Equal partnerships are crucial to achieve Agenda 2030

Shobha Shukla, CNS (Citizen News Service)
[Listen or download this audio podcast] [Watch this video interview] The CSO Partnership for Development Effectiveness (CPDE) had organised a potentially game-changing meet in Bangkok to review the progress made on increasing effectiveness and accountability of civil society organisations (CSOs) since adoption of the Istanbul Principles seven years back and to brainstorm how Istanbul Principles can make Agenda 2030 a transformative one.

The eight Istanbul Principles, adopted in 2010 by over 200 CSOs from 82 countries, constitute a statement of common values and approaches to guide CSOs' work. They remain relevant to CSOs’ full implementation of Agenda 2030. Undeniably, developing civic spaces are crucial for effectiveness of CSOs in implementing Agenda 2030. Realization of this duty, however, is challenged by shrinking CSO space, which necessitates a redefinition of accountability and effectiveness of all actors in development cooperation.

Ziad Abdel Samad of Lebanon, who is the Executive Director of the Arab NGO Network for Development (ANND) - an Arab regional network of CSOs working on the advocacy for economic and social rights at the regional and national level - shared his thoughts with CNS (Citizen News Service), on this important issue.

Granting that Agenda 2030 is a global commitment by governments and international organisations, all these development actors, including CSOs, should be held accountable and committed to achieve this global agenda.

Ziad firmly believes that civil society is an active actor in promoting socioeconomic rights and in implementation of development policies. It also tends to hold the different stakeholders accountable to their commitments.

For civil society to hold these actors accountable, CSOs should first start by becoming accountable themselves to their constituencies, beneficiaries, the people who they represent, and to their local communities. In this regard, the Istanbul Principles are a very important element, not only to hold others accountable and talk about mutual accountability, but also to make CSOs transparent and effective development partners who are also accountable to the others. Ziad hails the Istanbul Principles for their contribution to the global agenda on equal partnership, mutual accountability, and transparency.

Challenges ahead

In Ziad's words, “I come from a very difficult and complicated region, where civil society is struggling for its very existence. Its rights of assembly, freedom of expression and access to information are under threat. All these elements are very important for CSOs to become effective development partners. So the struggle is first to protect these rights. This means having a clear commitment and acknowledgement from the governments that CSOs are their partners and that their active participation is crucial to implementing Agenda 2030."

Added Ziad: "Challenges confronting my region are about peace building, peaceful societies, and access to justice and equity. CSOs will have to improve their capacity and strengthen themselves to be able to face these challenges and become active partners in development and in holding governments and other development actors accountable, particularly the private sector. When we talk of partnerships, it is also about partnerships at the global level with international community. While global partnerships can give opportunities to empower civil society to become more supportive as per international principles, they can pose challenges too, in so much as Istanbul Principles - regarding equal partnerships and mutual accountability - should also apply to these international actors and donors. So it is not just CSOs, who, as beneficiaries, have to be accountable, but the donors and global partners too have to accept to be transparent and accountable.”

Ziad cites examples where the international community contributed to distracting civil society from the right track. “After decades of dictatorship in Iraq, the emerging civil society there faced huge amount of international intervention, which did not help in the emergence of a healthy and active civil society. We are witnessing similar situations in many other countries too. The international community has to be aware of the importance of mutual accountability and of building the capacity of, and empowering, local CSOs in the right way, to become independent and equal partners."

Ziad sees the need to redefine accountability. For him, it is not just about financial accountability, but also about being politically accountable. It is very important for international development actors to be able to change/ modify their vision, strategies and policies according to the local needs of the local actors, and not work according to their own perceptions about what needs to be done. This is what equal partnerships are about - to be equal partners, to take and to give, and to be brave enough to change ones perception according to the needs of the local actors/ partners.

The way forward

Ziad Abdel Samad of ANND (L), Shobha Shukla of CNS (R)
Istanbul Principles can become an important tool to empower CSOs, provide them space to become equal partners and become mutually accountable. While some partners/ stakeholders need awareness for implementation of Istanbul Principles, there are others who are very much aware of them, but sometimes violate them for the sake of their other international commitments. Transparent democracy is not an easy choice, especially for the decision makers and for other stakeholders like the private sector, who keep their own interests and benefits above everything else. Systems where there is tax evasion and illicit capital flow do not want to be transparent. Also, at times, governments, especially in the global South, are not able to align their priorities according to the national needs, because they are tied to certain conditions imposed by their donors/ partners. So advocacy should be not just to make them aware, but also to respect the commitments and the priorities of the people’s rights, human values and human dignity.

In Ziad's opinion, it is all about balance of power. When we talk of empowering civil society we have to create a balance of power in order to be able to impose democratic values and principles through a the rights based approach. For this we need an empowered and independent civil society that is able to make its role and presence felt as an equal partner when it comes to implementing democratic values and development policies and strategies. CSOs must be empowered to play this role.

Shobha Shukla, CNS (Citizen News Service)
20 May 2017