Protecting Civil Society’s Role in Development Co-operation

This article is published in co-operation with the Global Partnership for Effective Development Co-operation read more expert comment at

Within the development community, the role of civil society has never been more important.

Civil society is made up of community groups, volunteers, civil society organisations (CSOs) and trade unions, all of whom provide a crucial resource for development. We work outside the constraints of governments and markets to raise questions and demand changes, putting pressure on governments and business to act with integrity and transparency.

What civil society does

CSOs have a core part to play in governance, which is essential for development. In many cases, they are critical to making and improving laws. In the wake of the Arab Spring in Tunisia, or the protests that erupted across Bosnia, local activists were the ones who pushed reforms that protected human rights, advanced democracy, and ensured that ordinary people’s interests were represented in government.

Civil society also works extensively with international organisations, with an estimation that from 2007 – 2009, they were involved in in over 75% of the World Bank’s projects. Today, the World Bank partners with CSOs in Argentina to monitor government programmes and hold them to account, in China to help empower women in remote highland areas and across Africa to help reduce pesticide use among farmers.

Why are transparency and accountability so important to effective development co-operation?

CSOs also help monitor the laws that they worked to have passed, with people coming together to make sure rights are not abused and laws are obeyed. Civil society plays a part in monitoring the activities of private sector entities, for example bringing up instances of illegal pollution and human rights abuses, creating accountability when needed.

More importantly co-operation between civil society, governments and businesses creates channels through which we can affect future change. The Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative is a perfect example of this. This is a global coalition of governments, companies and civil society working together to improve openness and accountable management of revenues from natural resources such as oil, gas, metals and minerals. Transparency around how a country manages its natural resource wealth ensures that these resources benefit all citizens.

Civil Society’s work can inform the Global Partnership for Effective Development and Co-operation’s efforts towards more effective development co-operation in numerous ways. For example, at Transparency International we focus on transparency and accountability mechanisms that ensure public funds can be tracked to ensure they pay for schools and hospitals, for example, instead of being diverted to line the pockets of corrupt officials.

Transparency between governments, civil society and the private sector also promotes greater and more effective development co-operation. Kenya, for example, receives $1.7 billion in foreign aid a year. It became the first African country to release government data to the public through a single online platform in 2011, with information on funds allocated for local areas, school enrolment rates or access to water.

Finally, CSOs play a vital role as safety nets, helping those in need without considering vested political interests or national boundaries. Similar work is carried out by Transparency International’s Advocacy and Legal Advice Centres (ALACs) around the world, helping those who have suffered from corruption – for example, those who have been forced to pay for state healthcare, tricked into forced labour, or had their land illegally confiscated – to negotiate their way through the legal system and gain justice.

Civil Society under threat

Given the importance of CSOs, it is truly dismaying that across the world, civil society space is shrinking, persecuted by governments who view CSOs as a threat to their power. Freedom House estimates that it is getting increasingly harder for groups to operate outside of government interference. According to CIVICUS, there have been 413 threats to civil society across 87 countries in the last 2 years.

This persecution can take many forms. In Hungary, CSOs have seen the government freeze foreign funding under the pretext of preventing foreign influence in corruption. Montenegro’s journalists have faced threats to their life such as car bombs, while human rights defenders in Ethiopia are imprisoned and tortured.

This cannot go on if we seek a world where fundamental rights and freedoms are protected.

The importance of civil society space is apparent. Earlier this year, the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights declared that civil society space must be protected if we are to guarantee human rights. The tightening of civil society space actively harms the aims of development – it makes it harder for the vulnerable to reach the resources they need.

There are concrete actions which can be taken to protect civil society and activists across the world. These include following UN Security Council Resolution 2171, which calls upon governments to engage with CSOs through meetings and allow them access to the media. Whistle-blowers and journalists must be protected from persecution and backlash when they expose abuses of power. New laws must be passed and existing laws strengthened and upheld with integrity in order to meet these requirements. Enabling CSOs to exercise their roles as independent development actors is also clearly spelled out as a commitment in the Busan Partnership agreement and a prerequisite for maximising CSOs’ contribution to development.

For Transparency International, the ability to work as a CSO, free from government or corporate interests is paramount. Clampdowns on civil society space have affected activists and colleagues around the world, not just in our organisation but in many others. Civil society provides watchdogs and safeguards to ensure that governments, businesses and people can work together to create a society that is, through co-operation, more than the sum of its parts.

Read the French and Spanish versions here.


Virginie Coulloudon joined Transparency International in 2012 as Communications Director, before becoming Group Director for External Relations in 2013. She was previously spokesperson, head of press and public information at the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe and director of communications, Europe, at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. She is a former investigative journalist, permanent correspondent in Moscow, and research director at the Harvard Davis Center for Russian Studies.

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