By Marc Purcell, Executive Director of the Australian Council for International Development (ACFID)
Civil society and development might be ‘the new black’ in development terms, but it was Alexis de Tocqueville in 1828 who:
"...stressed volunteerism, community spirit and independent associational life as protections against the domination of society by the state, and indeed as a counterbalance which helped to keep the state accountable and effective…"
ACFID has asked the aid review panel to go back to first principles on this point. Development effectiveness should be judged from the perspective of the person and community we are seeking to benefit, and success measured against their capacity to claim their rights as citizens. The best way to see sustainable change in achieving rights and demanding better governance at the local level is through supporting local civil society.
Our key recommendation is that sustainable development is not possible without a strategic approach to the contribution and capacity of civil society as a development actor. The Government should adopt such an approach, and create an enabling environment for community-led aid, including in-country civil society organisations and Australian NGO partners, that focuses on respect for diversity, partnership, policy dialogue and predictable, long-term funding.
Australian aid is too heavily skewed towards one approach: bilateral aid
Without a clear framework for engaging civil society in Australia and in the countries where the aid program operates, aid will fail to achieve the results that the Australian public expect from it.
The Australian government’s current approach is weaker for not systematically incorporating civil society as an essential part of effective and sustainable development. The Australian aid program is heavily weighted towards bilateral relationships and working with national governments to reduce poverty primarily through technical inputs around capacity building of government agencies. Important as this is, such approaches are all too often weakened or bypassed by indigenous cultural, social and political dynamics which override and erode the effectiveness of Australian aid interventions. DFAT and AusAID’s own evaluations and country analyses point to these facts.
Why an active civil society is critical for sustainable development
Civil society harnesses the power of citizens to participate in decision-making processes that will affect them and demand governments fulfil (and are responsive to) their rights and needs. The role of civil society in supporting elements for the development process is undeniable, particularly by empowering citizens to demand their rights and hold governments to account.
Civil society organisations (CSOs), supported by the not-for-profit sector, are key agitators for positive change and contribute to social capital. Australia’s Productivity Commission (2010) highlights that the not-for-profit sector in Australia (over 600,000 organisations) promotes an active civil society and delivers essential services not undertaken by the government or the for-profit sector and contributes substantially to the value of the community.
In developing countries CSOs work in a variety of distinctive ways to improve the conditions of those living in poverty, including by striving for better governance and improved services for the poor and marginalised; by empowering citizens to demand their human rights and strengthening democratic processes, as well as fostering the ability of communities to hold their governments, aid agencies and private sector actors to account. For several decades it has been generally recognised in developed countries that governments are not capable alone of delivering all services to citizens, mediating interests, and ensuring sustainable economic human development and respect for human rights. So, for sustainable development to occur it is imperative that CSOs and NGOs are involved in AusAID program and policy development processes.
Part 2 of this blog will be published next week.
Image by Flickr user Horia Varlan.