ADB's engagement with CSOs and NGOs has changed over time, and Strategy 2020 highlights partnerships with both as central to ADB's project development processes — but there are still misconceptions about working with CSOs, which create challenges not only for ADB but for other development institutions as well.
"Partnership" is an overused and sometimes misused term. If you google the word, it takes you to resources relating to business ventures and cooperative arrangements with the end view of maximizing profit.
In development discussions, however, how and when do we use "partnership?" And how do civil society and NGOs come in?
ADB's engagement with civil society organizations (CSOs) and NGOs has been evolving since ADB’s 1998 policy on cooperation with NGOs came into effect. ADB’s Strategy 2020 long-term strategic framework highlights partnerships with development institutions—including CSOs—as central to ADB's project development processes. Yet, there are a number of misconceptions about working with CSOs, which create challenges not only for ADB but for other development institutions as well.
1. Confrontation. There is an age-old perception that CSOs only operate as watchdogs and confront institutions like the ADB when they detect negative behavior. This is rapidly changing, though. While many NGOs continue to raise issues in relation to ADB projects, most of our operations actually involve constructive engagement with civil society groups. CSOs cooperate with ADB in various ways, for instance when village organizations help ADB carry out health services, or when CSOs share their expertise in disaster response, are just two examples.
2. Engaging with CSOs is expensive and time consuming. Consulting with CSOs may take time and resources. Experience shows, however, that working with CSOs—especially in the early stages of the project cycle—brings about better development results. Getting community-based organizations, women’s groups, and other nonprofits involved can provide important on-the-ground information that is not otherwise readily available. Meaningful consultation helps mitigate risks, leads to improved project outcomes, and prevents costly project delays. At the end of the day, organizing dialogue could turn out to be the most efficient way to manage successful projects.
3. Contracting equals partnership. Contracting CSOs as consultants is only one of the ways to work with CSOs. ADB recognizes the knowledge and expertise that CSOs can offer in our projects. But partnership should go beyond engaging CSOs merely as hired hands. Genuine participation happens when civil society representatives are able to contribute to decision making and influence project outcomes.
4. CSOs have weak capacity to engage. While small organizations typically lack the institutional capacity to engage with institutions like ADB, many CSOs in countries with a more established civil society sector have been able to engage very effectively not only with multilaterals, but also with governments and the private sector as well. At the international level, organizations like Oxfam and WWF have a large capacity to share their expertise in key global development dialogues.
5. One size fits all. There is no single formula to making civil society partnerships work. One needs to take into account the local context to be effective, consider carefully the sociopolitical situation of the country in question, and the capacity and preparedness of CSOs to successfully engage.
The first step to developing true, full, and effective partnerships with CSOs is debunking these myths. All development actors should identify mutual objectives in the overall goal of poverty reduction, recognize the advantages of working in partnerships, and invest time and resources in them. This would benefit everyone.