Can Istanbul Principles help develop civic spaces for implementing Agenda 2030?

Shobha Shukla, CNS (Citizen News Service)
Julia Sanchez, President-CEO, CCIC (left)
Shobha Shukla, Managing Editor, CNS (right)
[Watch video interview] [Listen or download this audio podcast] The CSO Partnership for Development Effectiveness (CPDE) meet on 'Breaking Ground and Taking Root: The Istanbul Principles @7' provided a space for civil society organisations (CSOs) to reflect on the importance of Istanbul Principles (IPs) in charting common strategies and mobilizing constituencies to strengthen efforts to improve the effectiveness and quality of CSO development work. 

The Istanbul Principles, which were adopted in 2010 by nearly 200 CSOs from 82 countries, constitute a statement of common values and approaches to guide CSO work, by improving their effectiveness and accountability.
Julia Sanchez, President-CEO at Canadian Council for International Cooperation (CCIC) and Co-Chair of CSO Partnership for Development Effectiveness (CPDE) was in conversation with CNS (Citizen News Service) on why developing civic spaces is crucial in the effectiveness of CSOs in fully implementing Agenda 2030. Here are some excerpts of her interview:

Why is it important to have CSO spaces to achieve Agenda 2030?

Julia Sanchez: "Civil society is a key player/actor in a country’s democratic processes for socio-economic development and peace efforts. It pushes governments to do the right things by mobilising people around issues that are important to them. Agenda 2030 is an ambitious agenda and CSOs, especially those at local levels, play an important and supportive role in building and sustaining prosperous societies."

How have the Istanbul Principles helped in creating these CSO spaces, so that they can be effective development partners?
Julia Sanchez, President-CEO, CCIC

Julia Sanchez: "One of the important things that the Istanbul Principles did was to help CSOs to articulate and communicate better with other stakeholders - governments, donors, private sector - in the development landscape. Istanbul Principles are aspirational, but they are also reflective. They have helped reinforce the beliefs of civil society and also made them accountable. They have enabled CSOs to work together within the civil society community and hold themselves accountable."

What have been the challenges?

Julia Sanchez: "One of the early challenge was around making them real for organisations. To give an example, an activity that we supported in Canada was to showcase case studies of organisations that were implementing the Istanbul Principles, even before they came into being formally. With the help of these case studies we tried to demystify the Istanbul Principles - that they were not rocket science and that many CSOs were already implementing, at least some, if not all, of them. Of course there were areas for improvement, and while the principles built upon what organisations were already doing, they were reflective on what CSOs should be and set the bar very high for CSOs.

The other challenge is that there are different standards and ethics that CSOs have to abide by in their specific country context. The concept of accountability and standards is something that all CSOs should imbibe, and this could be challenging at times."

Is there a North and South divide?
Julia Sanchez, President-CEO CCIC (left)
Shobha Shukla, Managing Editor, CNS (right)

Julia Sanchez: "Yes, this divide is very much there - creating hierarchy and lack of trust at times - and poses a challenge that CSOs have to overcome. One of the Istanbul Principles - the equitable partnership principle - actually addresses the issue that CSOs do have different realities and power dynamics that are not always healthy, and that they (CSOs) have to create and support equitable partnerships, first amongst themselves,and then with governments and other stakeholders. This challenge is still work in progress and has not gone away completely."

Are CSO spaces shrinking? How can Istanbul Principles help safeguard them?

Julia Sanchez: "It is undeniable that civil society space is shrinking. This phenomenon is quite widespread and is happening in most countries, through bad legislation, intimidation, lack of funding for CSOs, lack of dialogue space, harassment, etc. Unfortunately we do not seem to be moving forward in addressing this issue, despite all the discourse and acknowledgement that civil society is so very important.

CSOs need an enabling environment to contribute fully to prosper societies and if such an atmosphere does not exist, or is being challenged, CSOs need to be clear about what they are about and speak a common language to defend their space and protect their work. Istanbul Principles bring the civil society around a common set of goals. This becomes all the more important in these times when the working environment for CSOs is very fragile. Istanbul Principles act as a unifying factor helping CSOs to become stronger and to together address the challenge of shrinking CSO spaces.

CSOs contribute in unique ways to development, as innovative agents of change and social transformation. Let them not get lost in bureaucracy, but remember why they are doing what they are doing. They must acknowledge not only their contributions, but also their weaknesses and challenges, take action to improve and be fully accountable for their development practices. They need to remain focussed on their primary mission, which is to do good for society."

Shobha Shukla, CNS (Citizen News Service)
28 April 2017