timeline

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Sustainable Development Dialogues and collective preferences

The Internet consultation process has enabled the identification of the broadly-supported recommendations.
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Over-representation of highly developed countries

Three out of four voters were from high HDI countries, giving them a disproportional influence on decision-making: nine out of ten dialogues have adopted the same recommendations as the Internet voters.
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Political and digital divide

Of the 4 billion people without access to the Internet, 90% live in developing countries, limiting their participation.
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