A historic year has come to an end. We now need to join forces to tirelessly work for full implementation of the outcomes from the conferences on Financing for Development, the UN General assembly on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the climate agreement at COP 21.
One of the lessons of the last 15 years is that the world’s biggest challenges cannot be solved in isolation. The new universal agenda, which makes all countries developing countries, needs a more inclusive – as well as sustainable – social and economic model. How we as governments, donors, civil society organisations (CSOs), private sector etc. partner for development will have an impact on the ability to address the global challenges of today.
Sweden has a long tradition of supporting civil society. But as the world, and the way societies organise themselves change, we need to be open and rethink the way we work in partnerships at all levels. For us at Sida, this means among other things to strengthen our outreach. We need to get better at reaching locally rooted organisations, including new social movements, and encourage our partners to do the same. Sida’s support to CSOs who wish to work across stakeholder groups will also increase in importance. These ingredients – locally-led development, partnership building and innovation – are at the core of the Civil Society Innovation Initiative, in which Sida and USAID has come together with CIVICUS, Counterpart International and numerous other CSOs to co-create regional hubs of physical and/or virtual spaces where civil society actors of all kinds can gather around common challenges.
But for any of this to matter, there has to be a civil society worth strengthening. With the current trend of shrinking space, civil society organisations around the world are in danger. Increased focus is needed on the environment that enables or disables civil society and how we as development actors make sure to not contribute to shrinking space. Numerous evaluations and studies have shown that we donors, both international civil society organisations (ICSOs) and official donors, tend to support CSOs as implementers of our agendas rather than as independent development actors in their own right. Moreover, as a donor community, we are behind a rising tide of administrative requirements on CSOs, taking time away from core businesses, innovation and distorting the chains of accountability.
An easy response to these problems would be to engage in donor coordination and offer more aid effective support, like programme or core funding to strengthen CSO partners’ local ownership. Sida does that already to a large extent. For instance, we have led the work of around 15 bilateral donors to develop a Code of Practice on donor harmonisation of funding requirements on CSOs. This tool, based on alignment with CSO partners, has the potential to strengthen CSO ownership and cut CSO transaction costs, drastically I would say.
This answer is however not enough. If we donors do not extend our outreach, in the worst case scenario, we end up strengthening the already strong CSOs we have chosen as implementers of our own agendas. A more challenging, but more pertinent response would be to jointly support a pluralistic and independent civil society working with a rights perspective as an objective in itself. I believe that then, and only then, can civil society make use of its full development potential and contribute to poverty reduction, democratic development and respect for human rights.
From a wider perspective than funding and aid modalities, we donors, officials and ICSOs, have been actively engaged in combatting shrinking space with a focus on the legal and regulatory environment as well as the actual space to engage, in several developing countries. That is important, and should continue and develop further.
The SDGs are not legally binding goals, they are merely political goals. They will only be achieved if civil society and citizens are effective in putting pressure on their own governments to pursue these goals. Let’s partner to make that happen.
Photo: Cecilia Nyambeki cooperates with the Kenyan CSO NACHU and is being interviewed by Nyokabi Kahura for a reportage at www.sida.se