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  • Kristina Lanz, Alliance Sud

The role of civil society organisations in development

Kristina Lanz, Alliance Sud [1]

Only about 1% of OECD bilateral aid is destined to local CSOs in developing countries. It is high time for a paradigm shift.

Civil society organisations (CSOs) are crucial for the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), for democratization, for the defence of human rights and for the protection of the environment. They hold governments and businesses to account and help to make sure no- one is left behind by development. However, civic space is shrinking in many countries – this ranges from increasingly restrictive legislation and administrative hurdles being put in place to smear campaigns and political persecution of activists. The Corona crisis has in many countries led to a further restriction of civil liberties and freedom of speech. At the same time, civil society organisations have found creative ways to criticize their governments’ policies and strategies during the crisis and, in many countries, CSOs and individuals have organized to provide information, food and basic necessities to those most in need.

Despite the key role CSOs play, the main constraint for many, especially rights-based organisations, is access to funding. A recently published OECD study on how OECD-DAC members work with civil society shows that almost all OECD Development Assistance Committee (OECD-DAC) members support CSOs – on average about 15% of members’ bilateral official development assistance (ODA) flows to CSOs. However, the vast majority of this money goes CSOs from donor countries, followed by international CSOs - in 2018 just 1% of total bilateral aid went to local CSOs in developing countries. But not only do local CSOs receive only a fraction of the money going to the CSO-sector as a whole, they are also rarely seen as development actors in their own right, but rather tend to be used as implementing partners for donor projects and priorities. Of the 20 billion USD that went to the CSO-sector as a whole in 2018, only 3 billion was spent on strengthening CSOs own programmes and objectives, 17 billion (85%) was simply channelled through CSOs to meet donor objectives.

Not everything can be measured

One of the reasons behind donors’ preference for using CSOs as implementers rather than to contribute core funding to the organisations’ own work, seems to be the pressure to provide measurable results - the majority of OECD-DAC members interviewed for the study cited the necessity of demonstrating results as a key factor informing their decision-making. However, we all know that not everything is measurable and that inclusive policy processes take time to achieve results. Furthermore, the bureaucratic reporting requirements associated with this focus on results pose particular difficulties for smaller, informal CSOs and often lead to a diversion of accountability away from CSOs’ constituencies towards donors, as CSOs start shifting their programmes towards donors’ preferences rather than towards the actual needs seen on the ground. But using local CSOs simply as implementers also perpetuates a paternalistic vision of development, which values Western expertise and know-how much higher than local expertise.

How can this change? The OECD-DAC study comes up with several suggestions and recommendations, three of which will be discussed here. One recommendation directly relates to the focus on results and recommends that ways need to be found to “better demonstrate that strengthening a pluralist and independent civil society is a valuable development result.” This is also in line with a recently published guidance note on responding to contested space for civil society by the Swiss Development Cooperation (SDC) that suggests that it is important for donors to recognize that “preserving civic space (a non-event) is a result in itself.” Both the DAC study, as well as SDC’s guidance note recognize the need to provide more core funding to CSOs, to become more comfortable with informality and to adopt different, more flexible funding modalities.

Another crucial point is the need to create space for mutual learning and exchange – this involves regular exchanges between donors and CSOs at the country level, linking up civic movements with other actors - both upwards into the political sphere, and downwards to individual citizens, as well as supporting international CSO platforms and multi-stakeholder groups. All these exchanges should however be based on a good power analysis in order to ensure that the most marginalized voices are also heard. Exchanges and networking events could also be used to discuss issues related to shrinking civic space, to establish joint strategies for the creation of an enabling environment for civil society participation and to jointly establish a strong communication strategy that shows the generic public benefits of a strong civil society and helps CSOs bolster their domestic support.

Thirdly – as the OECD-DAC study and SDC’s guidance note also mention - the international development community must use its voice, its networks and its leverage to speak up in defence of civil society actors and human rights defenders who face everyday intimidation, repression and security risks. This also implies using diplomatic channels where necessary and engaging on the duty of states to protect and to combat impunity by demanding effective investigation of human rights abuses and criminal proceedings in cases of crimes against human rights defenders and other civil society actors.

A paradigm shift

All of this links up to the issue of policy coherence, which is key for the creation of an enabling environment for civil society participation. Policy coherence for a sustainable and just development means putting the rights of the poorest and most marginalized members of society, the protection of human rights and the protection of the environment centre-stage across all policy realms. It means creating economic, tax and trade policies that benefit the most vulnerable instead of elites and corporations. It means more inclusive, people-centered migration and security policies that treat all human beings with dignity and respect. It means climate policies that acknowledge the seriousness and urgency of our current predicament and recognize that those, who have contributed the least to the crisis are the hardest hit by it.

While development actors can and should use their influence and voice to influence all of these policy areas, they first and foremost also need to strive for policy coherence within development cooperation. This includes bilateral and multilateral development cooperation, as well as the areas of climate finance and blended finance, which are taking up more and more space within the official development assistance of OECD countries. Concerning the increased donor engagement with the private sector, it is crucial that civil society is actively consulted and engaged in all activities and that development actors do not work with private companies that are involved in repression, corruption or human rights abuses. Furthermore, all DAC members are also members of multilateral development banks and should therefore use their voting power in these institutions to make sure that the banks adequately consult with civil society in all their activities and that they develop and implement a zero-tolerance policy for corruption, human rights abuses and repression. This is all the more important, given that a recent study by the Coalition for Human Rights in Development highlighted that much of the repression against human rights defenders and environmental activists takes place in the context of so-called “development projects” financed by development banks.

At a time of global crises, global protests and awakening, the development sector also needs to honestly and urgently start asking itself what type of development it wants to promote. A development which encourages economic growth at the cost of people and the environment and in which we, in the West, impose our visions and our strategies of development on people in the South? Or a development, that puts people and the environment first, that is built on global solidarity and on the recognition that we are all developing countries, that we can all learn from each other and that we must all work together to build a resilient, sustainable and just future for all?


[1] This blog article is based on a speech held at an online discussion hosted by the Swiss Development Cooperation (SDC) on „How we work with civil society“ (9. July 2020).

Kristina Lanz works as development policy advisor at Alliance Sud, a member of the DAC-CSO Reference Group. She is also a member of the Swiss Advisory Committee on International Cooperation.


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