The best and worst of times for civil society engagement

Published on Wednesday, 01 June 2016

Published by Suzanne Nazal on Wednesday, 01 June 2016

ADB and CSO representatives meet in Frankfurt.
ADB and CSO representatives meet in Frankfurt.

It has been almost two decades now since ADB formalized its cooperation with NGOs and civil society organizations (CSOs), both of which have grown tremendously in size and diversity, establishing them as influential and independent actors in the development process.

CSOs play a multi-faceted role in ADB’s operations. Not only do they help articulate marginalized voices, but in many instances, they enhance transparency and accountability in governance. CSOs implement innovative and grassroots-oriented programs in core development sectors such as health, education, water and sanitation, food security, and gender equality, and contribute to developing new knowledge and theories. CSOs also perform an essential watchdog function, and help monitor development services.

ADB’s 49th ADB Annual Meeting, which took place last month in Frankfurt, Germany, brought close to 300 CSO representatives from all over other world to participate in a dialogue and share knowledge on critical development concerns. One of the learning sessions under the Civil Society Program was focused on “civil society space”; this refers to an environment in which a dynamic, diverse, and independent civil society is able to operate freely to effectively carry out its work. The question is then – is this space decreasing?

The topic has become relevant in recent years, as civil society has become more active in contributing to the promotion, protection, and advancement of human rights.

Having participated in several ADB annual meetings, here are some takeaways I have learned on civil society, and why it is both the best and the worst of times to engage with it:

  • CSOs are recognized as important development actors, and have been called to participate in key international development dialogues. They mobilize billions of dollars annually, and complement governments in poverty reduction work.
  • The Sustainable Development Goals are a new development paradigm that offer opportunities for increased collaboration with civil society.
  • Government regulations tend to restrict CSO operations in some countries. A study by CIVICUS suggests that in 2014 there were serious threats to civic freedoms in at least 96 countries.
  • Some governments are making it more difficult for CSOs to access foreign funding, while domestic donors are not yet able or willing to support CSO activities.
  • Traditional funding for CSOs is shrinking, while new sources of finance are emerging, notably from private sector players.
  • ICT and social media open up online platforms for citizen participation that can be used to both help monitor and restrict civil society activities.

In these best of times and worst of times, ADB can play a vital role in helping address the challenges brought about by any lack of an enabling environment for CSOs to operate. ADB’s membership to the Open Government Partnership (OGP) offers opportunities to work with governments and CSOs to promote citizen participation and transparency, as well as fight corruption and strengthen governance. These efforts can bring about more meaningful government-civil society cooperation for OGP member countries.

Internally, ADB is in the process of simplifying contracting procedures and mainstreaming partnership arrangements to facilitate engagement with CSOs in its operations. As ADB strives to strengthen dialogue with CSOs, the use of online communication channels should be increasingly harnessed for real-time information sharing with stakeholders. In addition, knowledge sharing with CSOs and other development partners can help identify new and constructive engagement models that may work well in ADB’s developing member countries.  

Despite these changing times, cooperation with civil society remains a strategic priority for ADB because CSOs share our vision of an Asia and the Pacific free of poverty.