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Research Paper(s)

Dr. Allan E. Barsky, Bill Diepeveen,
Maureen Wilson and Karen Hanna

Public Discussions on Sustainable Development: Listening to All Voices

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Public Discussions on Sustainable Development: Listening to All Voices

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Bill Diepeveen, Mediation Department
Provincial Department of Municipal Affairs
Edmonton, Alberta

Maureen Wilson
Associate Dean, Faculty of Social Work
University of Calgary
Calgary, Alberta

Karen Hanna
Regulatory Analyst/Legal Counsel
Komex International Ltd.
Calgary, Alberta


This proposal is for a panel discussion based on a paper. Allan Barsky will present a paper based upon material from a variety of perspectives, including conflict resolution theory, social work theory, and sustainable development theory. Three co-panelists, Maureen Wilson, Bill Diepeveen, and Jonnette Watson-Hamilton will critique the paper and present their views coming from their own experience and perspectives on the topic: Dr. Wilson from a community development perspective base on her work in Central America; Mr. Diepeveen from an urban planning and environmental perspective from his work with the Government of Alberta; and Jonnette Watson-Hamilton from legal perspectives and from her work as a mediator between farmers and creditors. We would need 60 to 90 minutes to present this material and to take questions from the floor.


Allan Barsky


When communities, nations, or international bodies make decisions affecting sustainable development, there are many voices to be heard. Typical bodies involved in public discussions of environmentalists, developers, business people, taxpayers, scientists, community planners, governmental officials, and non-governmental organizations. This paper/panel questions whether certain voices are denied access to the discussion. The paper identifies silenced or forgotten groups and concludes with proposals for making public discussions more inclusive.

"Public Discussions on Sustainable Development: Listening to All Voices"

By Allan Barsky
Director of Research
Faculty of Social Work
University of Calgary
Calgary, AB, Canada

1. Introduction

The term "sustainable development" suggests a discourse about the prospects for ecology and equity in post-industrial societies (Sachs, 1998). Since the 1980s, many different people have contributed to this discourse. In academic literature, there are contributions from urban planning, environmental design, business development, public administration, political science, social work, economics, life sciences, conflict resolution, and many other disciplines. In public hearings or other processes, there is similarly broad representation. The purpose of this paper is to analyze the extent to which some individuals and groups are excluded from the discourse on sustainable development. The analysis begins in section 2 with an overview of the types of individuals, groups, and institutions that are typically involved in public discourse over sustainable development. Section 2 also identifies specific individuals and groups that are often excluded from this discourse and suggests rationale for their inclusion. The final section suggests ways for inclusion of groups that are typically excluded. In order to determine who is typically included and who is typically excluded from public discussions on sustainable development, the following hypothetical scenarios provide a context for the analysis:

a) Suburban Expressway:

Midopolis is mid-sized city is undergoing rapid growth. Public opinion polls suggest that traffic congestion is a growing concern. To alleviate traffic, the city is considering whether to build a new expressway alongside a fashionable suburban residential community.
b) Environmentally Sensitive Area (ESA):

Tropio Island is an island resort in a developing country with a democratic, but currently unstable government. Tropio is a popular ecotourism destination for people from developed countries. Transnational tourist and hotel companies are anxious to develop tourism facilities on Tropio. An environmental group is concerned about overuse of this area and wants to restrict access and type of use. Without changes in use, the environmental group fears that rare fauna and flora will be threatened.

c) Strip Mall:
Alphabet Park is an inner city neighbourhood that is notorious for drugs, prostitution, and poverty. An international conglomerate, Bigcor Ltd., has proposed to re-develop two blocks in Alphabet Park by building a large strip mall. Bigcor promises this project will revitalize the area and end the plight of crime and destitution in this vicinity. Two of the existing structures that would require demolition include a hostel for battered women and a methadone maintenance clinic.

This paper is written from my perspective as a clinical social worker and community mediator. Although I have studied about sustainable development, I have not had practice experience in this field. My colleagues, Maureen Wilson, Bill Diepeveen, and Jonnette Watson-Hamilton will critique the paper and present their views coming from their own experience and perspectives on the topic: Dr. Wilson from a community development perspective base on her work in Central America; Mr. Diepeveen from an urban planning and environmental perspective from his work with the Government of Alberta; and Ms Watson-Hamilton from legal perspectives and from her work as a mediator between farmers and creditors.

2. Voices Heard and Unheard

The following analysis reviews each situation, exploring what groups will typically be included and not included in public conflict resolution and decision-making processes.

a) Suburban Expressway:

The decision about whether and how to build a road through a suburban community is typically within the jurisdiction of the municipality. City councilors and the mayor have legal authority to make these decisions, along with legitimate power (Mayer, 1987) as elected representatives of the community. As elected officials, the city councilors and mayor tend to represent those with power; that is, those who participate in democratic processes and those who use financial clout to influence decisions. Typically, those individuals living in a wealthy suburb possess a great deal of political clout. Politicians generally pay less attention to individuals and groups who are unlikely to vote. Although a government has jurisdiction to make decisions of this sort, it will often offer some type of public discussion and input before making its decision. Sometimes, the government will designate a committee to conduct a study that includes the gathering of public opinion. If this research is done effectively, it will generally gather information from a broad swath of the city – generally, anyone with a telephone or a permanent address will be contacted by the researchers. People without a telephone or a permanent address (e.g., the homeless, the transient, and the poor) will be less likely to be included. People who do not live in the city – particularly travelers and commuters from nearby towns – will also be excluded from the study. Unless the province, state, or national governments view this road as one of their responsibilities, the roadwork within a city will be based primarily on the wishes and interests of those living within the city.

If the city conducts hearings or other forms of public discussions, different voices are likely to be heard. Those most directly affected are the people most likely to make the time and effort to attend the hearings. In this case, those living in the "fashionable suburb" are the ones most likely to attend. Because they are the ones most directly impacted and because they have prior relationships (as neighbours and perhaps, as members of previously organized community groups), they are also most likely to organize their efforts. For example, leaders and interest groups may emerge. Organizers can provide information about the meeting, encourage people to attend, and provide people with advocacy briefs in order to encourage them to voice particular opinions.

Once again, those who do not live in the area are less likely to organize. Even if they do organize, their efforts will face many challenges that the affected suburbanites will not face: geographical and socioeconomic disparity, lack of prior ties, and higher costs of organizing. Some groups may develop around interests not particular to living in the affluent suburb: for example, environmentalists, social welfare advocates, and historical preservationists. Environmentalists might be concerned about the impact of the new road on the physical environment, including more car use, more suburban sprawl, more concretization of greenspace, and more air polution. Social welfare advocates might express concerns about destruction of communities and community institutions; for example, if the new expressway will push elderly people out of their homes or cut off access to social service offices. Historical preservationists might organize in order to advocate for protection of historically significant buildings and public spaces. Some of these interest groups might already be in existence, with established infrastructure and resources to advocate on these types of issues.

Given these dynamics, the NIMBY syndrome (Not in My Backyard) is likely to emerge in any public discussions. People whose yards and communities back onto the proposed expressway will tend to promote solutions that do not place the expressway in their backyard. Concerns of frequent commuters and occasional travelers not living in the affluent suburb are likely to receive less voice. How likely is it that the government will hear the voices of nonresident travelers who have had one terrible experience trying to travel through the city?

In this case, the silent voices tend to be those who have the least organization and opportunities for organization: those with few resources, those with unpopular and disparate interests, and those who are individually impacted the least (though in a combined way, the conglomerate impact may be heavy). Utilitarians might question whether decisions are being made on the basis of the greater good – and if so, the greater good of particular groups or all society.

b) Environmentally Sensitive Area (ESA)

On its face, the conflict in this situation looks as if it is one between the developers and the environmentalists. Those most immediately affected groups appear to be the business community (including tourist services) and the residents of Tropio. Prospective travelers are affected, but they have many other travel destinations to choose from and Tropio is likely to be no more than a week-long travel destination for each traveler. Environmentalists are also concerned about the impact on the environmental impacts on local flora and fauna. Although this situation looks as if it is a local issue, it also reflects a greater issue in society, the trend towards globalization. If issues are only dealt with as local issues, factors related to globalization are likely to be missed.

Sachs (1998) suggests that globalization facilitates the right of anyone to produce whatever they want, whenever they want. Essentially, it is a social movement that is concerned with emasculating political opposition within one’s own country.

Globalization undercuts social solidarity because elites have lost solidarity towards their own communities and because the poor have even less voice and power. Environmental regulations are vulnerable because business interests are able to push for their relaxation or elimination. Deregulation means the decline of prices, including the price of resources. This means that many environmental costs are not factored into the prices that the market pays. Further, free trade agreement pressures governments to slash social and environmental programs in order to be competitive with their trading partners (Wilson & Whitmore, 1998). The trend towards globalization has both winners and losers. The winners are transnational companies and their allies; the losers are the workers, popular sectors (Wilson & Withmore, 1998), traditional lifestyles, and ecosystems.

If the Tropio conflict is handled as if it is a local issue, then large transnational companies are likely to have greater voice: they bring promises of economic development, jobs, and higher standards of living. Most Tropio residents are impoverished and have little political clout. Without help from external sources, their views can easily be squelched. In the face of pressure from multinational companies, pressures from the World Bank, and the World Trade Organization, even the governmental leaders of Tropio may have their voices silenced. In order to attract trade, ward off creditors, and appease world trade regulatory bodies, governmental leaders have less say in advancing social and economic causes important to their own electorate.

While environmentalists, academics, antipoverty advocacy groups, and other well-meaning individuals could speak out on behalf of native Tropions, does this mean that the voices and views of native Tropions will actually being heard? An advocate might suggest that development of ecotourism is ruining the traditional way of life for the native people of Tropio. For a native Tropion, the traditional way of life might mean poor housing, unemployment, insufficient water supply, and inadequate health care. The romanticized version of traditional life may have never been a reality. Even if it were, returning to old ways may not be the goals of native Tropions. Some might want to adopt Western values and ways. Others may believe that time has passed their old traditions by. Certainly, one should not assume that Tropions are a homogenous or single-minded group; each person may have different visions and preferences about future development on their island.

Within the realm of interest group advocacy, there are popular causes and not so popular causes. Environmentalists might be able to capitalize on saving the cute tree-bunnies and the rare diamond orchids of Tropio. A poster of a native Tropion hugging a droopy-eared tree-bunny is likely to win sympathy from philanthropists and kind-hearted souls from around the world. But who will speak on behalf of the near extinct gutter-slug and the poisonous taupe-thistles, found only in Tropio? Most people would dismiss these biological rarities as annoyances or trifles. Who would be prepared to give voice for these unpopular fauna and flora. In spite of their cute nature and popular appeal, the tree-bunnies may not be all that threatened, particularly given their capacity to propagate like… well, bunnies.

c) Strip Mall

At first glance, the developers in this case appear to be offering a proposal that would "clean up" Alphabet Park. Bigcor’s proposal offers solutions to a range of problems, from prostitution to poverty. Similar to the other situations, implementation of the proposal would lead to both winners and losers. Most of the winners are likely to have input into any decision-making process: the Bigcor, businesses that move into the community, government leaders who could claim success in re-gentrifying the area, and neighbours who would make use of the development and benefit from higher real estate values.

Some of the potential losers are likely to have significant voice in the decision-making process. Other potential losers are unlikely to be heard. The women’s hostel and the methadone maintenance clinic are two specific agencies that will be displaced. Given their professional staff, infrastructure, and access to resources (though perhaps not as great as Bigcor’s), these social agencies will surely be at the table when the proposal is being debated. The clinic and hostel staff will claim to represent the clients they serve: people addicted to heroin and women who have been battered by their partners. Actual clients – other than a few token representatives – may not participate directly. These types of clients often do not have the time, motivation, skills, or self-esteem to participate in formal public discussions, such as the ones necessary for deciding about Bigcor’s proposal. Shelter clients and clinic patients may be transient, spending only a few days, weeks, or months at their respective facilities. Clients may also be unfamiliar with the legal issues and processes required for effective advocacy and participation (Ezell, 1994). Bigcor can establish an infrastructure that will be around for the full duration – from conceptualization of the project through the decision-making processes to implementation. They will also have their bank of lawyers, negotiators, and political spinmasters.

Although shelter and clinic staff might suggest that they represent their clients, their interests do not always coincide. For instance, staff have an interest in maintaining their jobs and working in a comfortable office environment. If Bigcor offers to move the social services to another area of the city, staff might support the plan. Will they consider, however, the impact on people living in Alphabet Park who have come to depend on services that are close at hand. Once again, NIMBY voices are likely to be included, while "PIMBY" voices (Please, In My Backyard) are no where to be heard.

While maintaining some type of services, somewhere, for battered women and heroin addicts is likely to be voiced by many constituencies, opposition to shelters and methadone maintenance clinics based on clinical considerations may not be heard in this debate. Both methadone maintenance programs and shelters incorporate "harm reduction" models of intervention (Bok, 1998). In other words, they seek to minimize harm associated with heroin use and partner abuse. They do not, however, focus on dealing with the cause of heroin use of partner abuse. A heroin abuser who uses methadone will continue to be addicted to an opiate. If a woman leaves an abusive relationship, the abuser may continue to abuse other women – including the woman who enters a shelter and then returns to the community. In the discussion about what to do about the shelter and the clinic, participants are likely to focus on relocation of the services. Those who believe that methadone maintenance and women’s shelters surreptitiously maintain problems rather than solve them are unlikely to be brought into the discussion. They may not even know that the discussion is taking place.

Finally, as information technology advances, people without access to or knowledge about this type of technology may also be left out of decision making. Many interest groups are already using email and web sites to spread their opinions and encourage email campaigns directed at decision makers. While information technology has made mass media more accessible to people than in the days when television, radio, and print media ruled, many groups in society still do not have access to the emerging media.

3. Means of Inclusion

To say that people without voice should be afforded the opportunity to give voice might sound trite, obvious, or idealistic. Perhaps more interesting and more challenging is the question of how to include those who should be given voice in public discussions. Although there are no simple answers, the solutions seem to lie in three areas: inclusive decision-making processes, public education, and professional.

a) Inclusive Decision-making Processes:

Within the field of conflict resolution, most experts would agree that the people who have the power to make and implement decisions need to be at the table (Fisher, Ury, & Patton, 1997; Pruitt & Carnevale, 1993). There is no use in mediating a dispute between people who do not have the authority to make decisions or the capacity to influence them. Experts in urban planning and political science would add that a broad base of constituencies should be involved in decisions that affect the public. Participatory decision-making encourages different kinds of input from people, even if they do not have decision-making power (Kaner, 1996). A broad base of support gives a sense of moral legitimacy, even if input is not legally required.

Some mediators would add a further criterion for participation: that there be relatively equal bargaining power between the parties who are trying to mediate a solution (Barsky, in press). Power balancing is a contentious issue in the field of mediation, particularly in the context of mediator neutrality or impartiality. Many proponents of mediation do not believe that mediators should intervene to try to rebalance power (Bush and Folger, 1994). In the context of multiparty, public disputes, ensuring equal power between parties might be infeasible, even if it were desirable.

Although one could argue that public decision-making processes should be fair and equitable to all constituencies, my proposal falls short of this. Rather than equity and fairness, I would argue for "inclusiveness" as one of the measures of a successful decision-making process. The argument for inclusiveness could be argued on a number of grounds. First, hearing all voices is more equitable or fair than excluding them (even if mere inclusion is not sufficient to ensure equity). If it is a public decision, then public bodies have a moral responsibility to be inclusive. While representatives can legally and ethically make decisions on behalf of others, allowing people to have their own voice is empowering and validating. The foregoing examples identify a range of circumstances where so-called representatives or well-meaning professional advocates are not in sync with the needs and wishes of those they claim to represent.

More people at the table does include greater costs – a least up front. Additional costs could include more funding for a more inclusive study or needs assessment, costs involved in providing a larger space to accommodate more participants, and the additional costs in time to hear and work through the feelings, beliefs, and suggestions of more people. Involving many people in a conflict resolution process, however, does not mean allowing people to talk indefinitely (Peterson, 1999).

Although up-front costs of inclusiveness might seem prohibitive, greater inclusiveness can lead to better and more cost-effective decisions. The homeless person without formal education or financial resources might have the most creative and practical idea, if given the chance. The marginalized minority might be willing to support development rather than challenge it, provided that they are treated with respect in the decision-making processes. Even if people do not have a final say, inclusion in decision-making can lead to a sense of fairness and validation.

Public discussion processes need to be designed to be inclusive. Facilitators should consider who needs help in order to be involved; for example, do certain individuals require funds or expertise in order to be able to participate. Processes should encourage people to discuss concerns from their own viewpoints, rather than as spokespeople for other groups (Rothman, 1997). This levels the playing field and encourages collaborative decision making, rather than partisan politicking and competitive advocacy.

b) Public Education

One of the primary reasons that many people do not become involved in public discussions is lack of information. Knowledge and information provide power (Freire, 1970). People do not only need facts and figures, but a way of thinking. Public education needs to encourage people to think critically about the communities they live in. Education also needs to teach people how to participate in community decisions. We often hear that fewer than half of eligible voters participate in an election, and even fewer participate in referenda on specific issues. Education can help socialize people into becoming active voices in public decision-making processes.

Education needs to provide opportunities for experiential learning, not just book knowledge. Often, public educators (particularly in elementary schools) shy away from addressing political issues. Wanting to avoid controversy or believing that they need to sanitize course content to avoid imposing values on students, some teachers (and education systems) do their students a real disservice. Education is political. Not teaching people how to participate effectively in public discussions perpetuates the status quo, including who controls public decisions in society.

Finally, education can also provide silenced individuals with knowledge and access to emerging technologies. Use of information technology, such as the Internet, has growing importance within many fields of public decision making.

c) Professional Education

Professional education programs, such as business management and environmental studies, need to include components on conflict resolution. Each discipline tends to focus on its own interests. Their programs may also include courses on negotiation and advocacy. Some of these courses focus on how professionals achieve their own interests or positions. Conflict resolution education must also include how to facilitate and participate in collaborative conflict resolution processes: e.g., public discussions or mediation. As part of this education, professionals need to learn about the interests and perspectives of people from other disciplines.

In order to facilitate better understanding between disciplines, interdisciplinary degrees and courses should be offered. Direct contact and communication between developing professionals will help professionals from all backgrounds learn how to be more open and empathic towards those from other disciplines (CSWE, 1999). Although uniprofessional education can instill pride and special expertise among its students, programs that focus on one perspective can also create divisions, stereotypes, and animosity between people from different disciplines.

Business education, for instance, tends to value development, profit, and economic growth. Environmental education tends to value conservation, quality of life, and respect for the natural environment (Gibson, 1997). At a surface level, these values seem to collide. However, people from both disciplines can see common interests, particularly if they look at situations over the longer term. Consumption of natural resources can lead to greater profits and higher standards of living in the short-term. Yet, if natural resources are depleted, then both business and environmental concerns will suffer. Alternatively, economic development can be arranged in a manner that enhances environmental quality of life. Measures of success need to consider more than economic growth and material wealth; quality of life, social justice, and environmental integrity also need to be factored in.

Professional programs also need to address issues of globalization. Public discussions about sustainable social, economic, and environmental development need to address issues of equity into account.

Finally, professional education needs to include methods of understanding individuals from their own perspectives. Whereas some programs focus on experimental and quantitative research, phenomenological research and naturalistic inquiry are useful means of giving voice to individuals who are currently left out of most public discussions. Community development approaches can also be used to ensure broad-based participation. Given a history of exclusion and discrimination, disadvantages groups – often thought to be poor, uneducated, ugly, or trivial – will need to be shown that they are truly valued. Overcoming mistrust, apathy, and anger will take time, perhaps generations.

When all people are provided an opportunity to give voice in public discussions, sustainable development decisions will include a more complete range of perspectives, ideas, and solutions. People will be more committed to the processes, more trusting, and more likely to contribute. Past lip service to participatory decision making must give way to meaningful involvement. With a truly broad base of people being mobilized in a collaborative effort, a shared vision of the future is surely within reach.


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Bok, M. (1998). Harm reduction. Dealing differently with drugs. Journal of Progressive Human Services, 9, 3-21.

Bush, R. A. B., & Fogler, J. P. (1994). The promise of mediation: Responding to conflict through empowerment and recognition. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

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Peterson, R. (1999). Decision making: Too much talking may backfire. Available online: Error! Bookmark not defined.

Pruitt, D. G., & Carnevale, P. C. (1993). Negotiation in social conflict. Pacific Grove, CA: Brooks/Cole.

Rothman, J. (1997). Resolving identity-based conflict – In nations, organizations and communities. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Sachs, W. (1998). Greening of the North: A post-industrial blueprint for ecology and equity. London: Zed Books.

Wilson, M. G., & Whitmore, E. (1998). The transnationalization of popular movements: Social policy making from below. Canadian Journal of Development Studies, 19(1), 7-36.

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