Breaking Ground, Taking Roots: Can Istanbul Principles make SDGs a transformative agenda?

A potentially game-changer meet opened in Bangkok on 30th March 2017 to review the progress made on increasing effectiveness and accountability of civil society organisations (CSOs) since adoption of Istanbul Principles seven years back and to brainstorm how can Istanbul Principles make Agenda 2030 a transformative one.

Organized by the CSO Partnership for Development Effectiveness (CPDE), this meet brings over a hundred representatives from a range of development actors including CSOs, governments and donors.

Tetet Nera-Lauren, co-chair of CPDE, reminded the participants of the extensively consultative, inclusive and diverse process that sought input from over three thousand people from over eighty countries in drafting of Istanbul Principles in 2010 to increase effectiveness and accountability of CSOs to partner with the government and other stakeholders in ushering in the desired changes in the community towards development justice.

Increasing awareness about Istanbul Principles among CSOs, governments and all development actors was identified as one of the key priority for the future.

Prof Virginia Dandan, UN Independent Expert on International Solidarity, gave the keynote address on “Wanted and wanting: An enabling environment for civil society effectiveness in Agenda 2030”.

Is scope of citizen action getting restricted?

“According to the recently launched CIVICUS Monitor, more than 32 million people live in countries in which civic space is either closed or repressed. This means that the scope for citizen action is restricted and getting worse in the much of the world including in some countries where we may least expect this to happen” said Prof Virginia Dandan.

Added she: “In reviewing the Nairobi Outcome Document... I wonder to myself what is the level of awareness among the constituents of these governments regarding the commitments that have been made?”

How can governments put their best forward and then turn around and forget all about their commitments or even worse go against their own pledges?

“What gives me hope is that that Nairobi Outcome Document, like the Busan Partnership for Development, also carries the commitments of other stakeholders particularly the CSOs” said Prof Dandan.

“If today many governments acknowledge and recognize the valuable work done by CSOs why then is civic space shrinking?”

Quoting Paragraph 18 of Nairobi Outcome Document Preamble:
“We recognize the importance of civil society in sustainable development and in leaving no one behind; in engaging with governments to uphold their commitments; and in being development actors in their own right. We are determined to reverse the trend o shrinking of civic space wherever it is taking place and to build a positive environment for sustainable development, peaceful societies, accountable governance and achievement of the SDGs and the 2030 Agenda. We commit to accelerating progress in providing an enabling environment for civil society including in legal and regulatory terms in line with internationally agreed rights. In this context we encourage inclusive multi-stakeholder dialogue at country level, supported by capacity building measures”
"Right there is the solution to reversing the trend of the shrinking civic space. Perhaps we should also discuss strategies to remind and hold governments to the commitments they pledged in Nairobi" said Prof Dandan.

Prof Dandan is the incumbent independent expert to mandate of human rights and international solidarity. International solidarity is inherently linked to development cooperation and its impact on the exercise and fulfillment of human rights.

"I have completed the process of crafting the draft declaration on human rights and international solidarity, conducting regulation consultations on the draft, working with an expert of group of lawyers to revise it and is finally ready for submission to the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in June 2017. The draft declaration defines international solidarity as:
“… the expression of a spirit of unity among individuals, peoples, states and international organisations, encompassing the union of interests, purposes and actions and the recognition of different needs and rights to achieve common goals”
It also states that international solidarity “… is a foundational principle underpinning contemporary international law, in order to preserve the international order and to ensure the survival of international society.”

How difficult is it to get CSOs and governments at same level?

"In the consultations I held with member-countries, quite a number of them resisted the idea of CSOs having duties and obligations similar to theirs, implying that CSOs cannot be held at the same level as countries as far as human rights obligations are concerned. I am convinced that non-state actors such as CSOs particularly those in development work must also be held accountable for both their action and inaction just like all countries that are held to account not only for the impact on the exercise of human rights on people and individuals of what they do but also for the consequences of what they failed to do. In fact non governmental organizations offered the most encouragement for me to include the accountability of non-state actors in the draft declaration" said Prof Dandan.

The draft declaration contains provisions that embody the Istanbul Principles expressed in the language of human rights and social justice, gender equality, empowerment of people, and participation, environmental sustainability, transparency and accountability, equitable partnerships, knowledge sharing and positive change.

Good governance can be simply defined as the exercise of authority through political and institutional processes that are transparent and accountable, and that encourage participation. Good governance is implicitly linked to human rights standards, for example in ensuring access to basic services especially for the most marginalized and disadvantaged sectors. Accountability is a complex issue whose definition has to be narrowed for specific purposes. From a human rights perspective, accountability refers to the obligation of actors, to take responsibility for the impact of their action or inaction on peoples lives. To demand accountability from policy makers and other actors in this regard contributes to moving development imperatives from the realm of charity to that of obligation, thus making it easier to monitor progress. Accountability gives substance to building effective institutions of good governance, and should thus be integrated into the means of implementation of the entire sustainable development agenda, in a holistic manner.

"My challenge to you is to try and see how good governance, accountability and participation - originally targeted as indices of development effectiveness of countries - can be similarly applicable in the development practice of CSOs and subsequently, in monitoring and evaluating progress in development effectiveness" said Prof Dandan.

Governments express views on Istanbul Principles

Mohammad Mizanur Rahman, Deputy Secretary, Ministry of Finance, Bangladesh, shared that despite good intention of the government they cannot reach out to the communities. Communities can use innovative approaches to promote the work. "From our country perspective the good experience we are having – customary in public level – govt administration we have formal dialogue spaces in Bangladesh as we have largest CSOs. Before any public budget or public policy there are consultations with CSOs. We are expecting from CSOs as they view things from a different perspective which is very helpful."

Judy Taguiwalo, Minister of Social Welfare and Development, Philippines, shared that "I have been the secretary in the government for nine months but have been active with CSOs when I was 18 years old!"

"We are supposed to provide initial relief for victims of typhoon and rebuild their homes. Speaking truth to power is big role of CSOs. Making sure government delivers services and assistance to marginalized communities and people who need it most, listening to CSOs and providing assistance they need, is important because we are supposed to serve them" said Judy.

Brendan Rogers, Ambassador of Ireland to Thailand, said that with passing time, "Development cooperation is becoming less important." Rogers reignited hope for change when he reflected that "Ireland passed the marriage equality Act recently. It was a country that voted against divorce in 1986. That is the power of CSOs!"

Mohammad Mizanur Rahman, Deputy Secretary, Ministry of Finance, Bangladesh, said that "Elephant in the room is – leadership changes in CSOs – we do not see change in leadership for last 3-4 decades."

Brendan Rogers suggested that "Do not rest at your laurels – continue to examine what you are doing and keep doing better. Continue to hold governments to account to their commitments to SDGs – and monitoring and evaluation is important. Build coalition around certain themes or issues – stay united – despite the difference you may have internally or inter-country or north-south divides. Unity is strength. Be inclusive and representative. Are we representing the people we should be representing? Have we become disconnected?"

Walking the talk: Civil society as accountable development actors

Emele Diututuraga, Pacific Islands Association of NGOs (PIANGO) via livestream video said: "PIANGO have been upholding the promise and legacy of Istanbul Principles. PIANGO code of minimum standards was piloted in 5 countries. We often hold governments to account but we also need to hold each other to account!"

Amy Taylor of CIVICUS shared that they don't only have core principles to measure if they are doing great (such as, diversity, sustainability, inclusion, transparency, etc) but also it is equally important to measure where they are falling short.

Suzanne Keatinge from Irish Association of Non-Governmental Development Organizations (DOCHAS). flagged a contentious issue: "We have done a lot in relatively small amount of time. It is important to ensure that it is transformational change and not transactional change!" There are minimum 25 checks to do no matter what accountability framework you follow. We have to make these as simple as possible so that we do not lose on transformational change.

Asian Muslim Action Network (AMAN) representative shared that this kind of literacy related to Istanbul Principles is yet to reach for AMAN members.

The first day concluded with several CSO leaders volunteering to draft a possible Unity Statement to demonstrate their commitment and re-commitment and the roadmap they are charting themselves to embark upon. This Unity Statement is not only for CSOs but for all stakeholders, for upholding the core values.

Bobby Ramakant, CNS (Citizen News Service)
30 March 2017