On June 30, Cooperation Canada and Global Affairs Canada (GAC) co-hosted the annual CSO-GAC dialogue on international assistance and development issues. At the dialogue, co-chairs of the Civil Society Policy Advisory Group (CPAG) launched a High-Level Narrative Update on Canada’s progress in implementing Canada’s Policy for Civil Society Partnerships for International Assistance – A feminist approach (the Policy). Produced jointly by GAC and CSO co-leads for the nine objectives found in Canada’s implementation plan for the Policy, the High-Level Narrative Update showcased achievements, challenges and opportunities between 2019 and 2022. In addition to launching the Update, the annual dialogue provided an important opportunity to situate the Policy within the broader context of global commitments to civic space and the CSO enabling environment. In this light, the event featured an exchange on the 2021 DAC Recommendation on Enabling Civil Society in Development Co-operation and Humanitarian Assistance (the DAC Recommendation). The Dialogue also featured breakout discussions on the Policy’s three objectives most closely aligned with the DAC recommendation (Objective 2 – Facilitate a safe and enabling environment for civil society; Objective 5 -Integrate the role of CSOs as independent actors into international assistance programming; and Objective 7 – Foster multi-stakeholder approaches to international assistance).
While the conversation revealed many insights, here are some key takeaways.
Enabling a democratic and safe civic space
Both the Policy and the DAC Recommendation provide a roadmap to foster a safe, enabling environment for civil society. Year on year, CIVICUS monitors the status of civic space, and the trends are worrying. Though there is certainly work to do, Canada remains “Open” in the latest scoring by CIVICUS, among less than 20 countries to share this rating. Participants noted deep concern at the rising prevalence of anti-democratic and authoritarian forces around the world, noting these trends are impacting our shared ability to deliver on Canada’s vision for feminist international assistance. Closing civic space undermines the international cooperation sector’s efforts to balance power, to advance localization and to improve effectiveness. Without strong commitment by all stakeholders to promote democracy and civic space, including the three critical pillars outlined in the DAC recommendation, our international cooperation efforts will become increasingly difficult to deliver in the coming years. Government-civil society collaboration in advancing the Policy and the DAC recommendation are an important step in the right direction.
Opportunities and challenges: Facilitating partnerships, collaboration and fostering inclusivity
The High-Level Narrative Update noted GAC and CSOs progress specifically in two key areas: 1) advancing gender equality; and 2) streamlining processes, exploring innovative solutions, and improving transparency, accountability and results of international assistance, through dialogue and collaborative action.
Looking ahead, there are challenges to overcome and opportunities to seize. For example, participants noted the prevalence of barriers to partnership, particularly for CSOs in partner countries. How localization commitments have yet to truly bear fruit (considering commitments under the Grand Bargain in 2016 and historic commitments to country ownership stemming from the aid effectiveness agenda since the early 2000s) was central to the conversation. However, some positive steps have certainly been made both by CSOs and Global Affairs Canada. (Please see some examples here under Objective 1 in the Narrative Update reports). At a workshop in May 2022, the CSO Working Group on the DAC Recommendation on Enabling Civil Society (part of the DAC-CSO Reference Group) facilitated a discussion among southern CSO colleagues to identify reforms that would enable funding for southern CSOs. The outcome document pointed to pending areas for change including shifting from colonial mentalities to trust and respect for Southern CSOs, focusing on local priorities, and new ways of funding and working that promote collaboration and make use of CSOs platforms and coalitions to maximize outcomes. Referring to the workshop during the Dialogue, Anabel Cruz, Founder Director of the Institute for Communication and Development (Uruguay), noted that Southern CSOs continue to face pressure for upward accountability to donors, rather than the communities in which they work. Discussions also pivoted around how expanding public-private partnerships could bring in voices outside the usual suspects and add to collaboration towards common goals, such as the UN Agenda 2030/Sustainable Development Goals.
In addition, participants highlighted the need for greater diversity of perspectives across global fora for multi-stakeholder partnership, such as the Global Partnership for Effective Development Cooperation, as well as in the spaces created with Global Affairs Canada to promote a CSO enabling environment. Dialogue and engagement should reflect shared commitments to empowering marginalized voices and actively engaging peoples, communities and organizations from across Canada in responding to key international development challenges and pursuing common goals. For example, Indigenous Peoples globally and in Canada have much to contribute in terms of knowledge and ways of knowing and doing that could enrich discussions in Canada and abroad. At the same time, power dynamics within institutionalized fora must be addressed to ensure meaningful engagement. It is not enough to offer a seat at the table; equitable approaches mean addressing barriers to finding the table, pulling up a chair, contributing to agenda setting and ultimately, knowing the table is safe for conversations that challenge historic ways of working. These reflections on how to improve our approach to inclusivity will be key to inform upcoming joint efforts in our work at the CPAG, and on enabling the DAC recommendation.
Canada’s progress on the DAC Recommendation on Enabling Civil Society should harness existing consultation tables
On July 5th, the DAC Recommendation will see its first anniversary. Both the DAC and GAC have been active in raising awareness of its provisions. During the dialogue, Jacqueline Wood, Team Lead – Senior Civil Society Specialist at the OECD Development Cooperation Directorate, explained how the DAC is working on a set of toolkits that will facilitate implementation of the recommendation, the first of which will focus on “Funding Local Civil Society in Partner Countries.” The International Center for Not-For-Profit Law has also identified donors can take to expand civic space in view of the recommendation and in advance of the promised toolkits. As noted by Brian Tomlinson, Executive Director of AidWatch Canada and facilitator of the CSO Working Group on the recommendation, during the Dialogue, Canada’s progress will require mapping existing policies, mechanisms and opportunities and challenges for implementing the recommendation.
And Canada is well-placed in this regard. Canada has historically championed the CSO enabling environment and spoke out against closing civic space. For Ministers Sajjan and Joly emphasize advancement of democracy and human rights as core priorities for international engagement, priorities that could not be more timely given global trends.
Moving forward from the launch of the CPAG’s High Level Narrative Update, an opportunity exists for the CPAG to plan forward-looking efforts, including opportunities to advance the DAC recommendation. The CPAG plans to convene a stock take in the Fall to talk about where we are at and the path forward on implementing the Policy.
Shannon Kindornay, Chief Operations Officer, Cooperation Canada
Stuart Savage, Director General – Engaging Canadians, Global Affairs Canada