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EUROPEAN CIVIL SOCIETY AND INTERNATIONAL COOPERATION: WHERE ARE WE, AND WHERE ARE WE HEADED?

The summit, which brought together over 50 representatives of European networks and civil society organizations, sought to start breaking new way and reflect together on the future of international cooperation, especially with regard to the role of civil society and the commitments of donor countries on channeling Official Development Assistance.

At the opening of the European Civil Society Summit, held in Brussels last February 16, it was said that this “is a time of great ideas”. In 2015, three major summits in the area of development renewed commitments and reaffirmed ambitious goals to eradicate poverty, reduce inequalities and mitigate the effects of climate change on a global scale by 2030. This “new time” or “new era for Development Cooperation” brings new challenges for all, including for European civil society.
The summit, which brought together over 50 representatives of European networks and civil society organizations, sought to start breaking new way and reflect together on the future of international cooperation, especially with regard to the role of civil society and the commitments of donor countries on channeling Official Development Assistance.

After all, where are we and where are we headed?
The Role of Civil Society

There are great expectations on the role that civil society can play in the implementation of the new development agenda, whether it is because of its knowledge of and proximity to the field, for representing the most vulnerable, or for its view on human rights and the welfare of populations. In the last decade, all international meetings in the area of development recognized and highlighted the role of civil society in this regard.

But on the other hand, the actual space given to civil society and its financing have decreased dramatically. Only in this decade, more than 60 countries have passed laws that restrict the activities of civil society organizations and 96 countries have introduced measures that prevent them from being fully operational, says CIVICUS. Also Freedmon House, in its 2014 report said that we have returned to the era of iron fist.

There is another indicator that allows us to identify the worrying state of an enabling environment for civil society organizations: the quantity and quality of funding. According to a Belgian report quoted in this Summit, which compares the funding of nine member states of the Development Assistance Committee (DAC) of the OECD, countries such as Belgium, the Netherlands and France have decreased their Official Development Assistance (ODA) budgets since 2010, also significantly impacting the funding of civil society. A similar trend can be seen in Portugal, where the budget allocated to civil society development organizations has suffered an abrupt cut of more than 50 percent since 2011.
The same Belgian study also reveals another alarming fact regarding the quality of financing: Public funds are increasingly transferred through NGOs and not to NGOs. This means that organizations become hostages of the programs and objectives of donors, and unable to follow their own program guidelines. Funders thus stipulate the geographic and thematic areas of intervention, partnerships (which often become artificial for this reason), the types of results, the roles played by each partner, or the ways of working. “Funders are manipulating more, and more explicitly,” said the Swedish representative facilitating the workshop on the place of civil society.

Another issue that needs reflection in Europe was also discussed: what is the role of European civil society facing the growing trend of direct transfer of funding to civil society in partner countries? There are visionary international NGOs that have registered as local NGOs in the sites where they operate. Often, these large NGOs are perceived as funders, misrepresenting the logic of partnership and shared responsibility. We need to rethink and redefine the role of European NGOs – particularly international ones – and their added value for the partner organizations. We should evaluate partner organizations by the dimensions of institutional capacity and advocacy towards their governments, as well as their knowledge of the field and the possibility of accessing stories and voices that would otherwise not be revealed.

The politicization of Official Development Assistance

Development Cooperation policies have increasingly prioritized the interests of the donor countries, rather than aligning primarily with the priorities of partner countries. This growing politicization of ODA, i.e. the instrumental use of ODA in the foreign policy of donor countries, was one of the featured topics in this Civil Society Summit, which took place a few days before a high level meeting of the member countries of the DAC/ OECD (in which Portugal was represented by the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs and Cooperation, Teresa Ribeiro), where the redefinition of development aid measures was discussed.

For many years, civil society has denounced the growing trend of linking ODA to the economic interests and economic diplomacy priorities of donor countries. In 2000, the OECD/DAC member states committed to progressively disconnecting development aid from the economic interests and the internationalization of national companies; and in recent international forums focusing on the quality of development cooperation, they have reaffirmed their commitment to align their policies with the priorities of developing countries, reinforcing principles such as national ownership of development programs and transparency in the provision of flows. However, the trend of increasing aid linked to their own interests has been seen in most donor countries, especially in the last five years.

In 2015, Europe woke up to the plight of refugees fleeing war and the destruction of their countries, mainly coming from Eritrea, Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. Until then, the crisis had remained dormant across the Mediterranean and in the neighboring countries of the Middle East. Europe’s response – slow and disarranged – has laid bare the weaknesses in the response and brings out once more the contradictions with regard to development cooperation policies and the use of ODA.

In 2014, countries such as Italy and the Netherlands more than doubled the amount of ODA allocated to costs of refugees arriving in their territories. The OECD predicts that the costs will be even higher in many of the DAC member countries in 2015 and this year. A situation of systematic cuts in ODA flows and the allocation of part of that amount for internal crisis management is at least concerning, as it undermines the primary focus of ODA: reducing poverty and inequalities in the partner countries and respecting principles such as ownership and transparency. Even UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon has already voiced his concern about the channeling of ODA to management of refugees and internal migration, stating that these cuts in Aid for International Development are counterproductive.

The document resulting from the most recent high-level meeting of the DAC/OECD, where ODA reform was discussed, is not explicit about the allocation of part of ODA to refugees’ costs (point 12). It merely speaks of the need to improve the consistency, comparability and transparency in reporting ODA eligible for this type of situations. It also states that the International Summit on Humanitarian Aid, which will take place in May of this year in Istanbul (Turkey), is an opportunity to seek a consensus on the best approach to this issue.

Another controversial point of this meeting of the DAC/ OECD countries concerned the temptation of using ODA for peace and security programs and “prevention of violent extremism” in the partner countries; for example, allocating funds to training of security forces or intelligence services. This point did not meet consensus, and the meeting resulted in the commitment to include only some military expenses for countries in fragile situations in ODA accounts, generally excluding the financing of military equipment or services to DAC/OECD partner countries. Several civil society organizations have denounced this situation, arguing that the flux of security in European countries must not weaken the commitments to provide ODA flows to development programs for the most vulnerable communities and align development cooperation programs with the priorities of its partners.

The Civil Society Summit resulted in a challenge: in view of the numerous issues that the world faces today, civil society, aware of the role it has been given, must remain active, alert and vigilant of the commitments made by their governments. Because the time to meet them has begun – it is now, today, and every day until 2030.

Source: ONGD