Enabling Civil Society is a Development Priority

What policies reinforce civil society? How can a well-supported civil society strengthen democracy? Banner image: Shutterstock/ Joseph Sohm
Enabling Civil Society is a Development Priority

This article is part of a series in which OECD experts and thought leaders  from around the world and all parts of society  address the COVID-19 crisis, discussing and developing solutions now and for the future. Aiming to foster the fruitful exchange of expertise and perspectives across fields to help us rise to this critical challenge, opinions expressed do not necessarily represent the views of the OECD.

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The G7 recently joined calls to address increasing threats to open and democratic societies. Currently, 68% of the world's population live in autocracies compared to 48% in 2010. Diminishing respect for human rights and democracy around the globe and rising autocratisation is eroding freedoms like peaceful assembly, association and expression. This poses a real threat to civil society, civic space and civic engagement more broadly. In some countries, the pandemic has been used as a pretext for disproportionate, overly broad and potentially enduring restrictions on civic space such as legislation suspending access to information and indefinite bans on any form of peaceful assembly. The influence of anti-democratic actors that seek to undermine civic freedoms and human rights and propagate mis- and disinformation, harassment and discrimination put civil society in an even more vulnerable position.

Contexts of fragility can further undermine civic freedoms; in Afghanistan, reports of human rights violations are increasing and evidence on restrictions of women’s rights is emerging by the day. Donors’ ability to maintain support in this type of environment will affect civil society’s capacity to safely contribute to protecting basic rights and social and economic indicators, as well as address humanitarian crises.

Read more on the Forum Network: The Opportunity: why civil society needs to define its own future, by Wolfgang Jamann, Executive Director, International Civil Society Centre

As a forum for many of the world’s largest and most influential development co-operation and humanitarian assistance providers, the OECD’s Development Assistance Committee (OECD DAC) is taking steps to address these threats, signalling the critical role of strong civil society for development and humanitarian action. On average, 15% (USD 21 billion) of DAC members’ bilateral official development assistance is allocated for civil society organisations (CSOs) annually, with DAC country CSOs contributing an additional estimated USD 42 billion in private funds for development co-operation and humanitarian activity. Shrinking civic space in so many of the destination countries jeopardises civil society’s ability to meet development and humanitarian needs, hold their governments to account and protect and strengthen human rights and democracy.

Of course, the ways that civil society and its actors receive development and humanitarian assistance from donors has a significant effect on its ability to contribute to humanitarian and development needs and advance rights and democracy. The OECD has identified policy and practice areas worthy of donors’ attention—and which are more relevant than ever. As resource demands for the COVID-19 pandemic response and recovery within OECD countries increase, so too does pressure to ensure the most effective use of development and humanitarian assistance funds, including the substantial amount for civil society.

Read the OECD report chapter The enabling environment for civil society organisations in Finland which studies the existing legal, regulatory and institutional frameworks governing CSO activity, including ongoing reforms.

While civil society actors have been playing critical roles in the pandemic response and recovery at home and abroad, COVID-19 has shed a brighter light on shortcomings in some actors’ planning and operations. For example, concerns about CSOs’ ability to safeguard the people they are meant to serve are heightened amidst recurring incidences of sexual exploitation, abuse and harassment in which they and other types of development co-operation and humanitarian assistance organisations are implicated. Civil society needs to bolster its resilience, and address the real or perceived shortcomings in CSO accountability used by governments to justify increasing civic space restrictions and to fuel anti-civil society narratives. Many donors made swift adjustments to how they work, and civil society pivoted to meet changing demands even with reduced access to funding and challenges reaching people living in marginalised situations.

In the face of all of these threats, the OECD DAC has recognised this era of pivoting as an opportune time to take stock and reset how it works with civil society.

The DAC is leading by example, committing to more robust action to enable civil society. On 6 July 2021, the DAC’s 30 member states adopted the DAC Recommendation on Enabling Civil Society in Development Co-operation and Humanitarian Assistance. It is the first international standard focused on the actions of donors specifically designed to enable civil society, recognising it as a contributor to the 2030 Agenda—to leave no one behind—and protecting and strengthening democracy. The Recommendation indicates a strong political commitment to the shared values of inclusive and democratic societies and accountable institutions.

At the core of the Recommendation is a shared belief among DAC members about the importance of a strong, independent and diverse civil society, both at home and in the partner countries and territories to which development co-operation and humanitarian assistance flow. Civil society actors are not primarily implementing partners for donors, but are independent actors and have their own ideas, priorities and constituencies. After all, some of the world’s most pressing issues—from climate change to gender equality—have come to the fore following the activism and creative thinking of civil society actors. And while regimes are subject to change with electoral, or less democratic, political cycles, civil society’s diversity can provide a consistent connection to people living on the frontlines of poverty and crises.

Read the OECD report Triangular co-operation with India: Working with civil society organisations, which discusses India’s development and successful use of triangular co-operation, a co-operation model that effectively leverages domestic development innovations for the maximum benefit of civil society organisations.

The DAC Recommendation breaks new ground by addressing the key challenges of enabling of civil society in a coherent way. First, it calls on donors to work with others—international, national and regional bodies, governments in partner countries or territories, and civil society—to respect, protect and promote civic space in line with rights to the freedom of peaceful assembly, association and expression. Second, it calls on donors to ensure their financial support for civil society actors is provided in the most effective way possible such as by ensuring local leadership and participation for long-term sustainability; reducing administrative burdens so civil society actors can focus on results on the ground; and mitigating unintended consequences of counter-terrorism standards on civil society’s ability to receive funds. Third, it calls on donors to work with civil society actors to strive towards ever more impact, transparency and accountability in their work.

The DAC Recommendation on Enabling Civil Society is an important addition to other OECD and DAC evidence-based standards that guide and motivate governments to examine and improve their policies and practices—all with an eye to achieving better policies for better lives around the globe.

We invite states that are not DAC members and international organisations to adhere to the DAC Recommendation on Enabling Civil Society, both as a signal of solidarity with the values and principles it represents and intent to implement its provisions. Our collective effort needs to be greater than the sum of its parts, working together to enable civil society and reverse this trend of declining democracy.

Learn more about the OECD’s work on Civil Society

Related Topics

Tackling COVID-19 New Societal Contract Green Recovery Sustainable Development Goals Reimagining Democracy

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