On CSO Enabling Environment: Strengthening donor engagement on CSO funding and protection

General commitments have been made to create a CSO enabling environment back in Busan and much has already been said in its lack of realization. Nonetheless, shrinking space for civil society and increased criminalisation of dissent remain among the most worrying trends faced by CSOs in all parts of the world.

In this respect, donor governments play an important role in effectively supporting a CSO enabling environment in law and in practice—specifically on funding and protection for CSOs.

On funding

A general trend for aid agencies has been to concentrate their assistance on a smaller number of countries and within countries, on a smaller number of sectors. Unfortunately, this is translating negatively in terms of civil society funding. First, because civil society is not a sector per se and is at best addressed as a crosscutting form of representation. Second, while aid budgets increase in countries of concentration, management costs have to be kept low. Hence, aid agencies – encouraged by the need for sector-wide approaches and budget support – favor fewer and larger contracts with beneficiary governments. Partnering with local civil society (which requires a higher number of smaller agreements) is considered too costly (“micromanagement has to be avoided”).

Adequate tools, staff and resources need to be allocated to engage in a meaningful manner with civil society actors. This constitutes as well a prerequisite to get a sound understanding of the context, without underestimating certain realities faced by CSOs. In disempowering contexts where human rights are considered sensitive issues, it is not good enough to rely only on official reports and information provided by governments. Aid agencies need to get out of their comfort zone; expose themselves and experience field realities, and open spaces for dialogue with CSO partners. Communication should go beyond financial and operational reporting, in order to encompass a truly enabling environment for CSOs and understand particular concerns/challenges faced by local civil society organisations.

On the protection against human rights abuses

Creating a CSO enabling environment entails respect for human rights. At a time when there is growing concern about the negative impacts of the dominant model of economic development on the environment and local communities, dissenting voices are being silenced. At a time when growing inequalities are affecting the most vulnerable segments of the population, and business-related human rights abuses are on the rise, CSO workers are increasingly being criminalised. Nevertheless, when it comes to human rights, there is a general reluctance on the part of aid agencies linked to the so-called ‘principle of non-interference,’ that disregards agreements with governments referring to shared values and commitments to uphold basic rights.

And there are two major issues here: the first problem is the disconnection between human rights dialogue and project portfolios. Making the distinction between policy dialogue (related to development policy supported through aid/budget support) and political dialogue (related to democratic principles, rule of law and human rights) is weakening donors’ position in promoting more fundamental reforms, is limiting the policy dialogue to technical issues, strengthening a technocratic approach to development, and depriving donors of important leverage (by delinking budget support from political reforms). Human rights dialogue should be linked with other aid instruments. General principles and values referred to in political dialogue should be reflected in every policy, which should result from democratic processes, address basic rights, and be implemented with due respect to the rule of law.

The second problem is the application of the harmonisation principle to policy dialogue, whereas the harmonisation principle is meant for aid modalities (requiring aid agencies to coordinate better, to simplify their procedures, to conduct joint actions in order to reduce aid management burden on the recipient government). While speaking with one voice is certainly more powerful than fragmented and contradictory communications, international aid agencies rarely agree on common messages and wording, especially when addressing sensitive issues like human rights abuses. Although some partners are more engaged on certain issues and ready to voice stronger concerns, often coordination attempts not only weaken the message, but can also lead to a the failure of joint initiatives. The harmonization principle seems to further delegitimize individual initiatives and disempower the most supportive partners, hampering meaningful engagement in substantial policy/political dialogue. Harmonization is not required when it comes to addressing human rights abuses, promoting democratic principles and rule of law. Engagement can reflect diverse sensitivities and readiness to take risks. The most progressive partners need to lead instead of aligning to the most conservative.

In conclusion, it is important to stress that development without human rights is not true development. True development starts with an agenda rooted in the people’s aspirations freely expressed. It starts by giving a voice to the voiceless and authentic choice to the powerless.

Creating a CSO enabling environment will ensure that aid does not merely compensate the most visible cases of injustice, but serve as an instrument for more justice.


Anne-Sophie Gindroz works for HELVETAS Swiss Intercooperation, presently based in Indonesia asRegional Advocacy Coordinator for Asia. She is a member of the CPDE HRBA Working-Group, and has been involved in Aid and Development Effectiveness process focusing in particular on civil society enabling environment. She is also advocating for resources rights of communities challenged by extractive industries and industrial plantations.

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