Oli Henman is the Global Coordinator of Action for Sustainable Development (A4SD), a network of more than 3,000 activists and organisations (80% in the Global South), which connects local community organisations working to ensure a more just and sustainable future. 

John is the Coordinator of the TAP Network, based in New York. Prior to that, John worked at Stakeholder Forum for a Sustainable Future and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), coordinating global advocacy campaigns around the UN’s Post-2015 sustainable development agenda.

With the 2021 UN General Assembly (UNGA) behind us, it’s important to reflect on how to improve opportunities for engagement at these major global forums and also how we as international organizations and networks that engage in these global meetings are ensuring that we ourselves work to leave no one behind. These global meetings are known for being largely inaccessible to many, and in particular, lacking robust participation processes for civil society across the board. But there is also more work for CSOs who operate in this space to further ensure that their delegations and advocacy are centred upon people and experiences from the grassroots. 

Through the COVID-19 pandemic, a shift towards largely virtual engagement has presented many challenges in ensuring inclusivity and genuine participation. It was particularly noticeable this year that, while governments and even journalists were able to meet in person inside the UN buildings at the General Assembly, all accreditation for NGOs and observers was still suspended, so no civil society groups were able even to enter as observers. This raises serious questions around the equity,  accessibility and transparency of these spaces. To enable genuine dialogue between governments at the UN and those working to hold them accountable, it is essential that NGO accreditation to participate is reintroduced as soon as possible.

Yet alongside all the multilateral wrangling at the UN New York, there was a broader community-led mobilisation taking place around the world to ensure that the voices of individual active citizens and community groups can be shared and heard directly. Through the annual joint initiative of the Global Week of Action #Act4SDGs, a very diverse range of actions took place around the world, from activities such as tree planting and beach cleaning, to joint national advocacy and community dialogues.

At the heart of this process are the ‘People’s Assemblies’, supported by GCAP and Action for Sustainable Development. In September 2021, these meetings were hosted by civil society coalitions in almost 30 countries across the Global South who brought together a strong mix of grassroots voices to deliberate on their own priorities and share joint messages with their governments. Actions like these incorporate constituents’ voices into the design and execution processes of civil society initiatives, bringing about a kind of change that is rooted in continuous dialogue and feedback. 

In the Philippines, the ‘People’s Assembly on Housing and Budget’ was purposely designed to hear issues being confronted by urban poor communities. Participants shared personal experiences of their housing issues and emphasized the social protection measures (e.g. cash transfers) that they are unable to access. But they also highlighted how they are filling these gaps directly themselves via community health clinics and support with access to water and sanitation. The topic of people’s vaccines was also presented, which they expressed to be an important measure for them to get back to work. Clear corresponding action points and policy asks were developed and put forward as part of a call for the government to institutionalise the People’s Housing Plan into a law. 

In Ghana, AbibiNsroma Foundation set up a Planning Committee to organize consultations with local communities and increase the participation of grassroots organizations. Each participating organization nominated 1 representative to participate in the event from their zone and proposed an SDG-related topic that they wished to discuss during the national People’s Assembly. Opportunities were given to all representatives to present, so that the full range of voices were heard and  documented. AbibiNsroma Foundation expertise in hosting inclusive dialogues has been developed through its flagship ‘Community tribunal’ programme, a platform that empowers members of the community and to provide feedback on outcomes of national activities. This shared program fosters a sense of joint ownership and allows community groups to better align their local level activities with national process like action on the SDGs.

However there is also a concerted effort from many stakeholders to help close the gap between these sorts of dynamically accountable engagement practices at the national level with an increasingly inaccessible UN system at the international level. As part of the UN 75th anniversary review process, the UN Secretary General’s Our Common Agenda report was launched at UNGA, which included recommendations for ‘a mechanism to make sure that we integrate [civil society] contributions in our strategic thinking, in our decision-making process’, such as ‘CSO Focal points’ in every UN agency. 

This owed much to the strong Together First civil society campaign to influence the shape of the review and to bring diverse voices and innovative ideas into the process. Civil society groups are continuing to push for a specific ‘Civil Society Envoy’ at the UN, who would be responsible for ensuring more inclusive and responsive processes and practices are put in place across the institution. The UNmute civil society campaign has also produced a call-to-action for how governments can ensure that the UN is more inclusive of civil society.

So while the fight for a more inclusive UN and General Assembly remains ongoing, bottom-up civil society networks like TAP and A4SD will continue to lead by example through the elevation of grassroots voices and their own inclusive decision making processes. 


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