Asia-Pacific CSOs express concern over shrinking civil society space, strong private sector push

CSO representatives from countries across the Asia Pacific expressed resounding concern last March 10-11 over the shrinking civil society space in the region in the recently concluded Asia-Pacific Regional Consultation on Building Evidence in Seoul, Korea.

“Organisations who are into public policy or are into rights-based work are severely curtailed,” according to CSO Partnership for Development Effectiveness (CPDE) Asia Focal Person Azra Sayeed as she discussed some of the challenges faced by Asia Pacific CSOs in defending enabling environment in law and in practice.

“It just shows you the level of barriers that we really have to overcome just to ensure some amount of credibility to our work,” she added.

The two-day meeting is part of a series of regional consultations that aim to gather inputs from all stakeholders to shape the substance of the first Global Partnership for Effective Development Cooperation (GPEDC) High-Level Meeting (HLM) in Mexico this coming April.

Tied Aid and the Private Sector

Seeing the strong push for private sector involvement in development, CSO representatives signaled caution on the increasing role of multinational corporations and tied aid in closing spaces for civil society engagement. Private sector-led development is also an issue of urgent concern to Asia Pacific CSOs as businesses in the region often operate freely without regulatory mechanisms that ensure compliance to human rights standards.

Jiten Yumnam of the Center for Research and Advocacy in Manipur (CRAM) reiterated the need to establish regulatory mechanisms that will ensure respect for human rights and democratic ownership of development results at the country level. He further noted the situation of Public-Private Partnerships (PPPs) in India that in many cases distort national priorities and disregard human rights standards.

In his presentation, Yumnam made reference to large-scale dam and mining projects in India that lack public consultation and often lead to widespread displacement and violation of indigenous peoples’ rights. He also pointed out the limited space for communities to seek redress for human rights violations and emphasized the need to include civil society voices in determining local development priorities.

“If private sectors are to be true partners in development, they must collaborate in ways that improve the social and economic rights of marginalized populations,” Yumnam added.

Don Marut of YAKKUM, in his discussion on Middle Income Countries, cited cases in Indonesia where ‘aid is tied to giving up national resources’ only to be exploited by corporations that are based in donor countries. Furthermore, Ahmed Swapan of VOICE raised questions on how local industries in Bangladesh pay taxes thrice as much as those imposed on MNCs. Swapan also made reference to as much as US$10 billion of illicit capital flows in Bangladesh caused by big multinational corporations evading local taxes.

“It’s a whole breadth of profit-making agencies who really want to ensure that they have easy access to our resources and to our lands, and that nobody creates any hurdles while they extract,” quipped Sayeed as she explained the alarming link between private sector involvement and shrinking space for civil society action.

‘Progress is undeniably slow’

Banking on the promises made in Busan, Asia Pacific CSOs also expressed frustration over the slow progress of implementation especially on CSO enabling environment commitments.

CPDE Co-Chair and IBON International Director Antonio Tujan, Jr. particularly mentioned the failure of development actors to create an enabling environment for CSOs and further pushed for the HLM communiqué to make reference to ‘shrinking CSO spaces.’

“Our overall assessment is that two years after these [Busan] commitments were made, there is lack of political will to implement the overall agenda, and progress is undeniably slow,” said CPDE Co-Chair and PIANGO Executive Director Emele Duituturaga during her presentation in the session on inclusive development and progress since Busan.

“Let’s keep the promise of Busan at the forefront of our minds, lest we forget,” she reminded.

During the communiqué consultations, Tujan demanded ‘stronger wording’ on the full implementation of Accra and Paris commitments. He also pointed out the need for an Action Plan that will accelerate the implementation of Busan agreements.

Among other issues, Tujan also raised the possibility of a non-executive co-chair in the GPEDC that will represent civil society, parliamentarians, the private sector and other non-governmental development actors. The presence of a non-executive co-chair, according to Tujan, would make the leadership of the Global Partnership ‘truly inclusive.’

The outcome of the Asia-Pacific consultation is set to feed into the Communiqué that will be agreed by heads of governments, civil society representatives, United Nations officials, business leaders and international organisations in Mexico City on April 15-16.

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