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Sustainable Development in Practice: A Guide to Integrating Environment, Climate and Poverty Reduction

Chapter 3 Dialogue and engagement

Draft, Steve Bass. Rev 30th August 2022


Participatory dialogue with all relevant stakeholders can expand insights and generate ideas by improving mutual understanding and trust and by bringing about broad agreement. Engaging with and listening to stakeholders to shape poverty-environment analyses, visions and plans ensures their diverse perspectives and demands are heard and their capabilities and insights drawn upon. This is much more likely to lead to the fundamental reforms that are needed for poverty-environment integration than top-down policymaking or technocratic efforts.

A formal dialogue process is therefore a particularly helpful stage between analysis (chapter 2) and planning (chapter 4). It helps to get the vision right and broadens understanding, trust and ownership of the poverty-environment strategy.


Chapter 3 focuses on engaging stakeholders in contributing to the big picture of poverty-environment policymaking – at the level of vision and principles. It specifically covers the following:

  • Why dialogue – an inclusive approach to generating understanding and agreement, vision and commitment, without which policies and plans are ignored and impotent
  • What dialogue is and does – the range of dialogue functions, levels and types
  • Characteristics of effective dialogue – based on lessons from the United Nations Development Programme–United Nations Environment Programme (UNDP-UNEP) Poverty-Environment Initiative (PEI) and its successor, Poverty-Environment Action (PEA), as well as other sources offering strong innovation and experience, notably in forest policy and green economy
  • How to run dialogues – the main steps (engage, explore and change), ways to plan dialogues, tactics to engage stakeholders and methodologies that work for running dialogue sessions

Specific participatory methodologies are also needed to enable other policy tasks – analysis, planning, budgeting etc. – to suitably engage stakeholders.

3.1 Dialogue: Creating common ground, vision and commitment
3.1.1 Why dialogue?

When policy interventions fail, any of four major reasons tends to be cited. Each reason is linked to weak or absent dialogue:

  • An apparent lack of political will –the intervention did not take the time to find political will, to mobilize it or to create it, especially if it engaged just a few officials and imported external ideas. Dialogue is an opportunity to raise the level of common understanding and political will, to generate a vision that many share.
  • An apparent lack of capacity and resources to implement the change –the intervention did not bother to engage the very groups that could otherwise have been mobilized for implementation. Dialogue is an opportunity to find the right partners and motivate them.
  • Apparent technical failures in the plan – the intervention did not bother to explore options that were more relevant, better understood and in demand. Too frequently, interventions fail to address fundamental differences in perspective on environment and poverty issues – perspectives that are often deep-rooted and taken for granted (box 3.1). Dialogue is an opportunity to help people see things from others’ viewpoints, and so ensure a shared vision emerges with real resonance locally or sectorally.
  • Ineffective consultation, one-off at best – interventions in the poverty-environment field have tended to skip straight from formal analytical work to technocratic planning, and in the process engage only a narrow range of officials and consultants. They may have included a few participatory processes, such as working groups representing different disciplines and sectors, and brief field consultations extracting some information from certain stakeholders. But, to date, they rarely invest enough in dialogue. Dialogue provides a necessary basis for stakeholder exchange to expose fundamental beliefs and ideas, allow stakeholders the time and opportunity to learn from each other, absorb new ideas and change perspective where needed, and create multi-stakeholder consensus and buy-in.

Thus dialogue is an essential normative step between analysis and planning. It is needed to build trust, encourage societal ownership, crowd-source inputs and ideas, and generate wider commitment to a high level of ambition. This basis is more likely to trigger the reforms needed for poverty-environment integration than top-down policymaking or technocratic efforts. Above all, it is a manageable way that helps everyone appreciate and work with the worldviews of others (box 3.1).

Box 3.1 Dialogue as a means of bringing worldviews together

Multi-stakeholder processes usually focus on bringing different types of actors together from different ministries, sectors, professional disciplines etc. While they can often agree in principle, they are just as likely to remain divided at a fundamental level. For complex, ‘wicked’ problems, airing different worldviews can be more significant than different sectors or disciplines. Diverging geographic and cultural backgrounds, development or environmental paradigms, values and experiences mean that issues of poverty and environment are often seen in fundamentally different ways. For example, people tend to adhere to one or two standard perspectives on poverty-environment issues, and are biased to solutions that fit these particular views:

  • Scarcity: There are too many people, so environments are destroyed to meet needs for scarce resources.
  • Power: Inequalities create environmental problems as rich people grab the best environments and push the poor into marginal places.
  • Capitalism: Markets incentivize the liquidation of natural capital to produce higher-value physical and financial capital, driven by profit and economic growth imperatives.
  • Ethics: Modern societies have lost the traditional values and behaviours that respected nature.

In practice, there are truths behind each of these worldviews, and bringing them together in dialogue can encourage both more nuanced diagnosis and a richer menu of solutions.

The significance of an individual’s local context – people’s deep knowledge of where they live and work, and their lack of experience beyond it, is well expressed in the famous Saul Steinberg cartoon illustrating an archetypal New Yorker’s view of the rest of the country and the world. A cartoon view from China – or from one discipline to another – would be similarly skewed. Yet it takes this same diversity of worldviews, disciplines, religions, languages and culture to generate robust, authentic solutions that are credible to all. This diversity can also lead to distrust between groups unless there are incentives and means to improve the ways that people connect. Good dialogues are designed to enable such improved conditions.



Learning from dialogue experiences addressing poverty-environment issues: PEI/PEA have made contributions, notably in finding the right entry points for engaging in policy debate. In recommending dialogue methodology, we draw on this work as well as other sources where there has been strong innovation and experience, notably in forest policy and green economy.

PEI/PEA have generally relied on existing government dialogue procedures and forums, especially in ensuring that powerful ministries of finance and planning open up the debate to other stakeholders. To supplement this experience in widening dialogue on poverty-environment issues, this chapter also draws on experiences by The Forests Dialogue (TFD), which has organized over 90 multi-stakeholder dialogues aimed at making policy and investment progress on forest issues all over the world (TFD, 2020); the Green Economy Coalition, which has organized national dialogues on inclusive green economy, and forms of participatory inquiry seeking to marry top-down policy powers with bottom-up societal demand to reform policies and institutions (Bass, 2013; Worsley, 2017); and the International Institute for Environment and Development’s (IIED’s) dialogues on artisanal and small-scale mining, which aim to combine stakeholder energies to reform a sector, starting with field dialogues and ending with national consensus roadmaps towards sustainable development (Monzani, 2020).


3.1.2 Feeding a process of societal change

Effective dialogues both map out and begin to accelerate societal change. There is a natural process of social diffusion for any positive change (figure 3.1). Dialogues can identify what is needed for social diffusion to work and catalyse it: getting more people to act faster, increasing the driving forces in favour of positive change and reducing the restraining forces. Societal change is the opposite of a magic bullet. No single poverty-environment intervention will work for everyone, because people hold different and sometimes opposing views, and their reasons for inaction are different. We need a comprehensive set of interventions that target different subsets of the population, from those most concerned about change to the sceptics, so that no one is left behind and no one stands in the way (Zhou et al., 2021). Dialogues are about exploring this level of social change – bringing the affected actors into a supportive policy space with relevant information for an adequate time to agree on changes needed.

The choice of the policy space to create change (e.g. an established forum for reviewing development, national political processes, mandated planning procedures etc.) needs to welcome the actors concerned, be conducive to considering relevant knowledge, be sufficiently free and creative to generate new knowledge, and allow time to go through a process of change. Time matters: in much development and conservation work, short meetings can sometimes be optimistically labelled dialogues, but rarely afford enough time for people to reflect, possibly change views, inquire and together create change.

Figure 3.1 How progressive action is cumulatively adopted through social diffusion


NB this example is for climate action, but could apply to other progressive change, such as poverty-environment integration

Source: Zhou et al. (2021).


3.1.3 Eight dialogue functions

Effective dialogues deliver at least eight functions that can support better poverty-environment integration across the policy cycle. They start with the premise that dialogue is active conversation (Worsley 2017, Monzani 2020, TFD 2020):

  • Stimulate relevant and useful conversation. People from diverse sectors, disciplines and worldviews make for more challenging – but potentially more productive – conversations than one-way advocacy, or two-way consultation or narrow interest groups talking only to themselves in echo chambers.
  • Foster active involvement. The act of conversation reveals people’s interests and energies far more than passive consultation around pre-set questions. Facilitated well, good conversation leads to commitment and action by more people.
  • Give voice to marginalized stakeholder groups. Dialogue, especially with field components, improves understanding of local actors’ needs, capabilities and motivations; this is important when many poverty-environment challenges are hidden from the view of capital cities.
  • Generate more credible evidence and ideas. Interlocutors in conversation can challenge or validate both established facts or new evidence. They can bring ideas together and use their own perspectives and experiences to develop ideas and frame new ones.
  • Foster learning. Conversations with people involved in a particular action enable reflection and evaluation of the action and its consequences. A moment of deliberate pause and conversation stimulates thoughtful reviews of what worked and what did not.
  • Increase networking. Conversations enable lessons learned by action groups to become visible to one another. This gives rise to imitation, avoids the pitfalls of past mistakes and stimulates collaboration. Small-scale interaction becomes translated into large-scale networks.
  • Catalyse legitimate leadership and organization. When people actively converse and purposefully explore what they can do about issues important to them, leaders emerge and action groups coalesce. Their form and actions are subscribed to by affected stakeholders, conferring legitimacy.
  • Make for smart policy. Evidence generated through local inquiry-focused conversations provides important insights for policymakers, especially for bottom-up and alternative solutions. Resulting policy and actions provide important entry points for stakeholders to take initiative.
3.2 Characteristics and types of effective dialogue

Ten characteristics of constructive and respectful multi-stakeholder dialogue need to be encouraged (drawing from Manzoni, 2020; TFD, 2020; and Worsley, 2017):

  • Inclusion – dialogues include the groups affected by the issue in question and are especially proactive in engaging with the issues of marginalized groups.
  • Respect – dialogues are consent-based and recognize stakeholders’ rights and views.
  • Equity and agency – dialogue participants should be able to affect decision-making in the dialogue process and its outcomes. No participant should be favoured over another.
  • Exchange – dialogues aim to exchange opinions and ideas in a spirit of learning between people with different perspectives; they are not debates, wherein participants simply try to convince each other of the validity of a particular view.
  • Openness – dialogues support stakeholders in voicing their opinions and making their own decisions, and do not prematurely conclude matters before there is adequate agreement.
  • Joint inquiry – dialogues involve a conversation, facilitated with open prompts, that helps to identify, validate and resonance-test issues. Once validated, the inquiry is used as an agreed-upon basis for action.
  • Rooted and practical – dialogues are shaped by local priorities, kicked off by site visits and engagement with locals where relevant, and focused on practical ways forward; they are not simply theoretical arguments.
  • Multifaceted and iterative – dialogue is long term, continuous and iterative and can switch between formal and informal approaches. I takes time to achieve the changes needed for better poverty-environment outcomes,
  • Transparent and accountable – all aspects of the dialogue, including the goals, rationale, process and conclusions, are transparent to all stakeholders. The organizers and all participants should be accountable for the commitments they make and the actions they take.
  • Built on existing processes and capabilities – dialogues should build on existing processes where they can offer these positive characteristics, supporting them, not usurping them, but also avoiding duplication. Otherwise, a special dialogue process may be designed, with a view to embedding a continuing process in existing forums as it concludes.

Dialogues can take many forms. Some dialogues may be a single meeting, while others are a longer sequence of engagements. They may comprise single stakeholder groups or multiple stakeholders. They can be held at three broad levels to bring local and national players together over time (Worsley, 2017; see figure 3.2).

  • Micro-level dialogues occur in specific locations where groups of concerned people are mobilized to address issues that concern them. Issues that arise are typically local problems that people want to address or opportunities they want to exploit. It is important to give such dialogues considered attention, as the results often form the substrate for higher-level dialogues, and micro-level dialogues alone usually will not be enough to shape big picture visions and major policy changes.
  • Meso-level dialogues focus on a particular sector or theme. Across a nation, there may be many micro-level dialogues. The data and evidence arising from this “sea” of inquiry can be overwhelming. Meso-level dialogues are a mechanism to distil the evidence, particularly by looking for the wider resonance of the issues raised at local levels.
  • Macro-level dialogues tend to be national policy platforms where national policymakers and influencers engage with evidence received – preferably from micro dialogues and resonance-tested meso dialogues. To be effective, macro-level dialogues need a commitment to take some kind of action on the basis of the evidence received, and to feed back to the other levels.

Figure 3.2 Linking stakeholder issues to policy action: Dialogue methodology deployed by the Green Economy Coalition

3.3 Stakeholder participation in dialogue
3.3.1 Recognizing and addressing participation challenges

While participation is increasingly a norm in policy processes, many challenges still stand in the way. These may include a lack of appropriate stakeholder involvement, reluctance of participants to engage openly and unfamiliarity with best practices for dialogue. Often, government organizations struggle to involve relevant non-government interest groups, such as private companies and marginalized communities in multi-stakeholder processes, in meaningful ways – especially when there are poor relationships and apparent vested interests that resist change. If earlier dialogues had not produced useful outcomes, stakeholders may be unwilling to engage in further dialogues. In addition, any dialogue has the potential risk of dissolving into conflict; opposing views and personalities can cause the process to break down if not managed appropriately. Indeed, not knowing how to manage this often explains why the dialogue stage of any policy process is missed or token at best.

To meet these challenges, dialogues depend on a robust process; clear ground rules and governance; skilled personnel, notably facilitators; and good leadership to maintain an environment conducive for dialogue success. These foundations are critical because they provide a stable framework for guiding and managing what can be an unstable network of relationships.


3.3.2 Deciding the breadth of stakeholder participation

When dialogues are planned, the issues and the agenda tend to be what preoccupies people. But dialogues are primarily about the stakeholders: thought also needs to be given about involving the right stakeholders in the right way. There is an increasing presumption for multi-stakeholder consultation in policy processes, typically through one or more one-off meetings. But who to involve will depend upon the nature of the poverty-environment issues and the stage that the dialogue process has reached. A combination of the following may be needed:

  • Uni-stakeholder participation : Sometimes meetings with much narrower participation are needed within a dialogue process so that specific groups (poor farmers, say, or government ministries or single-interest non-governmental organizations) then have the opportunity to get to grips with an issue and rehearse collective ideas before entering into conversations with other groups.
  • Universal participation: Sometimes it is helpful for representatives of all stakeholders to meet together so that a big picture is built – perhaps in opening or closing a longer process of dialogue. Here the notion of the sustainable development triad can be helpful (figure 3.3). This conceptualization simply reminds us that almost all sustainable development is the product of three basic groups and their interactions – government, civil society and the private sector.
    Figure 3.3 The sustainable development triad
  • Focused multi-stakeholder participation: This brings together the precise stakeholders affected by a particular issue. Those stakeholders can be identified through the various forms of political economy, stakeholder and context analysis described in chapter 2. In general, however, the lessons of PEI/PEA suggest the need to involve the following as priorities:
    • Ministries of planning and finance, and local authorities – hold mandates respectively to lead planning (chapter 4) and fiscal/finance decisions (chapter 5)
    • Poor groups with high dependence on the environment and/or vulnerability to environmental change – may be rural and/or urban, and could include leaders as well as representatives from different livelihood types and the marginalized (women, people with disabilities etc.)
    • Sector authorities – have the authority, information and other resources for the productive and social sectors important to poor groups
    • Civil society –has recognized knowledge and ethical mandates to engage with relevant stakeholders and areas of policy
    • Private sector –has the powers, knowledge and resources to employ, invest, create value – or to cause damage – in areas of policy relevant to poverty-environment
    • Parliamentarians –have the authority and legitimacy to conduct national policy debates, make and change laws, and approve and promote interventions that uphold laws and standards
    • Experts and peers –may have similar interests to those leading the poverty-environment initiative, but complementary knowledge, skills or perspectives


3.3.3 Tactics to involve specific stakeholder types

Because the priority stakeholders differ greatly from one other, a single approach to participation in dialogue is needed that works for all (see 3.4). However, specific tactics may also be used to engage particular groups, as outlined below.

Participation of poor groups in general. Access and participation are essential to asserting every person’s right to live in an environment adequate to their health and well-being, including future generations, as laid out in the 1998 Aarhus Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters. Poor groups have much to bring to dialogues on poverty and environment, and their representatives should be invited to dialogues not as objects of the work but as experts and leaders. At the level of implementation, Participatory Learning and Action (PLA) offers much in the way of tools and tactics to achieve equitable and productive engagement. These are especially useful with decentralized models of local government, or where implementation occurs at the community level or with indigenous peoples.

Participation of women. PEI/PEA staff emphasize the need to take a gender-disaggregated approach to dialogue. They repeatedly found that, unless such an approach is taken, women’s concerns are not adequately reflected. For example, in PEI/PEA’s multidimensional poverty assessment of some of the districts around Lake Victoria, surveys took a disaggregated approach and identified how single female-headed households had lower incomes and higher food insecurity. But this difference was not reflected in the dialogue design. In the dialogue, the voices of the men dominated, and the workshop outcomes included requests for more government support for raising cattle – the men’s preference – but not for growing crops, the women’s preference. Yet cattle here are unproductive and non-marketed, resulting in ever-worsening land degradation and neglect of the crop-growing sector that could have provided women with greater food security.

Participation of civil society groups. The broad term “civil society” covers a huge and non-uniform range of entities. It may include social movements; volunteer, indigenous peoples, mass-based membership, non-governmental and community-based organizations; as well as communities and citizens acting individually and collectively. Civil society participation contributes to three critical objectives:

  • Enhancing accountability and transparency on poverty-environment decisions and impacts
  • Generating public legitimacy, societal demand and social enforcement for new policies
  • Expanding equity and cohesion

Engagement with civil society actors should take place through the national or local platforms they prefer where possible. Ideally, this will include their serving as representatives on national steering committees or as experts and resource persons for capacity-building activities.

Participation of the private sector. In engaging with the private sector, it helps initially to work strategically with the representative umbrella organizations that businesses themselves have formed, and then to bring in carefully selected leading companies. Umbrella organisations have mandates to represent a wide spectrum of the private sector, there is usually business confidence in them, and they tend to be established to engage in dialogue. However, they may not always represent those private sector actors that have a strong interest in environment and/or poverty reduction. In this case, it is a useful supplement to seek out leaders in these fields. Large companies are not the only target here; micro, small and medium-sized enterprises at the local level can have high potential for poverty reduction and environmental stewardship as well.

Participation of parliaments. Parliaments frequently address poverty, climate change and environmental issues as priorities – but not often with the opportunity to explore poverty-environment trade-offs and integration. Parliamentarians will want to see multiple standards upheld, notably human rights and environmental standards. They offer several entry points for poverty-environment dialogue in their law-making, scrutiny of government budgets and activities, and as an enabler of civic interaction with government. Public hearings and public meetings organized by parliament, parliamentary cross-party groups – e.g. on poverty, environment or audit – and parliamentary caucuses all offer legitimate forums for poverty-environment dialogue. Engaging Parliaments on the 2030 Agenda and the SDGs: Representation, Accountability and Implementation: A Handbook for Civil Society (2018) provides a comprehensive overview of how parliaments worldwide can and do engage in integrated issues such as those of poverty and environment. It provides guidance on the many established means of engaging through cross-party groups etc.

3.4 Three main steps in dialogue: Engage, Explore and Change

Dialogue processes can generally be divided into three phases, each with its own core objective and activities. These activities will sometimes need to be iterated, as it can take more than one dialogue session to build the necessary trust, agreement or buy-in. The following guidance is based on the TFD model (TFD 2020). TFD’s dialogues are coordinated by an international secretariat, with a local steering committee serving as a reference group to design and steer the dialogue to suit the local or thematic context; a similar means of coordination can be arranged within a country government or by a university or non-governmental organization.

Figure 3.4 shows the dialogue flow as a wheel to illustrate its non-linear and iterative nature. Each phase has distinct steps (displayed in blue) for achieving its objectives. The objectives are displayed as arrows because they should be achieved in sequence. TFD’s tried-and-tested dialogue model has become widely accepted in the forest sector globally: stakeholders have come to know what to expect of the dialogue process, can identify diverse opportunities to participate, and trust there are equitable chances to influence the outcome.

Figure 3.4 Phases and steps in a typical dialogue – The Forests Dialogue’s model


Each phase is summarized below in terms of the top tasks involved:

Phase 1: Engage – to build trust among leaders. Based on an initial stakeholder mapping (chapter 2), bring the right people to the table. Select two to four dialogue co-chairs from among the dialogue hosts, field locations and decision-makers. Prepare an expert scoping paper that outlines the context of the poverty-environment issues, summarizes good practices to learn from, and suggests the ways in which dialogue can be useful for moving towards possible solutions. Hold a multi-stakeholder scoping discussion, based on the scoping paper, to look for areas of possible resonance – important issues and their fracture lines (areas riven with conflict), information gaps and the role sought from dialogue. Throughout, have a neutral convenor and a multi-stakeholder advisory group to ensure the process is well designed and carried out. Summarize the conclusions of Phase 1 with a short co-chairs’ written statement; at this stage, no solutions are promoted or are off the table.

Phase 2: Explore – to seek agreement on issues and opportunities. This follows the same kind of process as in Phase 1, but is aimed more at agreement (not necessarily consensus1) on the causes of problems and possible solutions. The phase is informed by a more detailed independent diagnostic of those issues that were agreed upon in Phase 1 as priorities. Where relevant, it then moves into field dialogues to get a stronger sense of the real incentives and impacts facing poor groups – as well as to generate a more informal atmosphere for sharing and co-creation. Inquiry facilitation uses a conversational approach with open prompts that enable people to tell the poverty-environment stories they want to tell within the broad boundaries of the inquiry. It is different from interview questioning or focus group facilitation. The Green Economy Coalition (GEC) uses an approach of multiple micro-level (field) exploratory dialogues to produce conclusions that are then resonance-tested in meso-level thematic dialogues (Worsley, 2017). This can involve some iterations back and forward between levels of dialogue to ensure validation. Good facilitation results in a set of possible resonance-tested solutions at the end of Phase 2.

Phase 3: Change – to facilitate collaborative decisions and action. This phase of dialogue reflects on what information and ideas the dialogue process has produced so far, agrees on prioritization criteria and applies them to identify priority solutions. Stakeholders then look to who could apply the prioritized solutions and how they should do it. Stakeholder interaction in the full dialogue process to date – hopefully having improved trust (Phase 1 onwards) and agreement (Phase 2) – means specific organizations and people will have emerged naturally as leaders in collaborative change. These leaders then advocate for the agreed-upon changes and may then decide to contribute their own resources to implement the changes. Through a feedback survey towards the end of this phase, all participants contribute to reviewing dialogue results; this clarifies areas where further iteration is needed to handle tougher issues not yet agreed upon or prioritized.

3.5 Running dialogue sessions

This section provides a sort of checklist of key ingredients of successful dialogue events, drawn from PEI/PEA experience and other key references. For more detailed guidance, see TFD (2020) and UN Food Systems Summit (2021).

Dialogue organization: A dialogue process needs skilled steering, so that it complements and does not ignore other existing processes in the country or sector. It may involve:

  • Two to four co-chairs from poverty and environment authorities, civil society and local groups should lead the effort, supplemented by a leading expert in relevant poverty-environment issues. All of these selected because they are known and trusted in the local or thematic context, and/or they are strong facilitators and are able to inspire participants to engage. They must be able to put their personal views aside and faithfully represent all stakeholders in managing the dialogue.
  • An advisory group can expand this leadership where necessary, drawing from a slightly wider group of stakeholders, and including external people with dialogue experience.
  • A secretariat is needed to organize the entire dialogue process – the invitations, logistics, presentations, rapportage and outputs. During dialogue sessions, the secretariat supports the co-chairs’ facilitation through pre- and mid-dialogue check-ins and guidance.

Careful selection of dialogue participants: Successful dialogues bring together a diversity of voices, especially those who have traditionally been marginalized. The stakeholder analysis done around poverty-environment issues helps to select the stakeholders for a dialogue (chapter 2), but questions should now be asked about their willingness to participate in a particular dialogue and any barriers to such participation:

  • Who needs to be involved to work on this problem credibly? (see stakeholder list at 3.2)
  • Would they participate, and under what conditions?
  • Who has not participated in the past, or has been excluded, and why?
  • What needs to be on or off the table for people to participate?
  • Is there an existing process or procedure that can provide for the above, or would a stand-alone dialogue process be needed?

Good group size: It is more important to invite individuals who will actively participate in the dialogue than to have someone attend merely because of institutional affiliation. A group of around 25–50 makes for a good dialogue, with a balance of participation and efficiency. More than 100 participants make the event challenging to manage: smaller breakout groups of 8–12 individuals should then be the heart of the event. Techniques such as World Cafés can enable individuals to participate effectively (3.6).

Background paper: A short research product by the advisory group or a nominated independent expert should provide relevant facts on the poverty-environment issues and local/thematic context for the dialogue. It should be in languages and formats conducive to all participants’ understanding and be made available to participants before the dialogue.

Pertinent agenda and discussion topics: The co-chairs, advisory group and secretariat should develop the dialogue’s agenda, usually with both plenary and breakout group discussions, but few presentations so as not to prioritize selected perspectives or stifle conversation. Discussion topics should be positive and forward-looking but should not shy away from complex issues and trade-offs. They should take into account active policy discussions: the dialogue should draw from and feed into them and not produce something unconnected or in parallel.

Solid logistics: Participants should have the agenda, background paper and other relevant information in advance, and they should be able to easily join the discussions, regardless of whether the meeting is held online or in person/in the field. Equity and etiquette are important for both in-person meetings and online participation; attention should thus be paid to seating plans and to the adoption of user-friendly facilities such as online whiteboards and polling mechanisms.

Field days: Where relevant, dialogues in the field can help highlight the most prominent examples of poverty-environment issues – both common or representative situations, as well as unusual scenarios. Field visits should feature the poverty-environment perspectives of all relevant stakeholders and avoid too much “tourism.” They need to allow time for participants to ask questions and converse, and should primarily centre on questions and discussion rather than on lengthy presentations. A well-briefed conversation facilitator who is intimately familiar with the local situation and the aims of the dialogue can be invaluable. Pre-dialogue visits to design the field dialogues with local stakeholders are strongly recommended.

Ground rules and expectations: These should be clear before and during the meeting, and be implemented in a manner that encourages open and deep discussion among participants. Participants should be clear as to whether the dialogue is operating under the Chatham House Rule (3.6), if they can use laptops and phones during breaks only etc. They should be offered tips to cultivate a spirit of participation – e.g. active listening; voicing constructive, solutions-oriented interventions, participating as an individual and not sitting behind institutional mandates or country flags – in all cases referring to previous successful precedents.

Effective conversation leaders: Inclusion is a sine qua non for dialogues. Conversation leaders should be selected for their experience in nurturing inclusion – people who can encourage new connections, ensure that everyone in the group is heard and help the group navigate contentious issues constructively.

Progression through each meeting: Short, inspiring opening and closing speeches can provide the political and strategic context. But dialogue progress is made more through inquiry-based and facilitated conversation, delving into the issues raised in the background paper and field visits, and aiming to prioritize key challenges to resolving the issue, often in breakout groups. Rapporteurs and co-chairs should synthesize and communicate key themes back to the group at the end of each day, giving participants the chance to challenge the conclusions. In this way, participants drive the dialogue content and outputs. Successive meetings should test and develop the resonance of the issues discussed at previous meetings. (See 3.4.)

Immediate evaluation after dialogue, closely followed by an accurate synthesis: At the conclusion of a dialogue session, participants should fill out an evaluation form, to be collected and analysed by the secretariat. Using an agreed-upon format, the organizers should ensure a post-dialogue synthesis is available within a short time frame. This synthesis should capture not only what was said – key perspectives, discussions, agreements and next steps – but also the mood and spirit of the conversation. A co-chairs’ summary report is a useful approach, as is an engaging way of capturing the broad agreement reached, such as a roadmap for poverty-environment action.

Time: Much can be done in one to three days for the scoping dialogue, field dialogues and issue/thematic dialogues needed to come to agreement on priority poverty-environment actions. However, the whole dialogue process might be spread out over several months between the first scoping meeting and the final dialogues. The overall timing will not be dictated only by the meetings: the process needs to build in time between meetings for particular stakeholder groups to meet by themselves if necessary, to reflect and possibly change position; and should include key events that are controlled by other processes such as parliamentary meetings. Much depends on context and what else is happening in the field. See figure 3.5 for an example of a four-stage dialogue process that, over several months, resulted in consensus recommendations to reform the contentious artisanal mining sector in Tanzania.

Figure 3.5 Dialogue progression: Example from Tanzania artisanal mining

3.6 Successful methodologies for running dialogue sessions

PEI/PEA and others have found the following principles and associated methods, tools and tips to be particularly useful for running dialogue sessions:

Supporting openness: The Chatham House Rule. The Chatham House Rule is used around the world to encourage inclusive and open dialogue in meetings that aim to better understand and resolve complex problems. The guiding spirit is of the rule is to share the information you receive, but do not reveal who said it outside the meeting. In polarized settings, used effectively, the rule helps bring people together, break down barriers, generate ideas and agree on solutions. While many meetings are best conducted “on the record,” as full transparency is usually important to the process, the rule can usefully be invoked for subjects, or for stages in a dialogue, where opinion is too polarized for people to feel bold or comfortable enough to discuss matters freely. It allows people to speak as individuals, and to express views that their organization may not share. People usually feel more relaxed and ready for free discussion if they do not have to worry about their reputation or the implications of being quoted publicly.

When a meeting, or portion thereof, is held under the Chatham House Rule, participants are free to use the information received, but neither the identity nor the affiliation of the speaker(s), nor that of any other participant, may be revealed.

Supporting active involvement: World Café. This methodology can help in running breakout groups during dialogue sessions. It enables a structured conversational process based on predefined questions. The key feature in World Café is that individuals switch periodically between several simultaneous conversation tables and are introduced to the previous discussion by the table host. Participants make notes on a large, shared paper covering the table so that when they change tables, participants can see what previous discussions covered. This enables more people to get more closely involved (at any one time, there are only a few people around the table) and creates a cumulative discussion that can shift people's conceptions and encourage collective action. Guidance is provided in A Quick Reference Guide for Hosting World Café (2015).

Supporting agreement: Consensus-building techniques. Although agreement rather than full consensus is generally the more feasible aim – since the issues taken to dialogue are often new and rarely conclusive – there are times when multi-stakeholder consensus is needed, for example, on a vision or policy wording. The Consensus Building Handbook: A Comprehensive Guide to Reaching Agreement (1999) documents best practices in the field and includes a step-by-step overview of the consensus-building process. Seventeen case studies illustrate successes and failures in consensus building, highlighting the impact of cultural differences in decision-making processes and on handling technical disputes.

Supporting momentum: Learning and leadership groups. One way to leave a useful legacy of dialogue processes, and to generate more continuity between each dialogue event, is to develop and nurture a learning and leadership group (LLG). This technique is based on the theory that good dialogue will revolve around mutual learning and that, from this learning, leadership will emerge. The LLG idea acknowledges this, and through the dialogue process, brings together a core group of participants who will increasingly run with the process and its follow-up. Figure 3.5 presents an example of an artisanal mining dialogues in where the dialogue participants voted for some of their members to form an LLG to converge around a co-constructed roadmap – a vision for the future of a contentious sector and its stakeholders – and promote its implementation.

Supporting communities as key informants and actors: Participatory learning and action methodologies. Over the last 30 years, a suite of tools and methodologies have been developed that initially challenged existing orthodoxies about the role of local people in the ownership and dissemination of ideas. This then became part of a political and social movement for transformational change across the development world and is now often mainstream practice. These methods include participatory mapping, storytelling, timelines, transect walks (where researchers and other external participants accompany community members on a route through their local area), and visioning (where communities map their vision for the future).

Citizen science has taken off with increasing access to information and communication technologies and is contributing to democratic decision-making. Citizen science is a means of crowdsourcing information, with citizens acting sensors, perhaps relaying issues such as pest or pollution incidences via mobile phones, or simply responding to surveys. It also crowdsources distributed intelligence, with citizens serving as basic interpreters of the implications of poverty-environment changes. And in some circumstances, it enables citizens to work in groups with scientists to collect data, define problems and co-construct solutions.

Increasingly, many methods have been developed with or by groups of poor men and women themselves. The journal Participatory Learning and Action (PLA) has a searchable archive of downloadable tools and case studies from 25 years of issues. It helped to set a radical new development agenda and facilitated the development of a vigorous international community of practitioners (Buytaert et al., 2018). All of these methodologies can be especially helpful with field dialogues, as well as in detailed analysis (chapter 2).

Supporting understanding of complex issues: Inclusive frameworks for kicking off dialogues. With very diverse groups with differing perspectives, it is useful to kick off dialogue in a way where all can see an entry point for their interests. Box 3.2 suggests two frameworks – the sustainable development Venn diagram of environment, society and economy, and the donut economy framework – that have been useful for professionals from different disciplines and agencies in policy discussion. Both are quite conceptual but they are simple and highly visual, which usefully supports group work on flipcharts and whiteboards.

Box 3.2: Two inclusive frameworks for kicking off poverty-environment dialogue

The Venn diagram of environment, society, and economy. This simple visualization of the three constituent systems of sustainable development is recognized by many disciplines and can help kick off conversations. The approach puts environment, society and economy on the same page, allowing those who work on, in or with any one of these to contribute to an integrated approach. It can be a useful first step in initiating dialogue – e.g. by having economists talk about sustainable development through the economic policy lens that is most familiar to them; then gradually moving the conversation to the intersection of economic and social policy, and economic and environmental policy; and finally to the interaction of all three. Environmentalists and social groups can then be invited to contribute in similar ways, through the lens that is most familiar to them.


The donut economy. This is a normative framework that looks for effective policies and action within a safe operating space that neither exceeds a ceiling of environmental limits nor descends below a floor of basic human needs. The donut economy framework is a useful device for plotting poverty-environment issues and policies that has proven to be rich for dialogue. Donut paper tablecloths have been made for groups to map critical issues and develop ideas. For example, the South African donut map produced through multi-stakeholder dialogue reveals priority problems that relate to (i) climate, biodiversity, water and marine harvest limits having been breached; and (ii) socially acceptable minima on issues such as safety, income and access to electricity that have still not been met. This helped dialogue around possible solutions.

3.7 References

ADB/UNEP (2019) Strengthening the Environmental Dimensions of the Sustainable Development Goals in Asia and the Pacific: Tool Compendium

Bass S (2013) Scoping a green economy: a guide to dialogues and diagnostics for developing countries. IIED, London

Buytaert W, Ochoa-Tocachi BF, Hannah DM, Clark J, and A Dewulfet (2018) Co-generating knowledge on ecosystem services and the role of new technologies; in Schreckenberg, K, Mace G and Poudyal M (Eds) (2018) Ecosystem Services and Poverty Alleviation. Trade-offs and Governance. Earthscan, London

Monzani, B (2020) The use of dialogue within IIED’s work: what works and why. IIED, London

Participatory Learning and Action (PLA) 1988-2013

TFD (The Forests Dialogue) (2020) Addressing Natural Resource Conflicts through Dialogue: a guide to The Forests Dialogue’s model

UN Food Systems Summit (2021) Step-by-step guide for convenors of independent dialogues

Worsley S (2017) An Approach to Dialogues. Unpublished paper. Green Economy Coalition, London

Zhao J, Rumi Naito R, Yu Luo Y, and N Deans (2021) Getting everyone to act on climate change SDG Action

  • 1 Consensus is often very time-consuming or impossible to achieve, and may be compromised, or forced by some people on others. A co-chairs’ agreement with participants has been found to be the most productive way forward, with as much or even more ownership than formal consensus.