Are CSOs really involved in the SDGs, as promised by the international community?

CSOs are recognized as key partners in the collaborative pursuit of the SDGs, which provide a positive framework for action and dialogue. However, a recent study found that those CSOs who manage to become and remain engaged are mainly part of the aid system and operate in urban locations. Does the inclusion of these powerful CSOs mean that civil society is included in the pursuit of the SDGs, or is the opposite the case?

Task Team SDGs Header

The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development recognizes that the realization of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) can only be made possible by strong global partnerships and cooperation. Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) are recognized as key partners in the successful implementation and monitoring of the SDGs.

In the face of this increasingly urgent global agenda, the Task Team on CSO Development Effectiveness and Enabling Environment (Task Team) commissioned a research study focused on the identification of ‘factors that help and hinder the engagement of CSOs in the implementation of the SDGs’. The study was undertaken by the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS) under the leadership of ISS scholars Kees Biekart and Alan Fowler. Key findings discussed here are derived from the Synthesis Report, summarizing evidence from 21 case studies in six countries: Costa Rica, Ghana, Hungary, Lao PDR, Nepal, and Tanzania.

Enabling environments required

Advancing the role of civil society in development requires two things: an enabling environment for CSOs operation and CSOs’ commitment to their own effectiveness. CSO enabling environment refers to an environment that supports the establishment and operation of CSOs, including multi-stakeholder dialogues, legal frameworks, as well as policies and actions of donors and governments towards CSOs. CSO development effectiveness is concerned with what CSOs themselves can do to address their effectiveness, transparency and accountability in order to effectively engage in development.

The crowding out of non-dominant CSOs

Unfortunately, one of the main findings in this study is that there is a lack of diversity of types of CSOs engaged in SDG processes, with those CSOs that are part of the aid system and in an urban location at an advantage: “This six-country study sees not only an urban bias in CSOs pursuing the SDGs, but also an intellectual class bias that is globally connected,” the study shows (Biekart, Fowler 2020).

This finding is confirmed by the 2018 Global Partnership Monitoring Round of the Global Partnership for Effective Development Cooperation (GPEDC) as well as the OECD publication ‘Development Assistance Committee Members and Civil Society’ published this year. During the GPEDC 2018 Monitoring Round, CSOs reported that “…these consultations are not systematic, which hinders their ability to provide quality input. Results indicate that these engagement opportunities by both partner country governments and development partners could be more regular, predictable and involve a more diverse set of actors” (GPEDC 2019). Similarly, the OECD study concluded that “systematic dialogue with CSOs is much more common at headquarters level than at partner country level. Dialogue does not necessarily meet good practice standards such as inclusivity, joint agenda setting, co-ordination among members, accessibility and timelines” (OECD 2020).

From this study, it becomes clear that there is a wide array of local, traditional and/or informal civil society being ignored. CSOs’ SDG-related knowledge is diminishing at local, rural areas, which also means that those CSOs’ skills, interests and areas of influence are not being used as powerful resources towards the realization of the SDGs.

Possible explanations

The lack of diversity of CSOs engagement in the SDGs is explained by the fact that governments play a main role in deciding which CSOs to include or exclude in such dialogues. It can also be explained by the finding that the SDGs have not led to any significant change in the way donors within the official aid system support CSOs. There is no significant increase in coordination like a common SDG funding pot or an effective national platform for donors’ dialogue with CSOs. Traditional competitive bidding and short-term support to CSOs remain the norm. Donors’ support continues to benefit large (inter)national urban located CSOs. The OECD 2020 report confirms this finding by concluding that most of member funding favours member countriy and international CSOs.

Donors may need to consider different funding mechanisms and requirements, which can be met by those CSOs that have less experience with and access to international funding. This is an opportunity for donors to encourage cooperation between CSOs and provide capacity development support, which can improve CSOs’ chances of being included in development processes in the future.

A step backward?

Governments are generally interested in the additional resources that CSOs bring to the table, but with narrower rules that limit their autonomy as independent development actors. The study shows a variety of mechanisms used by governments to constrain civic space, like limiting information access, selective CSO inclusion/exclusion, and stringent laws inducing self-censorship. It is important to stress that this study found that the implementation of the SDGs does not by itself lead to an ‘opening’ of civic space. The GPEDC 2018 monitoring round also confirmed that the enabling environment for civil society organizations is deteriorating. CSOs’ engagement in pursuing the SDGs provides insights into whether or not civic freedoms are respected, but it does not necessarily mean that a country is complying with international civic freedom agreements.

The need for continued engagement

All these findings demonstrate clear non-compliance with existing international commitments to ensure that CSO contributions to development reach their full potential. The work of the Task Team is, therefore, pertinent and urgent: bringing together donors, partner country governments, and CSOs to engage in open and inclusive dialogue to find common ground; recognizing the role of civil society as a shared responsibility; and helping implement the SDGs.

About the author:

Vanessa de OliveiraVanessa de Oliveira is a Senior Policy Officer at the Task Team Secretariat. The Task Team Secretariat is hosted by ISS.

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1 Comment
  • Mwirumubi Walter
    4 September 2020

    International Donors needs to change their funding strategy of mainly focusing on big international and national CSOs but balance their funding involving both these big CSOs and grassroot CSOs both formal and informal. The so called big organization (interms of budgets, staffing, experience) continue to exploit the informal and small growing CSOs by extracting information from them and use it to fulfill the needs of donors without having the real ground experience. In the process many of these big CSOs continue to give second hard information that most times do not represent the real image on ground.