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Effective Development Requires Civil Society

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By Gavin Charles

This week, the international development community is gathering in Nairobi for the Second High Level Meeting (HLM2) of the Global Partnership for Effective Development Cooperation (GPEDC). The goal of these meetings is to build a better global framework for more effective development -- development that is accountable to all partners, and to the people it is intended to serve.

The GPEDC is a multi-stakeholder platform, bringing together governments from donor and partner countries, civil society organizations (CSOs), international and multilateral organizations, and representatives of the private sector. This makes it one of very few international forums where civil society has a dedicated space to engage directly in development policy discussions as equals -- participating in the panels and plenaries, in negotiating the outcome document, and in delivering these outcomes.

The inclusion of civil society within the GPEDC recognizes that CSOs play diverse and important roles in development. CSOs are often able to reach, support, and empower the poorest and most vulnerable people in ways that governments cannot. They act as service providers, advocates and watchdogs, researchers and policy developers, fundraisers, and innovators. The meaningful and sustained inclusion of civil society in development cooperation is crucial to make sure that the world meets its commitment to implement Agenda 2030 and the Sustainable Development Goals, striving to leave no one behind.

Five years ago when the GPEDC was founded, and the independent and essential role of civil society was recognized by the international community, CSOs themselves also made their own commitment to enhance their effectiveness as they strive to realize their own vision for development. This vision was encapsulated in eight principles -- the Istanbul Principles -- built around a global commitment by civil society to promote and protect human rights and social justice, gender equality and equity, people's empowerment, environmental sustainability, transparency and accountability, global solidarity, mutual learning, and a commitment to long-term positive change.

As part of the activities this week, a new report was launched that examines the current status of efforts by CSOs to increase their own effectiveness and implement the Istanbul Principles. The report, entitled Istanbul Five Years After: Evidencing Civil Society Development Effectiveness and Accountability, examines the work CSOs in various countries have done and are doing to put the Principles into practice.

The report shows that all over the world, civil society organizations have made strides in improving their effectiveness and accountability in accordance with the Istanbul Principles. The eleven case studies demonstrate a wide variety of initiatives taken by CSOs globally to increase awareness and implementation of the Istanbul Principles, including educational workshops, accountability reporting, transparency mechanisms, and training and capacity development.

The report includes a chapter about the situation in Canada, which shows that Canadian CSOs, like their counterparts around the world, are working hard to observe and inform each other about the Istanbul Principles, and to develop CSO-led initiatives to ensure accountability -- mechanisms like the CCIC Code of Ethics and the Imagine Canada standards program.

In order to meet their full potential as contributors to global development, however, CSOs also require an enabling environment -- that is, a set of laws, rules, mechanisms, and institutions that allow them to do their work effectively. In Canada, the government's International Development and Humanitarian Assistance Civil Society Partnership Policy explicitly recognizes the "importance of an enabling environment for civil society."

Unfortunately, the Canadian chapter identifies several remaining obstacles to a truly enabling environment in Canada, including strict but vague Canada Revenue Agency restrictions on so-called political activities (i.e. advocacy efforts) by CSOs; reduced and narrow funding windows; and a lack of institutionalized policy dialogue. Similar challenges exist in many of the other countries profiled in the report.

Post-Nairobi, the GPEDC should be a key forum where governments and development providers defend and protect CSOs' ability to advocate for human rights, for marginalized groups, and for greater accountability from all stakeholders in development cooperation. As an incoming member of the GPEDC Steering Committee, Canada can help lead this charge.

This is the right thing to do. It also makes strategic sense from the perspective of governments committed to effectiveness and value in their development investments. CSOs are crucial to the achievement of the goals of the Partnership, and governments have the unique ability to set the legal, regulatory, funding, and dialogue structures to make it possible for CSOs to maximize their contribution.

Working together for a better world: that's what effective development cooperation looks like.

Gavin Charles is Policy Officer at the Canadian Council for International Co-operation. He wrote this post while attending the Second High Level Meeting of the Global Partnership for Effective Development Cooperation in Nairobi, Kenya.

The views expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of CCIC or its members.

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