November 26, 2011

“Enabling environment” – the tie that binds us

If there is one issue that seems to bind civil society organizations together – that could make or break the outcome of the Fourth High Level Forum on Aid Effectiveness (HLF4) – it is the issue of “enabling environment.” 

The issue essentially came out of the last high level meeting, HLF3, in Accra, Ghana, in which CSOs were recognized as “independent development actors in their own right”, fulfilling a range of roles that are complementary to, but distinct from, those of government. And in order for civil society to reach their full potential, governments agreed to “work with CSOs to provide an enabling environment that maximizes their contributions to development.” 

So what is an “enabling environment”? Technically speaking it is the political and policy context created by governments, official donors and other development actors that affect the ways CSOs may carry out their work. In layman’s terms, it is essentially the amount of political space and freedom that CSOs have to do what they want to do. In this sense, an “enabling environment” is an essential pre-condition for CSOs to be able to realize their full potential in society. 

Since Accra, however, this space has eroded the world over. Civicus, the Act Alliance, and in Canada organizations like Voices, have all documented declining space for civil society. In almost all countries, CSOs, their staff and volunteers are experiencing political, financial and institutional vulnerability, arising from the changing policies and restrictive practices of their governments. 

Civil society is not alone in their perceptions of this threat. 

Speaking as the keynote on the first day of the Busan Global Civil Society Forum, Maina Kiai, the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, also observed that the commitments made by governments to these rights have repeatedly been broken across the world. In addition to intimidation, governments have enacted regulatory frameworks that have inhibited CSOs’ ability to participate in the development planning as well as the disbursement of aid. 

Yet for Mr. Kiai, development without rights is untenable. The Arab Spring, he said, demonstrated that growth and development can only go so far if they are not accompanied by the realization of political freedoms and rights. And CSOs have a critical role to play in this, ”building an active, engaged citizenry, which in turn helps build democracy”. 

Even the Korean example, he said, demonstrated that it is impossible for a country to continue to grow without political rights. 

“Progress towards the realization of economic, social and cultural rights needs high levels of accountability and transparency, underpinned by civil and political rights.” 

So what is the significance of all of this for Busan? 

Mr. Kiai pointed to the work of the Task Team on CSO Development Effectiveness and Enabling Environment (TT), a sub-group of the Working Party on Aid Effectiveness that was established in 2009 to promote the implementation of civil-society related commitments in Accra. 

Co-chaired by Mali, Sweden and the Canadian Council for International Cooperation (on behalf of the Open Forum on CSO Development Effectiveness), a key component of the task team’s work has been to gather evidence on the environments in which CSOs operate and to provide clarity on the characteristics of enabling environments. 

So what then is required of governments? What are the minimum standards and fundamental rights that governments must guarantee to ensure an enabling environment for CSOs? 

The Task Team is clear on this: freedom of association, freedom of expression, the right to operate free from unwarranted state interference, the right to communicate and cooperation, the right to seek and secure funding, and the state’s duty to protect. 

Mr. Kiai welcomed these recommendations in his keynote address, emphasizing that these fundamental rights have already been agreed upon by governments and that, without an enabling space, CSOs cannot work as independent development actors in their own right. 

So what does all of this mean for civil society, for HLF4 and for the current Busan Outcome Document

It means everything, but it could leave us with nothing. 

While Article 21 reaffirms much of what was achieved in Accra – CSOs as development actors, the complementary role they play to government in shaping development policies and plans, and the need for an enabling environment – it goes no further. There is still no clear language around enabling environment and the minimum set of standards for interpreting what this entails. The language suggested by the task team is completely absent. 

As we noted at the beginning, an “enabling environment” is the essential pre-condition for Civil society to be able to realize their full potential. Recognizing the Istanbul Principles and the International Framework on CSO Development Effectiveness in the Outcome Document are important developments. But with no minimum guarantees that give civil society the space to implement the Principles, the recognition is meaningless. 

On November 28th, during the final negotiation of the Outcome Document, BetterAid will continue to try to push these standards into the text. Europe, the UK and Canada have all indicated their support for greater clarity in terms of what constitutes an enabling environment, but it is unclear the extent to which they are supportive of a minimum set of standards. 

Who knows what will happen? But what is certain is that “enabling environment” is the glue that holds civil society together. It allows us to realize our full potential in society. And without that glue, and without some clear standards on what that means, civil society will still hold together, but it could be our support for the outcome document that falls apart. 

This blog post was written by Brian Tomlinson, AidWatch Canada and Co-Chair of the Task Team on CSO Development Effectiveness and Enabling Environment, Shannon Kindornay, The North-South Institute, Fraser Reilly-King, Canadian Council for International Co-operation. 

The views expressed in this blog are those of the authors, and do not necessarily reflect the positions of CCIC or its members.

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