* Any views expressed in this article are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.These communities tend to want very simple things: basic and stable incomes, access to education, healthcare and food for their children, and the opportunity to influence decision-making.
MUMBAI, INDIA: “If the rich paid us properly for the work we do, it would make a huge difference to our lives. Instead, they just reap the benefits and pay us very little”, said a despondent Sunita.
We were sitting in the Acorn Foundation’s small, corrugated iron office, which teeters on the edge of Dharavi, Mumbai’s largest and most industrious slum. A lone fan whirred above our heads, stirring an almost tangible sense of helplessness that hung in the air.
Sunita, a mother of four, had recently been displaced from Dharavi as a result of the municipal government’s redevelopment plans, losing almost half of her income generating capacity.
Along with fifteen others from Dharavi’s wastepicking community, she had come to take part in one of a rapidly growing number of Equity & Sustainability Field Hearings that are happening throughout 2014.
Like Sunita, all names of Field Hearing participants have been changed to protect their confidentiality.
The Field Hearings initiative was created to give members of marginalised and disempowered communities around the world, like Sunita, a stronger voice in global discussions on sustainable development, particularly the post-2015 framework to be chalked out by the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
During the hearings, which are facilitated by a growing network of local partners, participants are encouraged to talk confidentially about the challenges they face, what they think the causes are and how they would like to see these issues addressed.
The Acorn Foundation, which works to support and empower Dharavi’s recycling community, is one of the latest partners.
“It’s vital to empower those who have been the most marginalised in society by listening to their perspectives on the challenges they face and by providing them with the tools to implement the solutions they envision”, says Deborah Rogers, founder and president of global non-profit Initiative for Equality (IfE), which is coordinating the Field Hearings.
Rogers, who in late November made a presentation on the project’s preliminary findings to the UN Committee responsible for drafting the SDGs, believes that such engagement with the world’s marginalised has been sorely lacking to date.
“The whole world has been talking about sustainable development and how to accomplish it, without… bringing the primary actors to the table”, she says.
Inequality’s Inconvenient Truths
IfE was set up two years ago with the firm intention to work towards creating a more equal society.
“Inequality in our political, social and economic systems is undermining efforts to reduce poverty and improve environmental sustainability in many parts of the world”, says Rogers, adding, “This issue is still largely overlooked by those making decisions about our future”.
Indeed, a growing body of scientific evidence suggests a positive relationship between inequality and poverty, social conflict, ecological degradation and economic instability.
Vinod Shetty, director of the Acorn Foundation, agrees, saying that if society continues to be exclusive and withhold resources, we will invite conflict from these communities.
“Including [these communities] in decision-making is an essential step as much for society’s stability as for their wellbeing”, he says.
Each of the Field Hearings produces its own very localized set of messages, yet there are a surprising number of commonalities.
“We anticipated a lot of diversity when we began this process, but there have been some incredibly strong common themes that appeared over and over again. That makes the findings very powerful”, says Rogers.
Economic insecurity is perceived to be getting much worse, with young people, in particular, losing hope. Participants are also deeply worried by the growing gap between the rich and poor, which they associate with greater access to decision-making, power and “selfishness”.
“Virtually every community told us that people with wealth have greater access to political decision making, and that they use this to create further economic opportunities for themselves rather than for those in poverty who need these opportunities”, says Akhteruzzaman Sano, the initiative’s South Asia Coordinator.
Corruption and a lack of accountability by government officials is also a chief concern, seen to be depriving community members of basic necessities on an almost daily basis.
“We’ve tried so many times to access the government’s ration schemes, but they pocket it for themselves and give us very little”, said Hasina, a mother of three who, alongside Sunita, had been recently relocated to a site outside Dharavi.
The findings also indicate that these communities tend to want very simple things: basic and stable incomes, access to education, healthcare and food for their children, and the opportunity to influence decision-making.
“These are not jet-set lifestyles that are being asked for, they are very sustainable wishes”, says Rogers.
A Network for Change
Since then, it has seen a tremendous growth in interest from community-based organisations around the world, with more than 500 Field Hearings now planned across 80 countries.
In turn, says Sano, the response from the UN to the initiative has been positive.
“We’ve had a lot of support from the UN. We can’t guarantee what will be accepted but we see an encouraging trend”, he says.
Christopher Dekki, facilitator for the UN's Major Group for Children and Youth, believes the opportunity being created for grassroots engagement by the development of the SDGs is unprecedented in UN history.
“Finally, there is a place where civil society and those who work in their local communities can have an impact on global development policy. The Field Hearings are another crucial part of this opening up of the work of the UN, where the voices of people in the grassroots are being taken directly to policymakers”, he says.
For Rogers, while the SDGs alone may not be able to create the changes that are being called for, impacting their contents in this way is of crucial importance.
“The SDGs do not have the force of law, but they are very important because they set the moral framework for the world in terms of how these issues are viewed”, she says.
To find out more about Initiative for Equality’s Field Hearings Project, visit: https://www.initiativeforequality.org.
To download the first report, Waiting to Be Heard, visit:
For a copy of IfE’s most recent presentation to the UN Open Working Group on Sustainable Development Goals, visit: http://sustainabledevelopment.un.org/content/documents/4433women.pdf