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The path away from meaningful consultation?

A number of ‘public consultations’ are occurring at present. Are these designed to solicit public inputs into decision-making processes? Or are they procedural exercises to legitimise new government policies, donor programs and perhaps investment treaties?

Meaningful consultation is designed to facilitate public participation in decision-making.

A consultation is meaningful when affected parties have timely access to information and a genuine opportunity to review and consider the proposal up for discussion. Only then is it possible to sufficiently prepare and present comments, objections or alternatives.

Consultations that fall short of these standards generally yield limited influence on the content of the policy, program or matter in question.

As documented previously on the PK Forum, such consultations tend be used to confirm and legitimise pre-determined decisions of government or donors.

Take for instance the recent ‘Civil Society and NGO National Consultation Meeting’ hosted in Yangon by a Union Ministry.

Invitations were shared only three days before the event, prompting civil society groups to request a delay to allow sufficient time to read and consider the Ministry’s proposals.

The organisers rebuffed this request.

At a separate event being in Nay Pyi Taw, a distant political capital for most in Myanmar, speeches by host agencies comprise half the agenda whilst less than 20 per cent of time is allocated for civil society presentations. The event is entitled ‘The Consultation…’

These meetings concern important policy decisions by the Government of Myanmar. Both seem to have been arranged by international agencies working with the Government.

But neither event meets the basic requirements for meaningful consultation – regardless of what prior or subsequent meetings may be taking place.

Now the European Union seems be taking another approach to engaging with civil society, by excluding non-nationals from meetings and consultations. Measures to bolster local participation are commendable.

But it is civil society groups, not the EU, who must decide from where they seek advice and when they will take it.

The next EU-led ‘consultation’ will discuss the negotiation of an important investment treaty between Myanmar and EU Members States. No doubt the EU will have its own international law experts there.

Civil society must also have the option to select and invite people with expertise – regardless of citizenship status. This decision must rest with civil society groups, not with a negotiating party to the treaty.

Policy and lawmakers who are genuine about public participation will facilitate meaningful consultations based on international standards. This may involve hosting meetings beyond the political and economic capitals, and providing translation services in local languages.

Experiences in Myanmar and elsewhere shows that public consultations are not always meaningful. Yet policy and lawmakers may nonetheless later reference thees meetings as showing wide public support, where it is in fact not present.

These actors should be approached with caution.

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