Enriching CSO dialogue and consultation


Last June, at the Workshop on Development Assistance Committee (DAC) Guidance on Work with CSOs held in Paris, France, CPDE Executive Secretary Roberto Pinauin was asked to be a discussant to provide CSO perspective on CSO dialogue and consultation.

This piece summarises his well-received presentation, which draws from CPDE’s experience in organising CSOs around the world on the issue of effective development cooperation, and engaging in multi-stakeholder policy arenas at the national, sub-regional, regional, and global levels.

As the DAC works to improve ways to work with CSOs towards promoting an enabling environment, here are three essential points that need to be considered in enriching the practice of CSO dialogue and consultation: 

1. Continue the dialogue, despite the odds

As the Busan Partnership for Effective Development Cooperation[1] highlights, CSOs play a vital role in enabling people to claim their rights, in promoting rights-based approaches, in shaping development policies and partnerships, and in overseeing their implementation. In this light, government leaders, and heads of multilateral and bilateral institutions, and other stakeholders agreed in the aforementioned document to fully implement commitments to enable CSOs to “exercise their roles as independent development actors, with a particular focus on an enabling environment.”

With the adoption of the Nairobi Outcome Document[2] in 2016 by the second High-Level Meeting of the Global Partnership for Effective Development Cooperation, a new stronger, and more specific goal was forged: “reverse the trend of shrinking of civic space wherever it is taking place and to build a positive environment for sustainable development.” 

However, eight years after Busan and almost three years after Nairobi, the trend of shrinking and closing civic space is not reversed.  In fact, CSOs are being subject to attacks and harassment now, more than ever. That is why many think that it is almost impossible to make dialogue and consultation more meaningful and effective.

Yet, dialogue with CSOs continue and persist, despite the harrowing trends. We need to see this in a positive light: continuing the dialogue with CSOs might require more effort, but it is not a lost cause to make such dialogues more meaningful and systematic.

2. Find the balance between contention and collaboration

In dialogues with CSOs, can we embrace the contention as much as collaboration? Where there is contention, can development partners continue to listen when civil society takes on a position opposed to theirs?

In the safe and specialised space of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, most CSOs painstakingly adapt to the language, the terms of engagement and behaviour that is deemed acceptable or facilitative of collaboration and dialogue. But in more ways than one, such practices are usually divorced from the realities on the ground.  It is encouraging when development partners talk of the comparative advantage of CSOs. However, the rich and diverse language of CSOs often lead to contentions with partner governments. Apparent examples include abiding by strict terms of engagement and behaviour. 

It might seem to be a daunting task, yet in order to fulfil a CSO’s role of promoting rights-based approaches, shaping development policies and partnerships, and overseeing their implementation upheld in Busan, CSOs actually need to be contentious.

We have to face the reality of the development context where there are many issues where the State – both development partners and partner governments – and CSOs seemingly have very little in common. It may well be easy to be collaborative when we talk about human rights, the environment, and sustainable development goals. Yet red flags are raised when we talk about the role of the private sector, extractives, migration, and refugees.  This is the challenge that all parties need to address: can we sincerely have the resolve to continue meaningful dialogue even when such is very difficult?

3. Follow concrete recommendations on enriching CSO dialogue 

The Select Survey Findings on Enabling Civil Society for Sustainable Development suggests the following as next steps for DAC members:

  • Continue to engage in systematic dialogue with member country CSOs

  • Increase systematic dialogue with CSOs in partner countries

  • Combine systematic and ad hoc dialogue

  • Pay attention to accessibility and quality of dialogue

In addition to these valid points, here are some more concrete ways to enrich CSO dialogue and consultation:

  • Increase core funding for CSOs instead of project funding. CSOs who are contracted to implement donor or government programmes are, by definition, in a compromised position to challenge policies and practice. If more CSOs are funded to fulfil their self-determined mandates, it is possible that parties will be able to realise and appreciate contention as much as collaboration.

  • In conducting dialogue with CSOs, promote processes that help CSOs coordinate, develop policies and create consensus.  These processes often enable CSOs not only to organise but build capacities.  Appreciate that CSOs are diverse and that multiplicity of positions does not mean these are invalid or illegitimate. Whenever it is not possible to have direct dialogue with a diverse group of CSOs, preparatory processes iron out tricky issues of representation and voice. In this regard, the role of platforms like the CSO DAC reference group and our very own CSO Partnership for Development Effectiveness are particularly relevant.

  • Fund processes not just than outputs, promote value on soft and strategic outcomes. In order for CSOs to be effective in dialogue the development of CSO coordination and solidarity, capacities are key. 

  • Take concerted action on human rights violations. The solidarity expressed in speaking against that which threaten the lives and livelihoods of many of those in civil society goes a long way towards improving the dialogue.

As there are a multiplicity of ways in which effective and progressive dialogues and consultations may seem daunting, there are also a multiplicity of ways to consult and provide feedback beyond structured dialogue and gathering inputs to policy and programme documents. In working with CSOs, it is always key to remember that beyond the hard-hitting politics and harsh realities of economics, there lies the heart of everything – the human dimension of development.#


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