On June 19-21, 2023, the OECD Development Assistance Committee (OECD DAC) held its Civil Society Days in Paris. This biennial forum explores challenges facing civil society and builds bridges across a diverse set of development actors to engage with one another, identify opportunities and find solutions to better enable civil society as independent development actors. The 2023 edition, focused on the theme “Enabling locally-led transformation and balancing partnerships”, brought together OECD DAC government representatives, including officials from Global Affairs Canada, and civil society actors from around the world, including Brian Tomlinson, Executive Director of AidWatch Canada, and Co-chair of Cooperation Canada Localization Working Group. The theme of these meetings demonstrated the recognition of the imperative to shift power and decolonize the international cooperation architecture.
The participants were able to discuss the issue of locally-led transformation during a roundtable and related technical workshops.
The roundtable aimed at generating ideas for further action to maximize civil society’s contribution to achieving the UN 2030 Agenda. As reaffirmed by the roundtable speakers, essential to such action is the commitment to rebalance power relations and find common ground for equitable partnerships with and between civil society actors. The representative of Global Affairs Canada (GAC) explained Canada’s motivation in the localization agenda is its long tradition and interest in effective cooperation, as illustrated by the long-standing Canada Fund for Local Initiatives which provides funding for small-scale projects in more than 120 countries eligible for official development assistance. GAC also referred to the five-year Grants & Contribution transformation process as a most transformative area of work.
Another speaker, a CSO leader from East Africa, noted the persisting struggles in soft (less concrete) issues such as terminology and modes of collaboration when engaging on these important issues. Because words matter, localization and locally-led development should not be used interchangeably as they point to different contexts and challenges. The speaker also stressed the importance of recognizing and discussing tensions between equal and equitable partnerships: colonial legacies cannot be ignored so expectations of all actors must reflect the historic power imbalance.
Six technical workshops took place on issues, including: ranging from peer learning of locally-led development; development communications; democracy and autocratisation; civil society engagement in climate action; and progress on the implementation of the DAC Recommendation on Enabling Civil Society in Development Co-operation and Humanitarian Assistance.
The DAC Recommendation on Enabling Civil Society in Development Co-operation and Humanitarian Assistance
The 2021 OECD DAC Recommendation on Enabling Civil Society in Development Co-operation and Humanitarian Assistance (the “Recommendation”) is the first international framework adopted to guide and incentivize development co-operation and humanitarian assistance providers in supporting civil society actors in donor and partner countries, and was a key point of discussion during the Civil Society Days. Though not strictly binding, the Recommendation allows political attention to be drawn to issues relating to the enabling environment for civil society, and commits those that have signed on to take action around its three pillars:
- Respecting, protecting and promoting civic space;
- Supporting and engaging with civil society; and
- Incentivizing civil society effectiveness, transparency and accountability
The UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and of Association participated in the meeting, and lamented the growing threats of human rights defenders. He pointed to the synergy between empowering civil society actors, including through core financial support, and the quality of their contributions to human development. A 2022 Report of the Special Rapporteur states that “civil society involvement in and contributions to the achievement of the purposes and principles of the United Nations, including the realization of human rights and sustainable development, are paramount, and States should exert all efforts to support, rather than inhibit, civil society’s work”. Participants observed that the strength of the OECD DAC Recommendation can be bolstered by ensuring that it is referenced in other high-level documents, as is the case in the Special Rapporteur’s report.
What to expect next
Strengthening of the dialogue between the DAC and civil society
The adoption of the OECD DAC Recommendation has spurred new impetus for adherent countries and civil society to collaborate on this agenda. Enhancing the dialogue between the DAC Community of Practice on Civil Society (CoP) and the DAC-CSO Reference Group (CSO RG) is in line with the spirit of the Recommendation and has great potential to facilitate knowledge sharing and foster progress.
Case in point: in 2023, the DAC-CSO Reference Group conducted a survey of its members, to identify civil society and donor initiatives and actions advancing the principles in the Recommendation. Rather than attempting to assess progress made in implementing the Recommendation, the survey aimed to identify examples of innovation and positive practice that can encourage learning and exchange and support more effective implementation of the Recommendation going forward.
59 respondents completed the survey, with 34 responses (58%) from partners in the Global North and 25 responses (42%) from partners in the Global South. Many respondents described their engagement in initiatives to raise awareness of the Recommendation and develop CSO approaches to facilitate its implementation. Such initiatives included organizing awareness-raising and advocacy events on the Recommendation, as well as pedagogical actions to enhance CSO capacity to use the Recommendation. Respondents also mentioned initiatives to implement the third pillar of the Recommendation, including by engaging in internal dialogues on new ways of working that prioritize shifting funds and leadership to local partners, and otherwise acknowledging the Recommendation in programs to promote empowered and equitable partnerships.
Brian Tomlinson, Executive Director of AidWatch Canada, had this to say about the 2023 Civil Society Days:
“This dialogue set an important precedent as our first meeting with the full membership of the Community of Practice for Civil Society. Hopefully we can find avenues for a regular engagement in the coming years, leading up to the first five-year assessment of progress in implementing the Recommendation in 2025.”
Review of the Recommendation
The first five-year assessment of progress in implementing the Recommendation will take place in 2025. In the meantime, the OECD is working on toolkits to help DAC members translate the provisions of the Recommendation into practice. The first toolkit, released in 2023, is about strengthening local ownership and partner-country CSOs as independent development and humanitarian actors, a key aspect of a broader localization agenda. The second toolkit will focus on shifting power and empowering partnerships, addressing additional provisions of the Recommendation that related to localization. Open consultations on the second toolkit should be announced in the coming months. Cooperation Canada will continue to inform its members, engaging the membership and Global Affairs Canada on opportunities to accelerate progress on the Recommendation implementation.