“You do not realize how important the safe environment for civil society is until one of your very own is hit by it. That is what happened in the past when Helvetas’ Country Director of Laos was expelled by the Government of Laos. This was also the time when we realized that the issue of safe civil society space or enabling environment for civil society is extremely important in our development work,” said Thomas Gass, Assistant Director General, Swiss Development Cooperation (SDC) at a joint learning event of SDC and the Swiss NGO Platform on September 14, 2018 in Zurich, Switzerland.
Civil society and state representatives explored ways how to effectively use multi-stakeholder initiatives (MSIs) for strengthening civic space in developing countries, and discussed three case studies from Tanzania, Myanmar, and Cambodia. Additional reflection and food for thought came from prominent guests: Thomas Gass was joined by Clément Voule, the new UN Special Rapporteur on Rights to Freedom of Assembly and of Association and Danny Sriskandarajah, Secretary General CIVICUS (and soon the new CEO of Oxfam UK).
Six things stood out as lessons learned:
1. Encourage - and support
Simply inviting civil society organizations (CSOs) to the table is not enough. Instead, they should receive strategic support - capacity building for advocacy - to help them frame messages in a strategic, non-confrontative, and evidence-based manner. This brings up the ever-recurring issue of core funding for civil society partners, i.e. funds that are given to CSOs as opposed to funds that are channeled through CSOs (usually with plenty of conditions).
2. Go beyond formal policy dialogue (and drink a lot of tea)
Formal MSIs are important, as they allow for a first dialogue and bring together various actors who would not meet elsewhere. However, as we all know, politics are not only shaped through formal processes. Instead, informal decision making is equally important – all too often over a cup of tea. SO be prepared to have lots of cups of tea, and consider these alternative routes for advocacy from the very beginning.
3. Explain the importance of civil society for development, over and over again
All three case studies have shown that politically oriented CSO are facing much more difficulties than CSOs oriented towards service delivery. Very often, the former cannot even register, which excludes them from most funding opportunities. Development partners should not accept this by just engaging with service deliverers. Instead, they should make an effort to explain to national governments, again and again, the crucial role of a vibrant, diverse civil society for sustainable development. And this not only holds true for Southern governments but equally for governments in Switzerland and elsewhere, where the legitimacy of organized civil society gets increasingly questioned.
4. Link the boardroom to the street
Another catchy phrase from Danny Sriskandarajah, and a very valid one. Donors and INGOs all too often make do with working with the same type of well-established civil society partners who have the right structures and procedures in place to write project outlines, fill in logframes, speak wisely at roundtable meetings, and thus work according to the numerous formal requirements of today’s ODA architecture. However, as valid, capable and legitimate these CSO might be, they do by no means represent civil society in its whole breadth and diversity. It is a recurring challenge for development partners to reach out also to those forms of civil society that ‘do not speak English’, including social movements (who in recent years have been much more powerful than many of the longstanding, well-established CSOs).
5. Development and human rights are not separate
Rearticulate and include human rights in the development work, else development will not be sustainable. Build on the narrative of “naming and training” instead of “naming and shaming”. Build the capacity of community leaders to articulate their demand for human rights and build the capacity of states to fulfill those demands. Use human rights data to strengthen the credibility of evidence-based dialogues within the policy space.
6. Develop a new narrative
Referring to all the above, Thomas Gass advocated for a new narrative that Swiss development actors need to come up with, especially in view of the next upcoming Official Development Assistance dispatch. Both SDC and Swiss NGOs should not give in to political pressure for delivering quick results. Instead, they should work on a new, joint narrative that includes long-term support for civil society in partner countries. Danny Sriskandarajah assumed that such a narrative should bode well with Swiss citizens, at least in principle.