June 29, 2012

This was a wake-up call, not a walk-out, to the Global Partnership

If I push my face right up to the window of my hotel room, I can just about see the Eiffel Tower rise high above Paris’s cityscape. Just below me is the Seine. And behind me, out of view, lies the office complex of La Défense and its modern-day Arche de Triomphe.
The contrast between the two visions – traditional and modern – is striking.
For the past week, I have been here in Paris preparing for, and then participating in, the final meeting of the Working Party on Aid Effectiveness (WP-EFF).
Since 2003, the WP-EFF has led a series of High Level Forums on Aid Effectiveness (HLF), initially among OECD donors and partner governments, and more recently a much broader range of development actors. The HLFs produced the seminal Paris Declaration (PD) in 2005, the Accra Agenda for Action (AAA) in 2008, and more recently, the Busan Partnership for Effective Development Cooperation (BPd) in 2011.
While Busan did move the agenda forward, for the past six months civil society has been keenly observing and participating in the work of the Post-Busan Interim Group (PBIG). The PBIG was tasked with the design of the global monitoring framework and indicators for assessing progress on Busan, and the governance framework of the Global Partnership for Effective Development Cooperation (GPEDC).

This final meeting was to discuss and finalize the PBIG proposals and launch the new Global Partnership, the WP-EFF’s successor.

For me personally, this has just been a journey over the past year and a half, but for many of my colleagues here they have been following the trajectory of the WP-EFF and developments around aid effectiveness as far back as 2005.

Back then there were 17 people protesting out on the streets. Today there were 35 of us participating inside the room.
This past week, we managed to get a bit of a taste of how far we have come since Paris. On Wednesday, as it did for HLF-3 in Accra, BetterAid released a book documenting the accomplishments, experiences, assessment and outcomes of what we achieved between HLF-3 and HLF-4 in Busan.
Separate from that book, people here feel that In Accra, we were encouraged by the promises made by governments for an enabling environment, for human rights, decent work, sustainable environment and gender equality. And we welcomed our inclusion after Accra as independent development actors in our own right and as full members of the Working Party.

Through BetterAid, we advocated for a human rights framework for development, gender equality, decent work and environmental sustainability. Through the Open Forum for CSO Development Effectiveness, we created the Istanbul Principles and the Siem Reap CSO International Framework.
At Busan we made some small progress – as well as suffered some big losses - both in terms of substance and process, engaging for the first time technically as an equal negotiator at the table.

And in Busan, while we recognized the incremental changes we had made, it felt like everything was still contingent on these coming six months.
In that vein, I guess the past two days have been a success.
The Working Party adopted the mandate and governance of the Global Partnership, with periodic Ministerial-level meetings, and a process driven by a Steering Committee of 18 - with a seat for civil society and co-Chaired by Andrew Mitchell, British Secretary of State for International Development. Two co-Chairs – from emerging economies and partner countries (likely Africa) – still have to be nominated by the end of July, as do ten of the other Steering Committee members.  (The North American seat will be taken by Donald Steinberg, US Administrator of USAID, with Canada opting to take the next rotation following the first Ministerial meeting of the Global Partnership in 2014.) The prospect of a possible observer seat for local government and trade unions has been kicked to the first Steering Committee meetings, likely to occur sometime this fall.

The monitoring framework and a set of 10 indicators - that will be used to assess progress on the commitments made in Busan - were also endorsed, using baselines of 2010 to measure progress. The indicators include a focus on inclusive country processes to determine results, enabling environment for CSOs, the contribution of the private sector to development, transparency, predictability, reporting of aid through budgets, mutual accountability, gender equality and women’s empowerment, effective institutions and the use of country systems, and untying aid. Wherever possible, the indicators are drawing on existing sources of data.  The Joint Support Team to the Steering Committee – UNDP and the OECD – still have to determine how to actually operationalize the agreed indicators.

Also endorsed at the meeting was a framework for a common open standard on transparency as agreed in Busan. This standard will ultimately join together the standard of the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI), which Canada signed on to at HLF4, and the OECD’s Creditor Reporting System. IATI is an aid data standard, whereby signatories provide detailed comparable information in an open data format. The CRS is also an open data database on donor aid spending produced by the Development Assistance Committee (DAC) at the OECD. Whereas the CRS provides historical annual OECD donor data on aid flows, IATI allows users to dig down deeper into past, current and forward-looking spending at the project level (including narrative reports). The two standards will now be completely aligned and integrated, allowing for a single electronic reporting standard over the full range of aid spending for all donors, including CSOs as donors.

But while some of the outcomes seem positive, the past two days have left a sour taste in the mouth of many of the CSOs – and others – here.

Why? Perhaps not surprisingly, this first full gathering since Busan of WP-EFF members felt much less like the final negotiation of the Global Partnership, than a party for the Working Party. It began with somewhat mindless panels (about changing mindsets), high-level speakers giving warm and fuzzy speeches, and farewell parties. This is perhaps warranted to some extent given what the WP-EFF has achieved.

But as a result, it provided barely any opportunity to debate proposed changes to the proposals on monitoring and governance that had been drafted by the 18 members of the PBIG. Every amendment from CSOs, from NEPAD or CARICOM was responded to by the Chair with the resounding thud of a rubber stamp on the original proposal.

This hit a nerve for all of us in BetterAid – as well as partner countries, and some other stakeholders. So following the morning’s opening panel with OECD Secretary General Angel Gurria and Secretary of State Mitchell, the two BetterAid co-Chairs made a constructive statement to the Working Party addressing a sentiment that has been mounting and finally crystallized here in Paris. In short,

“The past six months have confirmed our belief that since Busan the multi-stakeholder nature of this forum has itself been compromised. It is not a global partnership, interested in generating consensus and compromise among the range of stakeholders – whether us or others. [...] At this point, we have elected to go back to our respective constituencies – more than 5,000 networks and organizations - to see whether we should continue to engage in this Global Partnership, and what the basis of that continued engagement should be. We remain committed to the spirit and principles of Busan.  For us, that means moving beyond paternalism and power imbalances to inclusive partnership and mutual respect.”

We are at the table, sure, but it is still a process led by three governmental co-Chairs, who can simply choose to replicate the experience of the past six months. And that is not a position we want to be in.

Various officials over the past few days have underscored time and time again the benefits and legitimacy that having civil society at the table has brought to this process.

It is great that these officials can see the benefits of having us there. We need to be able to see the benefits too. And for us, that means having a co-Chair and a seat for trade unions.
As I said at the beginning, from my window I can only see the old Paris out my window. But I can’t quite see the new.

This blog was written by Fraser Reilly-King, Policy Analyst (Aid), CCIC. The views expressed are his own, and do not necessarily represent the views of CCIC or its members.

June 28, 2012

CSOs on the Road from Accra to Busan (Part II)

To conclude, Brian pointed to ten lessons that can be drawn from this work that are preconditions of effective policy dialogue:
1)   All stakeholders must take their roles seriously and build upon previous accomplishments. For CSOs, this meant ensuring that we participated as independent development actors in our own right and that the dialogue moving forward was inclusive of all stakeholders setting the agenda and outcomes for Busan.
2)   There must be an openness to changing practice. For CSOs this meant changing the politics of this process - strengthening our own accountability to principles of CSO Development Effectiveness, and for all governments this meant being inclusive and respecting the views of all stakeholders. For civil society, it also meant balancing our focus on advocacy and messaging, with listening and negotiation skills. We also had to respect difference and the limitations of what could actually change, and work within a very complex dynamic.
3)   We were most successful when (and not always) there was clarity of purpose and mandate, and where we set realistic (but ambitious) objectives against realistic timelines. For civil society this is a challenge, since we often take a normative approach to issues, with a comprehensive agenda; but we soon realized that as participants in this process, to move the agenda forward,  we had to compromise.
4)   Multi-stakeholder processes need to be well-resourced. This is not just about financial resources – which donors provided through a pooled-funding mechanism that definitely helped facilitate national meetings and consultations and the preparations leading up to Busan – but also the human resources and leadership that all organizations participating committed.
5)   Civil society requires space and opportunity to construct iterative and representative processes from the ground up. It was important that we engaged as many CSOs as we did, but engaging civil society also requires space and time to draw out both the diverse views of CSOs and but also find the common threads.
6)   The need to reform processes for global, regional and national policy dialogue that are appropriate to and respect different multi-stakeholder requirements. In constructing multi-stakeholder processes, we need to actually reflect on whether these processes, are appropriate for all the stakeholders at the table. BetterAid was limited in the number of voices it could bring to the table, and we couldn’t always command the diverse constituencies and expertise we had.
7)   Multi-stakeholder processes work when all stakeholders recognize their responsibilities and seek to implement their commitments. Constructive policy dialogue builds on evidence drawn from implementation and from the challenges of implementing more ambitious reforms. For CSOs this means tackling the challenges we face as development actors, and being accountable at the national, regional and international level to the Istanbul Principles by examining and changing our practices.
8)   To sustain a focus on the country level requires deliberate efforts and significant investment of resources by all stakeholders. All said we need a country heavy framework for implementation of Busan. CSOs agreed that this was essential following Accra, and to some extent we did this. But as important as what we did was, these national engagements were episodic, but were unable to sustain a high-level of engagement at the country-level. This is limited by resources, by the spaces available, by support that is sustained irrespective of the changing agendas of governments, and by limited knowledge about these processes at the country level. Too often at the country level, we invest in the skills of very few people. This needs to change and we need to build much broader and deeper momentum at the country level
9)   There needs to be an enabling environment for CSOs that allow for multi-stakeholder dialogue. In Accra, enabling environment was not a major focus of our work; but since then, we have deepened our understanding of that issue, deepened the norms for what constitutes an enabling environment, and this has now emerged as a core issues in Busan.
10) Leadership is fundamental to generating the political will and sustaining behavioural and institutional change. This process had that in different degrees at the global, regional and national level, and we need to sustain that will. But to be successful, leadership must rise above and take risks.
Rich food for thought.
But what is now giving people indigestion are two things: whether the future Global Partnership will actually be able to sustain such a genuine multi-stakeholder as things slowly seem to be slipping back into an inter-governmental one; and whether ultimately this new global partnership is going to translate three years of work into better outcomes for the poor.

This blog was written by Fraser Reilly-King, Policy Analyst, CCIC. The views expressed are his own and not necessarily reflect the views of CCIC or its members.

June 27, 2012

CSOs on the Road from Accra to Busan (Part 1)

It is a rare thing that we find the time to stop, reflect and evaluate what we have achieved in our work – whether as civil society, as organizations or as individuals. There is always so much immediacy in our daily work lives that thinking feels like a pure luxury.
BetterAid has been ahead of the curve on this, documenting the experiences and evaluating the lessons learned of aid-focused organizations in the lead-up to the 3rd High-Level Forum on Aid Effectiveness (HLF-3) in 2008 in Accra, Ghana.
Reflecting on the value of that project, the day after the 4th High-Level Forum (HLF-3) in Busan concluded, BetterAid decided to commission a similar report to cover the trajectory from Accra to Busan.
Today at a Multistakeholder Dialogue at the OECD in Paris, BetterAid, in cooperation with the Open Forum on CSO Development Effectiveness, launched a new book CSOs on the road from Accra to Busan reflecting on what had been accomplished and perceptions by other stakeholders of these accomplishments, documenting the experiences of CSOs in the process leading up to HLF-4, and identifying lessons learned.
The book drew on the policies and position papers developed by BetterAid and the Open Forum, the processes that the organizations pursued, work done at the country level to create the conditions to advance the civil society (CSO) aid and development agenda, and interviews with donors, some country governments, and civil society organizations.
Brian Tomlinson – formerly of CCIC and author of the book - touched upon the unique aspects of the process and our accomplishments as civil society, and identified many of the elements that contributed to a truly multi-stakeholder process.
In terms of the unique nature of the past three years, this represented an incredible building process from the country to the global level that brought 300 CSOs from around the world to Busan speaking with one voice.  This has not happened in other global processes.
Secondly, Busan represented a truly multi-stakeholder process, allowing for civil society to be represented and participate in robust processes leading up to Busan, and as an equal voice at the table.
Thirdly, CSOs undertook a global process to establish the conditions and approaches that defined their own understanding of development effectiveness through the Open Forum. This was related to Busan, but emerged from Accra as a process independent of Busan.
In terms of accomplishments, Brian identified five strands:
·         Through various processes after the past three years, BetterAid and Open Forum managed to mobilize thousands of CSOs in an inclusive and open way. This engagement made a qualitative difference in terms of how CSOs could present themselves.
·         CSOs fulfilled a commitment that was made pre-Accra to establish a normative framework for CSOs  - the Istanbul Principles and the Siem Reap Consensus – that created some authenticity to the notion of CSOs as independent development actors in their own right. Brian admitted that there was still more work to be done in terms of implementation, but in terms of standard setting, CSOs had accomplished a lot.
·         Because BetterAid and the Open Forum came together ahead of Busan with a common set of policy demands and speaking with one voice, this deepened our legitimacy and credibility as CSO actors. We were able to draw on the diversity of civil society as actors, but still come to the process in a united way – and this strengthened our presence and our voice.
·         Our engagement in the Working Party on Aid Effectiveness was informed and constructive, and this helped transform the discourse on a number of different issues – development effectiveness, democratic ownership, and human rights as a framework for development.
·         Finally, with Civil Society at the table, this created an important benchmark and a shift in culture towards inclusive policy dialogue and partnerships. This is something that could inform future and much broader dialogues at the OECD and inform other multilateral processes.
(The second part of this blog will be published soon...)
Fraser Reilly-King, Policy Analyst

June 20, 2012

Vers un traité sur le commerce des armes : espoirs et défis

Du 2 au 27 juillet prochains, les 193 Etats membres des Nations unies se réuniront à New York pour un mois de discussions qui devrait aboutir au premier traité international sur le commerce des armes (TCA). Ce traité pourrait constituer la plus grande avancée du droit international pour la protection des populations civiles depuis la création de la Cour pénale internationale.  

La « règle d’or »
Ce traité devra déterminer dans quelles conditions les Etats peuvent autoriser un transfert d’armes (achat, vente, transit, etc.), notamment au regard des risques que représente ce transfert pour les droits humains et le développement. Et tout va se jouer sur une question de vocabulaire : « ne doivent pas » ou « devraient tenir compte ».

Oxfam-Québec, les ONG membres de la coalition internationale Control Arms, ainsi que de nombreux Etats favorables à un TCA fort et efficace militent pour que le texte du traité indique que  « les Etats ne doivent pas autoriser un transfert d’armes » lorsqu’il existe un risque substantiel que ces armes soient utilisées pour commettre des violations des droits humains ou que ce transfert ait un impact sur le développement du pays ou de la région.

Les opposants au traité cherchent à obtenir un langage moins contraignant : « les Etats devraient tenir compte de… » : ce qui laisse la possibilité aux Etats d’autoriser un transfert d’armes même si cela risque de contribuer à des violations des droits humains ou d'aggraver la pauvreté. Certains Etats (la Chine, Cuba ou l'Egypte pour ne pas les nommer) vont même jusqu'à remettre en question la notion de droits humains, prétextant qu'il s'agit d'un concept subjectif.

Le champ d’application du traité
Autre point de désaccord entre les différents Etats, ce que le traité doit couvrir : toutes les armes conventionnelles (c'est-à-dire hormis les armes chimiques et nucléaires), y compris les armes légères et de petit calibre ? Les munitions ? Les radars et matériels de communication ? Les composantes technologiques nécessaires à la construction d’armes ? Les équipements de police et de maintien de l’ordre dont le printemps Arabe a cruellement illustré le potentiel destructeur ? Là encore, les partisans d’un TCA faible et peu contraignant cherchent à limiter l’étendue du traité, alors que les ONG estiment que celui-ci devra couvrir l’éventail le plus large possible d’armes pour avoir un réel impact sur le terrain.

La transparence
Les négociations doivent aussi fixer les règles de mise en œuvre du traité par les Etats qui le ratifieront et notamment les mécanismes de contrôle : compte-rendu annuel des Etats sur leurs transferts d’armes, suivi des transferts pouvant constituer des violations du traité et du respect par les Etats du traité, règlement des différends et sanctions. Sans transparence et sans contrôle de son respect par les signataires, le TCA ne serait qu’une coquille vide.

Consensus ou majorité ?
Au-delà du contenu du TCA, le mode d’adoption même du traité suscite des oppositions : certains Etats, qui ne veulent pas d’un texte fort, comme les Etats-Unis, la Russie ou encore l’Egypte, réclament un « consensus » strict, c'est-à-dire adopté à l'unanimité. Dans ce cas, le texte doit convenir à tous les Etats. En pratique, cela revient à donner un droit de veto à chaque Etat, et mécaniquement à affaiblir le traité, en adoptant le plus petit dénominateur commun. Une adoption du traité par un vote des Etats permettrait d’obtenir un texte qui convient à une majorité d’Etats et laisse plus de chance à un TCA fort.

La place des ONG
Enfin, la place laissée à la société civile, par la voix des ONG, reste encore à déterminer : en théorie les sessions plénières et les principaux comités thématiques seront ouverts aux ONG (en tant qu’observateurs). Mais en pratique, combien de sessions seront réservées aux seuls délégués des Etats, permettant de négocier des compromis et arrangements en toute opacité, loin des yeux de la société civile et des citoyens à travers le monde qui se sont engagés en faveur d’un TCA robuste et efficace depuis de nombreuses années ? Ainsi, le dernier Comité préparatoire de la Conférence finale, en février dernier, a vu les sessions à huis clos se multiplier, réduisant la capacité de vigilance et d’influence de la société civile internationale.

Autant de questions qui détermineront si le texte adopté en juillet pourra avoir un impact réel sur les millions de personnes qui souffrent directement ou indirectement de ce commerce meurtrier.

Par Lina Holguin, Directrice des politiques, Oxfam-Québec

Ajoutez votre nom à la pétition Donnez de la voix pour contrôler les armes ! (« PAS D'ARMES POUR LES ATROCITÉS – DITES OUI À UN TRAITÉ SUR LE COMMERCE DES ARMES À TOUTE ÉPREUVE »). La pétition prie les gouvernements de conclure un TCA garant des droits de l'homme, capable de sauver des vies et des moyens de subsistance.

June 11, 2012

Canadian Engagement on Global Poverty Issues Poll

The Poll:
On May 22, 2012, the Inter-Council Network (ICN) of Provincial and Regional Councils for International Cooperation released the results from their public opinion poll.  The poll was undertaken to gain a deeper understanding of Canadians’ knowledge, opinions, attitudes, behaviour and engagement in global poverty issues and to demonstrate the value Canadians place on global poverty reduction work, including both international activities and public engagement within Canada. In addition, the ICN hoped that the findings would contribute to a national baseline on Canadian engagement in global poverty and would be capable of informing and providing recommendations to the international development sector and those organizations that fund our work.

The ICN commissioned Vision Critical, formerly Angus Reid Strategies, to conduct the poll in March 2012. The online-quantitative survey was developed and deployed to a sample of 1,211 Canadian residents, providing a margin of error on the total sample of + 2.8% 19 times out of 20. The sample was calibrated to the 2006 Stats Can Census data to ensure a more accurate snapshot of the Canadian reality. To enable a comparative analysis of the findings, 1000 US residents and 2000 UK residents were polled on several questions and the comparisons between the three countries proved to be one of the more fascinating aspects of a very interesting piece of public opinion research.

The Findings:
Working with experts from Vision Critical, the Executive Directors and staff members from the seven Provincial and Regional Councils committed an enormous amount of time and effort into the development of the survey questions and were all very excited to discover what information the survey would provide.

Considering the density of the survey and the enormous amount of data that was collected, it was a challenge to tease out findings of most relevance and meaning to our sector.  However, after careful review, nine key items have been identified as being the key strategic findings. They are:

·         Canadians show more optimism towards the impact of global poverty reduction than their US and UK counterparts. In particular 75% of Canadians believe that reducing global poverty will help to fulfill human rights obligations, while only 56% of US residents and 55% of UK residents believe the same.

·         One-third of Canadians rank global poverty (hunger in the world) among the 1st, 2nd or 3rd most concerning issues to them globally. The economy, wars/conflict, human rights, and environmental issues -- all closely linked to global poverty – are also top of mind.

·         The majority of Canadians believe there is a human rights obligation to reduce global poverty and believe there are significant benefits to doing so, including improving Canada’s international reputation, reducing global conflict, and reducing the risks of pandemics.

·         More than half of Canadians (52%) feel the federal government is most responsible for addressing global poverty, and nearly three-quarters (72%) believe they should be supporting public awareness about global poverty issues.

·         While 70% of Canadians are supportive of the government matching donations of private citizens for global poverty reduction work, a slightly higher number (72%) do not support government funding of multinational corporations (business/private sector).

·         Only 41% of Canadians feel global poverty affects them personally, while 43% say it does not and 16% are unsure. Of those who feel personally affected, the majority cite reasons of social conscience (affects others, personal beliefs).

·         Donating funds is the most common way Canadians engage in social issues. Ethical consumption, volunteering time, and talking to others about a cause are also popular means of engagement for one quarter of Canadians.

·         Canadians are most likely to support groups that demonstrate public accountability and that they perceive as being effective.

·         Given that most will research an organization before getting involved, and that an organizations’ own website is one of the top two sources, web presence should be forefront in any public engagement strategy.

A Brief Analysis:

Helping Canadians make the connection
It is encouraging to find that one third of all Canadians polled ranked global poverty as a top concern and that significantly more Canadians than Americans or British believe we are obliged to reduce global poverty.  Notably, regardless of political leanings, the poll clearly showed that Canadians feel we have a moral imperative to do something to reduce global poverty and to teach our children about the importance of working towards the reduction of global poverty.

However, it was clear from the results that Canadians are losing sight of the big problems around the world and do not make the connections between local and global, with 43% of Canadians feeling unaffected by global poverty and only 51% thinking that reducing global poverty will increase Canadian prosperity.

This disconnect between Canadians seeing the importance of reducing global poverty around the world and the apparent inability of the majority to visualize a link between their lives and the lives of those affected by global poverty more directly indicate a need for the international development sector to develop a stronger, more effective narrative to engage Canadians on the interconnectedness of the issues surrounding global poverty.

The Federal Government needs to be involved in engaging Canadians
This research clearly identified a role for the federal government in promoting global citizenship amongst Canadians. 72% of Canadians indicated that they felt the federal government should be supporting public awareness about global poverty issues.  Canadians want to be engaged and informed and they want their government to invest in public engagement. There needs to be increased value and support for public engagement as an integral part of international development. 

Whose job is global poverty reduction?
Canadians feel many types of organizations need to support global poverty reduction, including NGOs, and Corporations, with the federal government taking the lead on reducing global poverty. However, while the private sector, including multinational corporations, has a role to play in reducing poverty around the world, a majority of Canadians said the federal government should not be providing funding to businesses or the private sector as a means of addressing poverty.

This is a particularly timely and relevant finding considering current controversies surrounding decisions by CIDA regarding whom to fund and through which mechanisms.  Obviously, the current direction CIDA is taking towards partnerships with private sector and decreases in funding to NGOs is not in keeping with the findings of this research.

A Deeper Look:

The entire poll can be viewed at www.icnpoll.ca.

The ICN has begun sharing the results through workshops and presentations across the county. Poll results and analysis will be provided through each Provincial and Regional Council.  Contact the Council in your province or region for more information about how your organization can benefit further from this research.

British Columbia Council for International Cooperation – www.bccic.ca
Alberta Council for Global Cooperation – www.acgc.ca
Saskatchewan Council for International Cooperation – www.earthbeat.sk.ca
Manitoba Council for International Cooperation – www.mcic.ca
Ontario Council for International Cooperation – www.ocic.on.ca
Association québécoise des organismes de coopération internationale – www.aqoci.qc.ca
Atlantic Council for International Cooperation – www.acic-caci.org

About the Inter-Council Network (ICN)
The Inter-Council Network (ICN) is a coalition of seven provincial and regional Councils for International Cooperation. These member-based Councils represent over 400 diverse organizations from across Canada that are committed to global social justice. The ICN provides a forum in which the Councils collaborate for improved effectiveness and identify common priorities for collective action.

The “Canadian Engagement on Global Poverty Issues” poll conducted by Vision Critical for the ICN in March 2012 is one component of a three-year national initiative designed to explore public engagement effectiveness on global poverty issues, and to build the capacity of public engagement practitioners in Canada.

The Poll:

June 5, 2012

The New Tie that Bind Us: The Future is Calling! (Part II)

1. Let us think outside the box – The Activists should join the ‘Clicktivists’!

Innovations and ideas that may change the world seem to be coming from elsewhere and not from CSOs.  We need to recognize this and partner with those who are making a mark on the world – the most prominent being social entrepreneurs and ‘clicktivists’ (as opposed to activists). The civic energy that swept the Arab world was anchored in the new global generation of digital natives.  These citizens have brought down dictators, Occupied Wall Street, have the 3rd largest country in the world known as Facebook with 800 million people, are on twitter, youtube and have changed the face of journalism.  Many NGOs especially in my part of the world are seemingly invisible in these new forms of organizing and yet this is what will stop the downward spiral towards death and irrelevance of NGOs - at least in terms of the transformative potential that they offer.

2. Drop the jargon and let us talk and act simple!

For too long we have hidden our good work behind the terminology of development and charity.  In fact terminology sometimes stands in the way of transformation.  To become sustainable we must speak a language of simplicity and allow for citizens and all our partners to understand and connect with our causes.  We sometimes spend too much time pleasing our donors and government, framing political work in technical terms, simple interventions are cooked up in complicated log frames that we can please donors. We live in a world of aid fatigue and the more we make sure that our work is understood the better.  As NGOs we may not have the magic bullets to ‘fix’ development, but there is plenty of evidence on how NGOs have made meaningful impact on the global civil society eco-system than its critics suggest.  We need to speak the ‘everyday’ language to stay connected in the globalized world.

3. Let us showcase our work

The world is awash with innovative ideas that have clearly changed people’s lives.  From work of small organizations and initiatives in the area of HIV/AIDS, the Hunger Project, the Citizen Manifestos in India and Africa, the Women’s Movement across the world, gender budgeting, rural transformation and food sovereignty and many others.  Obscuring our work is certainly making it hard for people to see the many pockets of ‘thick’ progressive and transformative action on the NGO scene. Indeed most of the good stuff that NGOs implement doesn’t seem to have enough substance to counter the wave of NGO-bashing that the sector is experiencing everyday in all kinds of fora.
4. Think! Reflect! And Learn!
The last thing NGOs need in these turbulent financial and social times is another shot of megalomania to swell their heads.  The change that NGOs are able to make in the world is huge and yet subtle. It requires us to develop more qualitative understanding of how change works. It’s about treading much more lightly, but with a much sharper eye for emerging ideas, inspiring relationships and interesting questions.  As one writer put it, we need to move the ‘“thinnest” of innovations in the direction of deeper impact through a continuous stream of small changes that head in the same direction – “baby steps”. Many an NGO has these skills on offer, but mostly they’re being crushed by institutional pressures, lost in quanti-philia and neglected in training programmes.  We should not stop learning from our work.
5. Let us return to value based development

NGOs need to strengthen their value bases as a key ingredient for a more transformative role. I came across the term ‘pragmatic visionaries’.  This is a term that sounds nice but to be a pragmatic visionary demands rigorous discipline. There are many things being dangled at us.  Consultancies, corruption money, singing development mantras we do not believe in, deceptive reporting to create larger than life impact and many other ‘sweet things’ that we try and create.  All this calls for a balancing act between good-sustainability and bad-sustainability.  This will require a balancing act that demands rigorous and continuous reflection about what to embrace and what to let go.  The latter being particularly difficult – many times we do not know when to let go but sometimes we should allow things to die.

Is there hope for NGOs?  Should we retire, be replaced or be rejuvenated? For us at the Uganda National NGO Forum, retirement is not an option. Rejuvenation in a midlife crisis can easily become preposterous, thus not a good idea.  Starting to lift weights at 45 years may sound good but it is also laughable.  That leaves replacement, but the big question is: with what shall we replace NGOs in the current world. 

Let me finally submit that in the current global economic trends, the role of NGOs is an illusion. What we make of the future is up to us. Yes, we operate in the difficult terrain, with many temptations and obstacles on the road to transformation. We could complain about the aid fatigue and many other things gone wrong until we really are irrelevant. But we could also focus on the positive forces around us so that they can expand.  All over the world, citizens are demanding change.  Clearly there are progressive connections to be made between the state, private sector and civil society. We can’t afford doomsday scenarios or self-fulfilling prophecies. The future needs a dose of optimism and creativity coupled with a can-do attitude to make things happen!

Richard Ssewakiryanga
Executive Director
Uganda National NGO Forum

Presented at the Canadian Council for International Cooperation Annual General Meeting
May 25th, 2012