Interview with Viveka Carlestam,
Senior Policy Specialist for Civil Society at the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA)
May 3, 2022
Viveka Carlestam has served as senior policy specialist for civil society within SIDA’s civil society unit for the past four years. We recently talked with her about how to move forward with the implementation of the DAC Recommendation on Enabling Civil Society. Before her current position, Viveka also worked with Swedish civil society organizations focused on international development while living in different countries.
GS: What is the OECD DAC Recommendation on Enabling Civil Society for Development Cooperation and Humanitarian Assistance? Why is it important?
VC: In 2017, Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA)’s civil society unit decided to support a secondment to the OECD Development Assistance Committee (DAC), and build up a civil society workstream which, later contributed to the OECD DAC Recommendation on Enabling Civil Society for Development Cooperation and Humanitarian Assistance, approved in July 2021. As background for this Recommendation, very comprehensive research was previously conducted and launched by OECD DAC in 2020. This study identified a set of gaps regarding DAC members on civil society support and engagement highlighting a significant gap between DAC members’ policiesand their actual practices. It also identified that 93% of all DAC countries’ civil society funding went to their own domestic CSOs, that is INGOs, while only 7% was allocated through contracts to the CSOs from the Global South. This finding, in turn, revealed the need for DAC members to walk the talk and develop a Recommendation directed to DAC donors or suppliers of international assistance about news ways regarding how to fund and engage with civil society from the Global South.
The set-up which has been put in place by DAC members to support and fund civil society several decades ago and their underlying narratives are now being questioned. According to the research entitled “Time to Decolonise Aid”, published by Peace Direct in 2021, the architecture as well as several practices for supporting civil society internationally are based on racism, including the language and narratives used, and assumptions made. The assumption that civil society from the Global South is not necessarily trustworthy and/ or lacks sufficient capacities – despite donors’ efforts on capacity building of local partners during the past few decades – is at the centre of the debate for rethinking the architecture for donor cooperation with civil society. This raises a few issues which may be uncomfortable for some actors – including some intermediaries – as their power and privileges might be challenged. Therefore, the key issue is how to advance on this reform without making many people angry or afraid during this journey.
The OECD DAC recommendation is a common framework for all 30 DAC members – including the European Union – and it builds upon 3 pillars: Pillar I: Respecting, protecting and promoting civic space; Pillar II: How we support and engage with civil society and funding modalities; and Pillar III: Incentivizing CSOs own effectiveness, transparency and accountability. These three pillars are interconnected and complement each other. It is important that they walk hand-in-hand.
Concerning Pillar I, donors should develop clear policy documents on what they are aiming at and why and how, while also monitoring openings and restrictions on civic space and fostering stronger, more coherent pro-active and preventive actions, as well as countering mis and disinformation, harassment, discrimination, and anti-democratic narratives. Concerning Pillar II, it recommends supporting a more diverse range of civil society actors by reaching out to grassroots organizations, social movements, networks and informal actors, as well as providing more flexible and trust-based funding; that is, core and direct support to civil society from the Global South. Regarding Pillar III, it recommends building on good practices for CSOs self-regulation and accountability, recognizing existing capacities and strengthening them.
The DAC will monitor the implementation of the Recommendation through peer reviews and other means. The Recommendation is aimed at shifting power to the Global South and strengthening local ownership, which is a key principle of the development effectiveness agenda.
GS: How is SIDA supporting the implementation of the OECD DAC Recommendation on Enabling Civil Society?
VC: It is worth mentioning that SIDA’s Guiding Principles for its own Engagement with and Support to Civil Society published in 2019 have informed this OECD DAC Recommendation. After its adoption, we have promoted this Recommendation both internally and externally. For instance, last week, we had a virtual meeting with Swedish embassies across several countries in Africa to discuss how they could implement the OECD DAC Recommendation where six of our embassies shared their roadmap for it.
As part of our efforts to implement this Recommendation, SIDA is expected to engage in systematic dialogue with local civil society from partner countries. We also plan to provide much more long-term direct and core support to local civil society. If SIDA has been supporting local CSO capacity building for nearly 50 years, it is time to trust and allow local civil society to decide what to do, when and how.
In addition, we seek to support a much wider range of local civil society actors, including independent alliances and coalitions of local civil society actors, who will develop their contextual analysis to inform their own strategies. Ideally, SIDA could transfer funds to local CSO umbrella associations who can administer and fund other local CSOs in their own countries. In this regard, it is important for these local CSO umbrella associations to be democratic, accountable and inclusive.
Of course, there will be challenges when introducing these changes which will need to be addressed along the way. We do not have the answers to everything, so we will need to learn as we move forward with implementation and make any necessary adjustments.
Last but not least, SIDA is also funding and participating in a project on Reimagining the INGO (or RINGO). This international project is a systems change project that seeks to transform global civil society to better respond to today´s challenges. For real power shift to take place, international NGOs (INGOs) must share more roles and decision-making with Southern partners and be prepared to let local civil society take over the job. This way, greater impact can be achieved and INGOs may find new ways of supporting and allying with Global South partners in a relevant and equitable way.