As members of the Reality of Aid Network, which brings together Southern and Northern civil society groups spanning some 17 time zones, we are no strangers to the challenges of convening inclusive meetings about the need for more and better aid. The “lost connection” icon on trans-continental conference calls is a familiar, if frustrating, part of our lives, as it will be for many of you.
But when it comes to convening meetings with the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development’s Development Assistance Committee (OECD DAC), there was until recently an even greater obstacle to communication: we just weren’t invited.
That’s why we were so pleased when the DAC said it planned to engage more systematically with stakeholders such as civil society – a move spearheaded by the DAC’s Chair, Charlotte Petri-Gornitzka, who came into post last year.
We’ve also been encouraged by early steps to open up the DAC to civil society, including a widely-attended round-table that we took part in last month, and plans to make more DAC documents publicly available.
Why does inclusivity matter? The Busan Partnership Agreement and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development acknowledge the importance of inclusive policy making, openness, trust and mutual respect to ensure that “those directly affected can contribute to defining and tracking development policies and programmes that are intended to improve their lives”. Informing and consulting with CSOs is critical to ensuring they can effectively play their role as watchdogs to promote public accountability, and to ensure that donors are not losing sight of development aid’s core purpose: reducing poverty, fighting inequality, and making sure no one is left behind.
But there is still a very long way to go – as last week’s DAC Senior Level Meeting (SLM) showed all too clearly.
As the name suggests, the SLM is a once- or twice-yearly gathering of senior figures (typically the top officials in development agencies) to discuss key issues on the DAC agenda. But despite the meeting’s significance, the doors remained closed to CSOs. Sure, the items up for discussion weren’t the most controversial or headline grabbing – but they still covered crucial issues such as the DAC’s future role and (ironically) its engagement with civil society.
What’s more, participation in formal spaces like the SLM is not the only challenge. Many DAC members have told us informally that they value civil society contributions to debates on technical issues such as Private Sector Instruments or the reporting of refugee costs. But if we are to make the most useful and efficient contributions to these debates, we need:
- Greater transparency. The DAC’s plans to declassify more of its documents are promising, but it is not clear how they will be put into practice. We urge that all documents be declassified by default, unless there is a compelling reason to the contrary.
- Greater consultation. The proposal to hold consultations with civil society before Senior Level and High Level Meetings is a welcome development, and we recommend that this be institutionalised. But this is not enough to ensure genuine inclusivity and meaningful dialogue. We also ask that the actual Senior and High Level Meetings should be open to civil society observers. And we call for civil society to be consulted whenever a key decision is approaching – not just once or twice a year. This consultation should be timely, regular, and transparent. Our requests and recommendations should not remain unanswered: the DAC should provide an explanation of whether, and how, it will address our concerns.
- A CSO engagement policy that aims to strengthen participation of CSOs from the South. Efforts to intensify outreach and dialogue with CSOs should be cognisant of the barriers to Southern CSO engagement, and work towards bringing in and strengthening Southern CSO voices in DAC processes.