In general, in international development there is a big gap between the principles of consultation and participation and the reality of what actually happens. This particularly applies to the big over-arching issues such as priority setting. For example, try finding large-scale processes, within countries, where populations are able to define the development priorities as they see them - not as they may be seen from the executive suites of UN agencies, foundations, the bilateral AID arms of governments, or even their own governments. It is difficult to find anyone giving large segments of the population blank pages and asking them to write their priorities. They are more likely to be asked to comment on or agree with the priorities (or options) as defined by others - if they are ever asked.  

It could be argued that the process for local determination of priorities is the job of governments. But this is a very different age. Nowhere is government that all-encompassing. The process of governing, and the relationship between a government and its electorate, is not just an election every three, four, or five years. There is now a much more dynamic process in play. As just one small but relevant example, we saw this in the recent UK coalition agreement (its core governing document) to "create new mechanisms to give British people a direct say in how an element of the aid budget is spent."

Sometimes, the most surprising revelations come from the most surprising places. This may be a clear case of my misunderstanding, at best, or stereotyping and being prejudiced, at worst. The last place I expected to learn about a nation-wide, development priority consultation process, at a scale exceeding 500,000 people, with dialogue and debate and a real effort to get the full cross-section of views and voices across socio-economic groups, was sitting across the desk from a Cambridge University-trained economist and author in his UNDP office - in Brasil!

As many will know, UNDP annually produces its Human Development Report. UNDP country offices do their own versions of the Human Development Report specific to their countries. The normal approach is that a clutch (what is the collective noun?) of eminent people - UN officials and National experts - meet to decide the theme for the Human Development Report (HDR) for that year. This process is repeated globally and in countries, year after year.

Brasil decided to do things just a little differently. It helps that the person chosen to lead this effort - Flavio Comim, our Cambridge economist - comes from the Amatrya Sen school of economics, where the base economic thinking is around capabilities, social choice, and positive freedoms.
What UNDP Brasil undertook, corporately, with Flavio leading its implementation, was essentially to ask the people of Brasil what they would regard as their top development priorities. Over 500,000 people participated. You could do so online, of course. But there were also strenuous efforts made through interviews, letter writing, and so on, to ensure that people across different socio-economic groups could give voice to their perspectives, ideas, and choices. The results of this work, including many actual voices and ideas, are collated on the social networking platform developed to support this process - Ponto a Ponto (Point to Point).

Were the results of this massive insight into the Brasilian people's choices for development priorities any different than we would have expected from the "development expert class"?

There was some of what you might expect: the top result derived from the open process was a priority on Education (21%); Violence garnered support from 13%; and Jobs got 9%. Predictable - perhaps.

But right near the top - as the number 2 and 4 development priorities from the Brasilian people - were a couple of development priorities that would not normally feature: Public Policy (14%); and Values (11%). This was surprising. Within their top 5 priorities, a very significant cross-section of the Brasilian population has chosen two areas that development rarely lists as priorities - how public policies are formulated and the role of citizens in that policy process; and, the values that are at the heart of how the country and its citizens conduct life - issues of trust, friendship, courtesy, care for others, sense of community, belonging, and so on.

These are very different from what we normally see. But what the Brasilian people have put their fingers on are some things that international development struggles to prioritise in its strategies and programmes, yet knows to be true.

If you want effective programmes - no matter what the issue - it is vitally important to engage people. But full engagement means giving up power - treating people as leaders in their own processes, not followers of expert opinion. People need to be involved in the public policy process.

And to just approach development in an issue-by-issue approach is to ignore the common underpinnings that stretch across most issues - such as the collective values of a society and the individual values of citizens.

This is an important learning process for us all. But, of course, it poses a further challenge for UNDP  Brasil and its UN agency and development partners. What the heck to do now? There are new developments, such as the Mostre Seu Valor (Master Your Values). But the results of this extensive consultation process strike much deeper than the level to which another programme or campaign can respond. That deeper response is now under consideration.

All of this seems like fundamental stuff to me. You?