North-South perspectives on Istanbul Principles and Agenda 2030 for sustainable development

Shobha Shukla, CNS (Citizen News Service)
The eight Istanbul Principles, adopted in 2010 by over two hundred civil society organisations (CSOs) from 82 countries, constitute a statement of common values and approaches to guide CSOs' work.

Seven years down the line, civil society has made strides in improving their effectiveness and accountability. However, progress in realizing Istanbul Principles in CSO practice, depends largely on enabling government policies and laws.

Justin Kilcullen, European Representative to the CSO Partnership for Development Effectiveness (CPDE) and Chair of Social Justice Ireland (watch video | listen/ download podcast); and Azra Saeed of Roots for Equity, an organization that works with small-landless farmers (male and female farmers) in Pakistan (watch video | Listen or download podcast), shared their views with CNS (Citizen News Service) as to how realisation of Istanbul Principles is being challenged by shrinking CSO space, necessitating a redefinition of accountability and effectiveness of all actors in development cooperation.

Istanbul Principles increase effectiveness and accountability

"Istanbul Principles highlight that CSOs are at their best when they practice gender equity, have a human rights based approach, and foster a relationship with each other that is based on equality, rather than based on power and financial resources. During the last 7 years, many CSOs in the North, as well as in the South, have tried to put these principles into practice. As a result, civil society is now being accepted as an authentic and autonomous voice in development circles", said Justin.

Azra agreed that the main context of Istanbul Principles is accountability of the people to the people, and it popularises the sentiment that CSOs, as actors of change, have to be accountable. While people’s movements have always been accountable, Istanbul Principles have given some food for thought for the big CSOs to practice it as well. There can be development justice only if there is accountability.

Challenges faced in implementing Istanbul Principles

Justin comes from Ireland in the North, while Azra represents Pakistan from the South block.

According to Justin the question of equitable relationships is a big challenge. “I worked for many years with an Irish NGO that had huge (over $65 million) a year as resources. Our partners were small CSOs in the South, who did not have so much money. When you have the money it gives you power. We have to release that power so that it becomes a partnership of equals. But then who do we become accountable to? To our less-privileged partners in the South, or to our donors who give the money and are just looking for a report on outcomes? This is a challenge for the northern CSOs. It is also a challenge for southern CSOs. Many of our partners at CPDE are very sophisticated organisations based in metro-cities, with a good income. But the organisations they represent are in far-flung parts of rural areas. This poses a challenge for an equitable relationship.”

For Azra, many governments in the South see Istanbul Principles as a whipping tool for civil society. "After 9/11, the world scenario has changed drastically, especially in countries like Pakistan. If you ask for any kind of accountability from the government you are labelled as being anti-national. CSOs who work in difficult areas - with undocumented migrants, with farmers whose lands have been grabbed in the name of so-called development, like making posh residential colonies, highways, big dams - and make themselves accountable to the people, get into trouble with the government. At the same time many iNGOs and big CSOs are getting billions of dollars, and many of them have become clearing houses for Overseas Development Assistance (ODA).”

Redefining accountability and effectiveness

Justin finds merit in understanding what accountability means, rather than redefining it. “It is more of a question of sustainability. A lot of our work can be short term - say a 3 year project funded on a 3 year budget. But we may not get the endpoint in such short projects that involve the community. Economic and social issues are complex problems and cannot be resolved by short term programmes. So how do we handle that relationship in terms of long term commitments and sustainable partnerships?”

But for Azra, there is a dire need to redefine accountability, and organizations who consider themselves to be the biggest players in field of development (like the World Bank, World Trade Organisation and International Monetary Fund) need to be restructured.

“The issue of accountability is used as a stick against the CSOs who really want to serve the people. However, CPDE is grounded in the belief that aid has to be accountable. There are many shades of accountability, apart from fiduciary accountability. There has to be accountability in the work we do, and in the messages we convey.”

Is civil society space shrinking?

Both Azra and Justin agree that CSO space is shrinking.

“Even as the European Union (EU) remains one of the biggest donors, with 60% of all aid coming from it, we see many governments in this region moving to the right and clamping down on civil society. So, even within the EU we find a contradiction. In the South, there is a big gap between legal systems in place and what actually happens. Governments of some countries perceive CSOs as an opposition, and often term them as being disloyal for not supporting the government policies that are against the interests of the people (like those supporting local landowners and/or private companies with vested interests)”, says Justin.

According to Azra, CSO spaces are shrinking in critical areas like the grassroots movements, while the private sector is flourishing and so are the big CSOs who are flush with money.

“There is no money available for critical sectors like those of migrant workers, landless farmers, fisherfolk/agriculture worker women, etc. The International Standard for Classification of Occupations specifies that only those who have at least primary education - 5 years of schooling - qualify as skilled labour. This immediately excludes most women from the rural sector from being recognised as skilled labour. Thus, millions of women across South Asia are pushed into working long hours for a pittance. In Pakistan, a woman gets two and a half kg of wheat as wages for 8-10 hours of backbreaking work of wheat harvesting in the heat of summers. So, while they work to bring food to the tables of the rich, they themselves are deprived of it. They need to be recognised as dignified labour and given decent wages, commensurate with the work they do. But if we bring the plight of these women to the fore we are branded as those working against government's interests.”

The way forward

Justin believes that the way forward is for CSOs to make Istanbul Principles a reality in our lives. It means living these Principles ourselves, and at the same time putting pressure on other development actors - partner and donor governments, philanthropic firms, private sector - to perform in a way so that Agenda 2030 is fulfilled in a transformative way.

For Azra democratic ownership is necessary. And this can be possible only when people can work in an enabling environment. We cannot be accountable to ourselves and to the people if the surrounding environment is not conducive.

Even though we live in difficult times with, as Azra points out, militarisation being high on every government’s agenda, Justin calls for CSOs to engage with Agenda 2030 by becoming constructive partners, reaching out to all the development actors, finding common grounds with them, and together work for a better tomorrow.

Shobha Shukla, CNS (Citizen News Service)
30 March 2017 

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