By Gavin Charles
Global development is an exercise in cooperation. If development is to be effective -- and sustainable -- it must be pursued through partnership with a variety of stakeholders at a variety of levels. Governments, civil society organizations (CSOs), or the private sector cannot achieve lasting positive change alone. Local, national, regional, and global institutions and communities must be engaged.
This scale of partnership, in turn, requires commitment. All partners in development cooperation must commit to good practice, and those commitments must be upheld and implemented for the long term.
For civil society, those commitments are encapsulated in the Istanbul Principles. The Istanbul Principles represent civil society's recognition of the need to formally acknowledge its own responsibilities as equal, independent and essential partners in development cooperation. The framework was generated through an extensive process of dialogue, which included more than 70 national consultations globally, from 2009-10. The Principles committed CSOs to eight fundamental tenets of good practice, including approaches based on human rights, gender equality, and environmental responsibility; a long-term focus on sustainable change; and inclusive participatory methods that enhance mutual learning, accountability, and transparency.
Seven years later, 100 representatives of global civil society reconvened recently in Bangkok to revitalize, deepen and strengthen the conversation around implementing the Istanbul Principles at global, regional, and national levels. The meeting, hosted by the CSO Partnership for Development Effectiveness, intended to move beyond recognizing the importance of these principles as a conceptual framework, to the details of how CSOs can embed these principles within their practices and approaches across all areas, from advocating for policy change to delivering basic services. It was an important opportunity to candidly take stock of where civil society organizations have been successful in being accountable for, and effective in, their development practices.
This workshop also allowed different regions to self-critically examine progress in their own regions. North American representation in the workshop was diverse - with participants from Canada and the United States, representing national and provincial CSO coalitions, advocacy organizations, and grassroots networks, and including all three major linguistic groups on our continent.
From the experiences shared in Bangkok, as well as other analysis, it appears there is generally good overlap between North American CSO practices and the Istanbul Principles.
As an example, North American CSOs working in development cooperation recognize, in accordance with the Istanbul Principles, that effective development requires inclusive partnerships that support country-led processes. Accordingly, North American CSOs have worked with governments - through advocacy and collaboration around initiatives such as the Canadian government's International Assistance Review and the USAID Forward reform package - to propose more transparent, accountable and equitable partnerships for development cooperation.
These proposals -- and in some cases real changes -- have included the following: enhanced information-sharing; ongoing dialogue around financing and funding mechanisms (such as introducing more flexible, predictable, and diverse funding mechanisms suitable for a diverse range of partners); collaboration on public engagement; and more inclusive and bottom-up program evaluation policies by both governments and CSOs that reflect the input and perspective of local communities and partners. These changes all reflect the spirit and letter of the Istanbul Principles.
While there are many examples of CSOs being effective in their development practices, there is often weaker awareness of global frameworks, including the Istanbul Principles. Among CSOs, including in North America, there is often a low level of knowledge and understanding of how ongoing (and often quite positive) national efforts and conversations align with these global frameworks, and with similar efforts and conversations in other countries. Based on the discussion in Bangkok, North American civil society is not alone in that regard.
And that's why conversations like the one in Bangkok are so important: they help identify and emphasize not just the common principles of civil society, but also their common (and individual) successes and challenges. By bringing global civil society together, good practices and lessons learned can be shared, improved, and applied more universally - generating a shared agenda and a stronger sense of solidarity. That process of collaboration and exchange in turn supports more effective participation by civil society in development cooperation. Indeed, mutual learning is recognized as essential within the eight Istanbul Principles: it's number seven.
Committed partnerships and mutual learning go hand in hand. The foundation of both is a recognition that effective development is only achievable when all stakeholders are empowered and encouraged to contribute their expertise as equal partners, and are in turn committed to continuously improving their practice to deliver better results. To paraphrase the conclusion of another participant in the workshop, sometimes our ability to change the world begins with the willingness to change ourselves.
Gavin Charles is Policy Officer at the Canadian Council for International Co-operation. He wrote this post while attending the Istanbul Principles @ 7 workshop of the CSO Partnership for Development Effectiveness in Bangkok, Thailand.