Creating a more equitable COP: The barriers facing civil society and Global South presence
In November 2022, COP27 in Egypt was celebrated as the first global convening of its kind to take place on the African continent. But it’s not enough to simply host a meeting in the Global South and expect that everyone has an equal voice.
Civil society organizations (CSOs) are key players at COP convenings. These non-governmental advocates carry with them the voices of farmers, women, Indigenous peoples, and other underrepresented groups from around the world. COP is an opportunity for CSOs to share knowledge, influence the direction of future climate action plans, and connect with decision-makers.
One of the Global Alliance’s goals at COP27 was to reach influencers in the climate community with the message of why and how a holistic food systems approach is critical to achieving the 1.5°C by 2050 target. To ensure this message was inclusive of diverse voices, the Global Alliance and its philanthropic network sponsored and coordinated a delegation of frontline community representatives to participate in COP27.
Thirty representatives from around the world, but particularly from the African continent, joined our cohort and spoke on various panels. Based on their experiences, we identified some key barriers limiting the presence of Global South and underrepresented groups at COP.
We hope that starting a critical dialogue around these barriers can help to create more equitable, diverse, and inclusive COP convenings in the future.
Barrier 1: Badges
You need a badge (also known as a UNFCCC accreditation) to attend COP. But badges are scarce and can be challenging to secure for CSOs and grassroots groups who are newer to the UNFCCC process. All participants must be affiliated with an accredited organization, a process that can take up to 16 months before the COP occurs. Badge access is an issue for delegates generally, but is especially true for food systems actors whose voices are relatively new to the climate agenda.
From there, the waiting game continues. An accreditation badge is required to apply for a passport visa, and waiting to receive one may leave too limited a window to have a visa processed. This must be considered ahead of COP28 in the United Arab Emirates, where individual visa processing times may be upwards of three months.
Further, participants from the Global South are often required to apply for a visa directly through an embassy, which may require travel to and from a major city in their home country. This creates an additional financial and administrative burden for those wishing to attend the COP.
Barrier 2: Budgetary burdens
Even if a CSO participant or grassroots leader receives a badge, the financial burden of attending COP can be too high. Flights are often expensive, and accommodation at COP27 was in the range of US $350–700 a night for a two-week conference. Not only is this a hefty cost for many, but booking hotel rooms in advance often requires internet, a credit card, deposit, and/or online reservation platforms that may be difficult to access.
These factors exclude groups that have something to say but don’t have the resources. And they can make the lead-up to COP a bureaucratic nightmare.
Barrier 3: An overly technical process
The COP process can be complex, intimidating, and overwhelming. Larger delegations benefit from services that provide access to information and contextualize it for a non-expert audience. This is not available to all individual representatives or grassroots CSOs.
Grassroots food systems actors working in local communities are relatively new players at climate conferences. As a result, they have not had the same opportunities or resources as global players or larger organizations to form networks, develop common positions, and navigate the formal processes for engagement at COP.
If we want to truly reach grassroots food systems actors and bring their voices to the table, we need to make the technical information accessible and help them to navigate the UNFCCC process. This can be done during the COP itself, but a focus could also be placed on knowledge translation and capacity building ahead of the annual event.
Barrier 4: Lack of meaningful involvement in agenda setting
Often when grassroots leaders and CSOs have the chance to attend COP, it’s at a point when the agenda is already set. People are then required to slot themselves into a specific dialogue or event in such a way that it can be prescriptive or tokenistic.
Government negotiations at COP are rigid in their structure, but for groups planning side events, there is the opportunity to engage and collaborate with CSOs and grassroots leaders earlier in the process to better determine what they would like to share at such a forum.
Barrier 5: Absence of communications support
The last thing we want is to tokenize someone’s attendance at COP by not providing the support for them to engage in a meaningful way. For some CSO delegates, this may be because of language barriers. For others, it could relate to the absence of media training.
Participants have limited time to articulate their key messages, whether at an hour-long panel with multiple speakers or a snappy media interview. For organizations sponsoring CSO and grassroots representatives at international fora, an area of focus should be supporting delegates to hone in on concise and impactful speaking points.
COP convenings are an opportunity to hold global leaders to account when it comes to setting and implementing ambitious climate goals. With so much at stake, it’s vital that we question who gets to attend these meetings and influence the agenda.
In part two of this series, we’ll look at the lessons the Global Alliance learned when it came to supporting a delegation of Global South CSO representatives at COP27.
Program Coordinator: Climate and Health
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