Brian Tomlinson, AidWatch Canada
Facilitator for the DAC CSO Reference Group’s Working Group on the DAC Recommendation to Enable Civil Society 
May 17, 2022

In July 2021, the OECD’s Development Assistance Committee (DAC) unanimously adopted the DAC Recommendation on Enabling Civil Society in Development Co-operation and Humanitarian Assistance.  The DAC is a unique international forum that brings together 30 donors involved in development cooperation and Official Development Assistance (ODA).  The Recommendation is the first-ever common standard for DAC members (and other official actors that adhere) “to enhance how they address civic space and work with civil society actors” maximizing CSO contributions to the Agenda 2030 and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
While not legally binding, a Recommendation is the strongest level of accountability for DAC members and is a significant milestone for CSOs in furthering their enabling environment with DAC donors who – with partner country governments – are a major stakeholder in enabling CSOs development efforts.  

The Recommendation was developed by DAC’s Development Cooperation Directorate (DCD), through its Foresight Outreach and Policy Reform (FOR) Unit, working closely with the DAC donors’ Community of Practice on Civil Society and in regular discussions with CSOs and their detailed input through the DAC CSO Reference Group.

The Recommendation is based on the recognition of the diversity of civil society and its varied roles.  It situates critical areas for enabling civil society within international human rights standards.  In particular, it recognizes CSOs as independent development actors in their own right, addressing the issues around shrinking and closing civic space and emphasizing leadership, local ownership and mutual accountability with civil society in the Global South.  An important dimension of the Recommendation is to shift the highly unequal power dynamics affecting civil society in the current structures of development cooperation. 

It creates huge opportunities to be an ambitious and far-reaching tool for CSOs’ advocacy and dialogue on these issues in both donor and partner countries.  CSOs can play crucial roles in promoting its full implementation, pushing for change and holding donors to account for major reforms that align their policies and practices with a fully enabled civil society.

Implementation and Working with the Recommendation
In approving and adhering to the DAC Recommendation, all DAC members make a political pledge to “do their utmost to fully implement” its commitments.  It is also a unique document for civil society, and as such, may require some learning on its most effective use in CSO policy advocacy.  

What are some ways CSOs could consider working with the Recommendation?
Socializing the Recommendation. Creating knowledge and sharing learning among civil society about the Recommendation, its commitments, and its potential as an entry point for advocacy and dialogue with donors on issues that matter to CSOs is crucial.  The Recommendation will not in itself bring change.  But when CSOs give profile to its specific commitments, the Recommendation serves as an effective entry point for dialogue and advocacy with donors on politically challenging issues that are disabling civil society development.  Through their adherence, donors have already committed to engage in this dialogue.

Promoting the commitments in the Recommendation at country level. Each donor and partner country reality for enabling civil society is unique.  Enabling civil society depends upon changes in specific policies and practices.  CSOs can proactively discuss with relevant donors those Recommendation commitments that are most pertinent to their circumstances and make proposals for change in specific DAC member’s policies and practices.  To advance implementation, a donor could

  • Socialize the Recommendation and its implications with its Embassies and partner country offices, working to embed relevant changes in all donor policies affecting civil society seeking their proposals for implementation;
  • Review their policies and practices against the Recommendation’s specific commitments, undertaken with participation of a full diversity of CSOs in both the donor and partner countries, creating a roadmap to embed relevant changes in all donor policies affecting civil society;
  • Review it at partner country level, by mapping CSOs that have benefited from donor finance and those who have been excluded, with the aim to improve equitable access for a greater diversity of CSOs;
  • Support dialogues and commit to changes in practices in areas such as  — i) rebalancing funding relationships through direct and core funding for Southern CSO actors; ii) careful measures to regularly engage partner country governments in dialogue on current civic space issues, in close collaboration with local civil society; or iii) changes to donor regulatory and administrative regimes that can limit equitable partnerships through Northern CSOs and Southern CSO access.
  • Support robust CSO roles in the regular DAC peer review of their policies and practices, which will include progress made on the DAC Recommendation.

Meanwhile, CSOs need to continue to work on improving their own accountability, transparency and equitable relationships, while donors acknowledge in the Recommendation that they must proactively enable these initiatives by civil society.

Promoting the monitoring of the Recommendation at the OECD DAC. CSOs have been working on the Recommendation through a DAC CSO Reference Group, which is an open North/South CSO platform coordinating CSO engagement and advocacy with the DAC on a range of development cooperation issues. A civil society Working Group has been formed on the implementation  of the Recommendation, which is open to all interested CSOs.  It facilitates CSO exchanges with the DAC and its Community of Practice on Civil Society.  The latter brings together DAC member officials with responsibility for their donor programs with civil society.  The Community of Practice has the mandate to ensure implementation, peer learning and monitoring of the Recommendation.

In this regard, CSOs at the DAC are promoting the institutionalization of the Recommendation in all DAC bodies, in all High and Senior Level Meetings of DAC members, in all DAC consultations with civil society, and in the regular peer reviews of DAC members’ policies and practices.  The Working Group is engaging the Community of Practice and the DAC DCD on the development of specific tools.  For example, it recently hosted a discussion forum for Southern civil society colleagues to generate proposals for donor reforms and alternative funding modalities that strengthen leadership, independence and sustainability for Southern CSOs, consistent with the Recommendation.

The Recommendation is essentially a high-level political document that enables robust accountability for donors in taking up their responsibilities for an effective enabling environment for civil society.  Civil society in turn should take advantage of opportunities created by the Recommendation’s commitments to advocate for shifts in donor policies and practices in order to reverse CSO closing and shrinking space.

Leave a Reply