Designing a more participatory and engaging approach to public policy making takes time to build trust but, in the process, can open up new opportunities for partnership and joint action to solve difficult, complex challenges.

The beach is our favorite default destination of choice when we gather to celebrate important family occasions, to party with friends or simply to just get away from everything. Our most pleasant memories revolve around this place that our Facebook and Instagram albums are littered with photos of selfies or groupfies backdropped by the pristine beaches and serene oceans.

Naturally, we are drawn to the sea because we are a country of around 7,641 islands (not including those that disappear during high tide) with a coastline of over 36,000 kilometers. The seas surrounding our country are our most important resource, endowed with ecologically diverse and economically important coastal resources: coral reefs, mangroves, estuarine areas and huge variety of fisheries.

And yet, we stand as the third biggest contributor of marine litter in Asia throwing 2.7 million tons of plastic every year. This wanton disregard has created a mass of stinking swirling mixes of plastics and organic matter clogging our urban waterways and eventually leaking to our oceans and ending up in our beaches. A United Nations report even claimed that by 2050, there will be more plastic than fish in the ocean. There goes our favorite vacation destination turned into a giant waste basket.

The threat of marine litter and pollution is so real that it triggered one of the largest clean-up campaigns in the country, prompting the national government to close the whole of one of the top tourist destinations — Boracay Island — for six months.

Acknowledging this threat, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), supported by UNDP Philippines and its Accelerator Lab, brought together stakeholders with varying interests on 28–29 October 2019 to a different type of consultation. The two-day event was the first in a series of activities leading to the drafting of a National Plan of Action on Marine Litter that will strategically define the programmes and activities to tackle this monster threat to our seas.

Drawing on elements from human-centered, participatory design, stakeholders identified important insights from the consultation:

Complex problems are meant to be shared

The National Plan of Action on Marine Litter is a strategic document that will lay out actions to combat marine debris, including plastics. Such plans of actions are often written by a small group within the responsible national government agency. Realizing, however, that the problem on marine litter is multi-faceted and involves everyone across society, we partnered with DENR to take a different path.

This path involves a coming together of cross-sector representatives and puts forward a process that will rely on their collective wisdom. The process acknowledges that there are islands of innovations and solutions from various stakeholders and that there is a need for a more concerted and unified effort to bring these efforts together for greater impact. Because complex problems like marine litter are hard to pin down, it can’t be solved by a singular sector in society and needs everyone to pitch in.

Together with the DENR Technical Working Group (DENR TWG), we brainstormed on how the process will look like noting that there may be challenges lurking ahead that may potentially derail the process. Examples of challenges include: some CSO’s publicly blaming private companies over the plastics scourge; or, fisherfolks calling out local governments over inadequate management of solid waste. We needed a process that allows for genuine dialogue and empathy among the representatives before even starting to identify ideas for solutions.

Together with the DENR TWG, we ensured that the process involved the creation of spaces that allowed for deeper understanding and empathy among different stakeholders. This moved the conversation to a deeper level and made everyone enthusiastic and participative in the process. We did not even need to use the prepared ice breakers as participants already showed a sustained level of energy and enthusiasm!

Social innovation tools are means to an end (and not the end itself)

When planning for a workshop that promises to be innovative and different, there is always this nagging temptation to fill it with the latest trendy social innovation jargon and terms. Being conscious of the language we use is something that we constantly bear in mind in order to not appear elitist and exclusive. This however is a balancing act because if we made it too simple, we might not be able to deliver the right message to our partners. We also don’t want to be sneaky as this might make us deceitful and lose the trust that partners have given to UNDP. We found success by simply communicating the details of the process and ensuring that terms used are familiar and more descriptive. Making the workshop design participative also allowed for our partners to contribute and own the process.

We had to let go with the idea that social innovation tools and processes are prescriptive and set in stone. Our approach for this workshop was to be more eclectic borrowing elements from human-centered design, systems thinking and conventional consultation workshops. Integrating the empathy exercises of human-centered design allowed for a deeper understanding and empathy of the sectors represented in the workshop. Systems thinking allowed for the participants to visualize the complex ecosystem, identify leverage points and ideate solutions around these points. Finally, the use of familiar terms in conventional consultations allowed for the participants to be at ease with the process ensuring active participation.

Towards the creation of a movement

As participants were excitedly discussing different programmatic ideas and solutions that came out in the 2-day consultative workshop, we observed that relationships and alliances were slowly being formed. We saw fisherfolk representatives reaching out to DENR officials on how best to avail their services. We overheard representatives from various private corporations talking about joint projects that they can work together. We were witnessing the beginnings of a movement for change that begs to be nurtured to attain its full potential.

Moving Forward

The multi-stakeholder consultation on October 28–29 was the first of a series of activities that the DENR and the sector representatives will go through as they draft the National Plan of Action on Marine Litter. It is our hope that the initial seeds of mutual respect and understanding planted in the hearts of the participants will help guide the next steps. Furthermore, we are expecting a National Plan of Action that is strategic, actionable and anchored in genuine concerns and experiences of the sector representatives.

With a problem as huge as the ocean and the sense of urgency it brings, we cannot afford to exist in silos. Be part of this conversation and we would love to hear from you.

Special thanks to the DENR Technical Working Group for the NPoA on Marine Litter, the UNDP Philippines Country Office (Climate Action Team, PIAT & Accelerator Labs) and the various sector representatives present during the 2-day Consultation.


This blog is written by Rex Lor, Head of Solutions Mapping, Accelerator Lab of the UNDP Philippines. 

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