November 28, 2011

Taking our seat at the table – how civil society “got its act together” to influence the Busan outcome

Yesterday evening I said good-bye to my fellow “Team Canada” colleagues as we walked back from a meeting with some members of the CIDA delegation, here for the Fourth High Level Forum on Aid Effectiveness (HLF4) (HLF4) in Busan. The Busan Global Civil Society Forum (BCSF) is over and today the HLF-4 begins with the full participation of 300 civil society delegates, along-side donors and partner governments.

The BCSF brought together more than 500 participants from civil society, from all corners of the world, for three days of intense discussions in preparation for the HLF4. Updates were given about where the negotiation process stood, decisions were made about the bottom lines for civil society as the civil society (CSO) Sherpa, Tony Tujan, walked into what we thought was the last negotiation session before the HLF, and the CSO team strategized along thematic and regional lines as to how best to push the CSO key asks during the upcoming 3 days.

This morning, the news was not good. Sherpas had a long night and did not managed to come to an agreement that met the minimal bottom-lines of all parties. So the tussle continues. Very significantly, China seems to have withdrawn from the process, and other countries, including France, were conspicuously absent on the last critical Sherpa meeting before the HLF-4 kicked off. And these are just the highlights, much more going on below the surface and behind closed doors.

Easy to feel concerned about the outcome of the next three days of meetings - like any global negotiation, the issues at play here are complex and multi-dimensional, and the number and diversity of actors with high stakes and divergent interests daunting.

But let’s take a look at the highlights of the process so far, from a civil society perspective, to take strength in what we have to build on.

There is no doubt that we have come a long way since Accra, and have lived up to the challenges posed to us since then in unequivocal and creative ways. Who could have assured us, in the lead-up to Busan, when civil society groups rallied to get a formal recognition in the outcome document (the Accra Agenda for Action – AAA) that at the next high level forum we would be included as development actors in our own right and that we would have a seat at the table – at the Working Party on Aid Effectiveness, the Working Party Executive Committee, the many multi-stakeholder clusters and task teams, with our own Sherpa and with 300 official delegates at the forum itself.

This is without question an unprecedented experience for civil society – one from which we will no doubt draw many valuable lessons as we move forward into new challenges, in this process and other fields.  As I have come to understand the enormity of the achievements over the last three years in this regard, I have been struck by how in many ways this experience is counter-current to the shrinking of space for civil society that we are observing around the globe.

So, how did civil society get this seat at the table and how did we use it?

First, Better Aid. This broad global platform of CSOs, lead by southern organizations, has been the face of civil society in the process and has been the process via which we have produced common asks and negotiation positions - through a governance structure that has attempted to be as inclusive and democratic as possible, while being functional and efficient. Not an easy task, when you have hundreds of organizations from all over the world (more than 1700), that speak different languages, have different readings of the world and priorities, and different abilities and interests in the matter at hand. Brian Tomlison, Executive Director of AidWatch Canada and until recently Senior Policy Advisor with CCIC, says that “there is a respect that unites us all and does not undermine but rather strengthens all of our agendas”.
Brian Tomlinson (AidWatch Canada) in Busan

Second, The Open Forum for CSO Development Effectiveness. A process designed to respond to the challenge of establishing our own standards for effective development of CSOs, the Open Forum brought together more than 3,500 organizations from all regions of the world through consultations in over 70 countries. The outcomes: The Istanbul Principles and the International Framework on CSO Development Effectiveness.  

Third, through the combined efforts of Better Aid and The Open Forum, CSOs arrived in Busan last week with a clear set of key asks for Busan. “It has been at times difficult, but we managed to unify and come to Busan with a collective voice”, says Emele Duituturaga, Executive Director of PIANGO and co-chair of the Open Forum. “Through this process, we have learned to dialogue and go forward as one.”

Brian Tomlinson adds, “though it is not bullet proof, a highlight of this whole process has been the unity of civil society in the face of a very complex agenda with diverse special interests. We have come to HLF4 with a common set of bottom lines which are strongly rooted in a human rights approach to development”.

It is without any doubt, the combination of having produced our own standards for development effectiveness and our common key asks that have allowed for  CSOs to be instrumental, in the lead-up process to HLF4, to not losing sight of the most important issue – better development outcomes for the poor and marginalized around the world. Through its participation in the numerous multi-stakeholder platforms that worked to prepare the ground for Busan, CSOs were able to make important contributions to increase the ambition in the Busan Outcome Document (BOD), and this has been broadly recognized. “We have transformed the process,” says Emele, “and this is how we will transform the world”.

But as I leave, I also reflect on the many challenges that lie ahead for global civil society. It was not an easy or quick process to come up with a statement at the end of the BCSF. But after a couple of hours of group discussions and then plenary discussions, and finally a committee review, we had a statement that synthesized the top concerns of the participants of the forum. So we still have work to do on how to best work together in a fair and representative structure that delivers results.

Emele Duituturaga (PIANGO) in Busan

After Busan, CSOs will re-convene to start a much needed reflection on this exceptional experience, and evaluate the pros and cons of this new role of being at the table while remaining activists in spirit and intent.

“Civil society came at this driven by moral and ethical motivations, but being at the table means we have had to negotiate” says Brian, who was also co-chair of the Task Team on CSO Development Effectiveness and Enabling Environment.

“We know we have to devise a process to move the agenda forward at the country level”.

And Emele rightfully reminds us, “after having being at the table and negotiated as equals, many of us now have to go back to our countries and face the hostile relationship with our governments”.

This blog post was written by Julia Sanchez, Canadian Council for International Co-operation.

The views expressed in this blog are those of the authors, and do not necessarily reflect the positions of CCIC or its members.

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