Meetings and conferences are invaluable in bringing people together to exchange ideas and experiences, make decisions, and iron out problems. These gatherings, however, also generate a profusion of recommendations and resolutions, many of which never result in action. For many developing countries hamstrung by chronic resource and infrastructural deficiencies, they represent an additional burden. As a consequence, calls to action all too often fall on deaf ears. There is now growing recognition among more and more constituents in the international community that there is a keen need to evaluate the feasibility, usefulness, and impact of such resolutions.
“How many of the laudable aspirations that emerged from these international gatherings have been translated into meaningful progress?”
For the United Nations in particular, during the 1990s and early 2000s, the calendar of events featured a number of major international conferences and summits, each a milestone in its own right; , and each generating that all all-important political commitment to act on the broad range of intractable issues that continue to confront humanity , from education to population, social development to the information society, youth and gender issues to financing development and the social impact of the global financial crisis. But what exactly has been achieved? How many of the laudable aspirations that emerged from these international gatherings have been translated into meaningful progress?
What, then, can be done to improve the present system and to better track the implementation and impact of the resolutions and recommendations that are formulated?
Active engagement of governments
Seeking the active engagement of developing country governments is crucial to the effective implementation of recommendations. All too often, bilateral and multilateral agencies, non-governmental organizations, and private foundations organize meetings without actively engaging the governments of developing countries. Thus, it is not surprising that host governments do not fully endorse the recommendations and resolutions that result.
If a meeting, workshop, or seminar does not contribute directly to the national development goals of its host government, the chances of that government even considering its recommendations are slim. Governments must be involved throughout every step of the planning and running of such meetings. Only then will there be any chance of securing the necessary political commitment for implementing any recommendations, however worthy. This is particularly important where major international gatherings are concerned. While significant time, energy, and money are involved in staging such events, few resources are available to follow up on the implementation of the recommendations made at them. There is a clear need to focus on implementation planning to ensure a positive outcome from official meetings and government decisions. This, however, involves specific skills and expertise, which are often undervalued and poorly understood.
Recommendations and resolutions have financial implications, both in cash and in kind. Developing countries therefore must be selective and commit themselves to implementing only those recommendations for which resources are available and which correspond to their stated priorities.
In many respects, the political will that culminated in the promulgation of the 1997 Banjul Declaration on Violence against Women showcased Africa as a frontrunner in tackling environmental issues following the Earth Summit in 1992. Yet, for a host of reasons, not least cost implications and poor capacity, the clarion call remained unheeded for some time.
The annual gatherings of foreign ministers meeting under the auspices of the Organization of African Unity (OAU) – now the African Union – habitually produce a number of resolutions. Instead of assessing progress in implementing past recommendations, however, the ministers continue to add to the pile each year, heaping the Pelion of new commitments on the Ossa of old and forgotten undertakings. To make matters worse, most of the recommendations relate to institution-building activities – establishing centers or organizations – that call for serious funding, typically not available from within the African Union. As commentators such as Snowden and others in 2005 have suggested one of the challenges of implementing recommendations — whether they relate to public health or other sectors – is adequate funding. Given their financial implications, all proposals must be weighed very carefully.
Capacity to implement recommendations
Implementing recommendations – whether at the local, national, regional, or global level – provides opportunities to learn as well as to identify and secure the personnel and expertise required for a smooth implementation process. A lack of transformational leadership is often cited as barrier to results. At a regional conference in Africa, hosted by the government of Rwanda, both the president of Rwanda and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Administrator took up this issue of implementation and the associated difficulties in achieving inclusive and sustainable growth. In some cases, implementation requires skills and experience beyond the capacity of the local area. This is often related to an inability to offer packages that are sufficiently generous to attract staff with the necessary technical qualifications, as these are people in high demand. Hierarchical, overstaffed, and ossified civil services do not help. They are rarely able to effectively coordinate the private sector, the NGO community, or civil society so as to leverage the various capacities available at the national level. Effective coordination of all stakeholders is essential to success in optimizing available resources and narrowing resource gaps.
Need for evidence
While meetings can produce useful recommendations, without baseline studies to measure progress, it is very difficult to elaborate effective implementation strategies. In addition to adequate funding, such studies need to consider the risks involved, possible consequences, and the feasibility of implementing proposed recommendations. Each of these factors requires additional information. Finally, the success of the implementation plan hinges on gaining the support and buy-in of all the relevant stakeholders.
Avoiding unrealistic recommendations
Sometimes a recommendation is overly ambitious and unrealistic. Meeting organizers, for example, may assume that developing countries are a homogenous group facing similar development challenges and are equally positioned to be able to implement recommendations. Many uncertainties and unknowns surround such recommendations. As noted by the Australian Government in a 2012 guidance document, implementation plans should recognize both the “knowns” and the “unknowns,” explaining how and when the “unknowns” will be addressed. Interestingly, many recommendations contain various unknowns – for example, the assumption that major donors will provide new and additional funding for their implementation. In reality, pledges from donor countries in recent times have been disappointing and have often fallen short of expectations. Take for example, the pledge to commit 0.7 per ent of GDP to development aid, agreed during the International Conference on Financing for Development in 2002, which only a handful of developed countries have achieved.
In short, if we are serious about translating recommendations and resolutions of major meetings and conferences, developing countries and their development partners must come up with strategic, implementable measures that align with national agendas. Moreover, as part of effective implementation of these recommendations and resolutions, the developing countries must improve coordination among the various sectors of government and forge strong inter-ministerial and inter-agency partnerships.
Regardless, faced with their heavy national and international meeting calendars, developing countries must make best use of the limited resources available and commit themselves only to those recommendations which are real priorities. For their part, the developed countries must avoid making recommendations that are beyond the capacity of the countries they are intended to assist. The message is clear: less is more when it comes to establishing actionable and effective development objectives.