Civil Society and Development: More than a technical issue

If you’ve ever watched the seminal British comedy Yes, Minister, you’ll know that “technical” and “bureaucratic” are 2 words often associated with civil servants. They are also 2 words often associated with international organisations, though I won’t name any names… Most of the time, I disagree with these stereotypes, as I know so many dynamic and effective civil servants and international staff. I have also been trying to work to ensure that the organisation that I work on, the Global Partnership for Effective Development Cooperation, isn’t bureaucratic or technical, especially since one of its predecessors, the “Working Party on Aid Effectiveness” was often accused of being overly technical. In particular, 1 of the major shifts the Global Partnership is meant to deliver is to bring something called the “monitoring framework” to life and out of a technical silo.

The monitoring framework is made up of 10 indicators that are designed to help the international community keep track of the progress that countries and other non-governmental development actors are making to ensure development is more effective.

But for many people the monitoring framework can sound very technical.

For example, 1 of the 10 indicators is called “the enabling environment for civil society”. To a lay person (including me until a few weeks ago) the indicator sounds very technical. It doesn’t give a very clear idea of what it might mean in the real world, and how things should change as a result.

But once you delve into it and talk to civil society organisations, its political implications and the impact on people’s lives soon become clear.

Civil society organisations can be defined as organisations that represent the space between individuals or families, and the market and government. They include trade unions, charities, foundations, journalists, and many more. Every year, an umbrella organisation of civil society organisations worldwide called CIVICUS, publishes a report called The State of Civil Society. This year’s report, released last month, carefully details how the space for civil society organisations to work has been reduced considerably in many places. Protests by citizens’ groups have been met with aggression from governments, journalists arrested, and many non-governmental organisations are facing funding reductions in part because of their campaigning and advocacy work. Many are having difficulties registering. In my view this is all bad news for development. If people cannot express their demands of governments or employers, it makes development more difficult to take place and have a lasting impact.

Development is: People being able to make demands of leaders

At the same time, there are many other trends outside of these formal structures that are enabling people to express their demands and influence change – often enabled by the internet. For example, the campaigning organisation Avaaz  has amassed 23 million members from 194 countries, and now regularly sets up petitions that consistently get over 1 million signatures. Some types of funding from individuals is growing, through sites such as indiegogo  and Kickstarter based in the US, and Demohour and SeedAsia based in China. Close to home here in the UK in 2012 there were boycotts of firms such as Starbucks and Amazon. It’s not for me to say whether these are “good causes” or not, but they do illustrate that citizens are coming together in different ways, expressing their views and power as consumers, to impact state and market choices.

Although the “enabling environment for civil society” indicator sounds technical, by helping keep track of these hot political issues it can actually help us understand the potential for effective development. Many of the other indicators in the Partnership’s monitoring framework have these exact ingredients. They can sound rather dry but they are actually determined by and can determine major political shifts.

As the former South African Minister for Communications Jay Naidoo said in a recent blog post – it’s all about the politics… The Global Partnership has a major opportunity to turn technical information on development effectiveness into real and political information. That will be its key to making a real difference.

July 2013

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