Reflections on development that respects human rights


Defence of the universality and indivisibility of human rights is essential for the construction of a peaceful society and for the overall development of individuals, peoples and nations.

 – Pope John Paul II

Recently, in my capacity as a co-chair of the global civil society platform CSO Partnership for Development Effectiveness (CPDE), I participated in the remote conference, Towards a Global Partnership for Effective Development Cooperation (GPEDC) Work Programme, which outlines the plans of the partnership for the next two years. The GPEDC is a multi-stakeholder platform to advance the effectiveness of development efforts by all actors, to deliver results that are long-lasting and contribute to the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). 

In the course of my participation, I was reminded of these words of Pope John Paul II, quoted above, on the occasion of the World Day of Peace in 1999. I realised that today, over two decades later, the defence of human rights for genuine and inclusive development is more relevant than ever. 

In the past years there has been a marked pattern of shrinking civic space and political repression of civil society, rights advocates, and activists. Last year CPDE rallied our members and partners around two key initiatives, the Belgrade Call to Action and the Global Day of Action during last year’s International Human Rights Day. 

At the conference, CPDE reiterated the need for “concerted action from all actors, international and domestic CSOs, partner country governments and development partners, to reverse the trend of shrinking civic space and support efforts for strengthening people’s voice for development”. This view is enshrined in the GPEDC’s Nairobi Outcome Document, further concretised at the 2019 GPEDC Senior Level Meeting, and recently reaffirmed by the leadership of the Partnership in its vision and strategic priorities for its immediate future.* 

The Belgrade Action Agenda, among other initiatives, spells out positive measures that can be undertaken by all actors for enabling civic space that maximizes civil society contributions to development. Indeed, during the conference, the key principle of inclusive partnerships resonated with many of those who joined in defining the work ahead.

CPDE highlighted the importance of country actions, as it is at this level that shrinking civic space impacts on development outcomes, particularly those affecting the lives and conditions of people in poverty and the marginalised. It is at the country level where the existence of an environment that enables civil society to maximise its engagement in and contribution to development is most relevant. 

As we move closer to defining the immediate tasks of the GPEDC, we at CPDE are pleased to move forward with the specific workstream that seeks to promote CSO partnerships by addressing shrinking civic space, especially at country level. We likewise appreciate  that the  civil society indicator of the GPEDC monitoring framework is a strong starting point.** Through this framework, the following multiple facets of an enabling environment for civil society  can be addressed: the legal and regulatory environment; space for multi-stakeholder dialogue; CSO development effectiveness, accountability, and transparency; and official development cooperation with CSOs.

At the conference, some suggested that the issue of shrinking space belongs more in the discourse of human rights than in effective development cooperation, and consequently in the UN arena, not the GPEDC. While we realise that these concerns stem from the fear of alienating governments, especially of partner countries, they are inconsistent with and undermine standing commitments made by GPEDC. This is not so much a political issue as a moral issue. As Pope John Paul II also remarked: “a form of development that is not respectful of human rights is not worthy of humankind.”

 So while we continue to mobilise the widest range of actors to address the situation of shrinking civic space, we also urge them to respect the wisdom behind the commitments that they have already made, and to acknowledge the reality that these have yet to be fulfilled on the ground.   

 As our members continue to suffer the brunt of shrinking spaces, our leaders being persecuted and civic action criminalised, CPDE will be steadfast in the defence of the universality of human rights, its centrality in development and, therefore, its relevance in the pursuit of effective development cooperation.

 The absence of a conducive political, legal, and financial environment greatly affects the capacity, and even the survival, of CSOs as effective independent development actors.  Reversing the trend of shrinking civic space requires addressing these barriers and challenges faced by civil society in all their aspects.

 We are hopeful that through their dedicated and concrete efforts, in partnership with CSOs, GPEDC can create greater awareness, dialogue, engagement, and political momentum for policy and behavior change at the country level, to address the issue of shrinking civic space.#


* As articulated in the Co-Chair’s Proposal for Strategic Priorities for Workstream 2.4 for the Global Partnership’s Work Programme 2020-2022: Link

** Civil Society Indicator: Civil society operates within an environment that maximises its engagement in and contribution to development. This indicator seeks to assess the extent to which governments and providers of development co-operation contribute to an enabling environment for Civil Society Organizations (CSOs), and to which CSOs are implementing development effectiveness principles in their own operations.


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