Civil society - central to an effective aid program

9 February 2011

By Marc Purcell, Executive Director of the Australian Council for International Development (ACFID)

The homepage of the PNG Church Partnership Program, a joint initiative between seven Christian denominations in Papua New Guinea and AusAID, reads:

The Churches are a part of daily life for people throughout PNG. In remote rural areas, it is often the Churches who provide essential services in health and education. Building on their long experience in serving local communities, the Churches have come together to share planning, resources and people skills.

Civil society organisations, be they Churches, community organisations or NGOs, are absolutely central to effective development processes. Here’s why.

In developing countries, like in Australia, it’s community organisations (or civil society organisations, 'CSOs', in development sector speak) which are focal points for community activity, community events and the dissemination of local information. This makes civil society organisations one of the best vehicles to engage local communities in discussion about the outcomes which they want to see from aid and development. Even better, they can encourage and provide a place for local communities to make aid more accountable, by assisting with clear and transparent review and complaints processes for those who are the recipients of development assistance. 

The PNG Church Partnership is one amongst many examples of how CSOs improve the effectiveness of international development programs. The Australian Office of Development Effectiveness reported positive findings in regards to the impact of health service delivery in the Pacific through CSOs in their 2008 Annual Review of Development Effectiveness. The evidence from these findings suggests that if we are to improve development effectiveness then, amongst other things, changing accountability mechanisms, engaging in domestic discussion and building citizens’ demand for better services all need to be part of the strategy.

In short, CSOs help strengthen the ability of communities in recipient countries to hold their governments, aid agencies and private sector actors to account.  If the Australian government is to harness this vehicle for improving development effectiveness, then I suggest it takes the following two steps:

  1. Accept the findings of the ODE Working Paper on Good Practice Donor Engagement with Civil Society, and adopt these within AusAID.
  2. Incorporate the Istanbul CSO Development Effectiveness Principles into all program delivery and country strategies.


Such recognition of the important role the civil society organisations can play in making development more accountable and more effective would certainly benefit the Australian aid program.  If you’d like to read more about what civil society engagement means for development effectiveness, you can read the first part of the ACFID submission to the aid review

Photo by Flickr user kahunapulej. 


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