Civil society speaks but who is listening?

David Kode, Policy Officer for CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation*

I was asked by the Africa Platform for Development Effectiveness to give a presentation on civil society perspectives/updates towards the Busan High Level Forum during the Platform’s Case Studies Peer Review Session which ran from 5-7 June 2011.  The session brought together representatives from the academic world, business foundations, research institutes, civil society and development organisations.   It was not a gathering for civil society but was a forum which brought together development practitioners to review a select set of case studies which can be used studiously as examples showcasing synergies in an African-led development paradigm based on south-south cooperation.

I listened with keen interest as introductory remarks at the meeting indicated that the view held by development practitioners from Africa was that while aid is a vital aspect of the development objectives of countries in the global south, experience has shown that it is not a sustainable way of reaching the development targets of these countries.  The results depicted by African countries and others in the global south indicate the urgency needed in implementing an alternative paradigm which focuses on development effectiveness as opposed to aid effectiveness. The aim of this new paradigm, the meeting agreed, is to bridge the development gap which will ultimately lead to new thinking in the global development cooperation architecture.

The case studies interestingly covered national, inter-country and continent-wide initiatives showcasing south-south cooperation and encompassed a wide variety of fields ranging from health, politics, the environment, social issues, the economy and development.   The main thrust was that if aid in the form of financial assistance has not delivered its necessary objectives, then the current aid architecture should be complemented with capacity building based on key cases of south-south cooperation.

I was invited as one of two representatives from civil society to provide civil society updates towards the Busan High Level Forum and was struck by the divide which still exists between civil society and those outside the sector.  My presentation focused on the current efforts from civil society to agree on a concerted action plan which will make a difference at Busan and in the process I highlighted the challenging environment in which civil society operates in some African countries.

The reaction from some colleagues attending the meeting on civil society’s concerns on efforts to restrict and regulate its activities in some countries clearly mirrored reactions from governments when civil society reiterates calls for accountability and the respect of the fundamental rights and freedoms of citizens.

Some participants were quick to point out that the laws and regulations promulgated by governments which curtail the activities of civil society are aimed at preventing donors from spreading “a western dominated neo-liberal agenda” in African countries.  One participant was of the view that the whole concept of civil society finds little relevance as civil society tries to be involved in all spheres of planning and was quick to use ‘security concerns’ to justify the stiff regulations  placed on civil society.

A key message emerging from the meeting from my point of view is that governments and other development actors refuse to, or do not really understand the dynamics of civil society and its objectives. In spite of numerous discussions and interactions between civil society and governments at different levels the lines of understanding are still quite wide.

The reaction from some participants at the meeting shows that in some countries governments still  view civil society with suspicion and as an agent of ‘foreign-driven change’  and are not willing to view civil society as an independent development actor in its own right.  So, is the ongoing discussion between civil society and governments at national and international level a dialogue of the deaf?

* David was amongst the key note speakers at the Africa Platform for Development Effectiveness Conference, Johannesburg, South Africa June 5-7