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This is part of the Structured dialogue: background paper about the Structured dialogue (SD)
The previous page is The international context

Four major phenomena need to be examined to understand the European context:

  • (i) the European paradigm shift towards participatory development, embraced by the EC and MS;
  • (ii) current debates around the notion and role of traditional development actors like the European Development NGOs and emergence of a whole array of “new” actors in the EC cooperation arena;
  • (iii) the rise of Local authorities in international cooperation and;
  • (iv) the rethinking and reengineering efforts, which have gained momentum in the past years in the realm of EU external cooperation.

The Paradigm shift towards participatory development

While the involvement of CSOs & LAs in European external cooperation and development policy has a long history, it has substantially evolved over time, shaped by strong political factors, which in turn have shaped successive development models and cooperation approaches and modalities.

Particularly the last decade has witnessed a radical change, as the European donor community, championed by the EC and a number of Member States and echoing international trends have progressively, embraced a paradigm shift in its relations with CSOs, based upon the following assumptions:

  • Development and governance are seen as complex, multi-actor and multi-layered processes, whereby a multitude of actors –state and non state / private and public / for profit and not-for profit interact.
  • CSOs are no longer regarded as mere ‘beneficiaries’ or ‘executing agencies’ of projects, but as key ‘actors’ and ‘partners’ in the overall development process. They bring a unique added value fostering democracy, governance, justice and human rights and should thus be considered as development actors in their own right.
  • Civil society is recognized in its full diversity, taking account of the wide range of organisations covered by the term. Notwithstanding historic-driven particularities a broad definition is accepted by most donors, including the EC.
  • Participation is understood as a fundamental principle, thus going beyond its understanding as a mere means to improve aid effectiveness. Within this framework participation is about giving people a voice in their own development and thus, in public policies that shape their lives.
  • In compliance with this fundamental principle, the EC and several Member States are committed to ensuring CSO participation of all stakeholders in countries’ development and in the political, social and economic dialogue processes; to building capacity for these actors; to strengthening their voice and provide aid through different modalities that can be complementary.

From a local and regional authority perspective , the current decade has also marked a shift, since Decentralisation processes gradually became prominent in a large number of third countries. These processes have added a new sphere of government at the local level, with (elected) local authorities bound to operate close to citizens and mandated by law to provide a wide range of public goods and services. Accordingly, LA are increasingly regarded as key actors with a unique and specific added value for enhancing local governance and in delivering public services.

This major two-fold shift towards an enhanced engagement with both CSOs and LA is slowly but steadily affecting the ways in which the EC and several Member States relate to these actors, with important adjustment and positive developments taking place in programming processes, North and South CSOs & LA support strategies (including Capacity building) and internal knowledge of CSOs arena and donor management capacities to deal with CSOs&LA.

Across the world, diverse interesting and innovative initiatives that foster genuine participation of CSOs & LAs are taking place and European donors are increasingly experimenting with new engagement modalities , aimed at enhancing strategic alliances with these development and governance actors. These initiatives are contributing to the development of a sound body of evidence from which to engage on stock-taking exercises, which are particularly relevant in the current framework marked by profound development discussions and debates.

Growing debates round the specificity of European NGOs and emergence of “new” development actors

European organizations active in Partners countries have proved their added-value in the last decades. European NGOs and others CSOs have continuously played a very valuable role in diverse areas of development cooperation from direct implementation to capacity-building programmes, from awareness-raising to Advocacy campaigns.

In the frame of the new aid paradigm, there is a call for a redefinition of the specific role played by traditional European development actors, in an increasingly complex, multi-actor, multi-layered and decentralised European cooperation system, whereby direct engagement with Partners countries CSOs is gaining momentum (see Scanteam study). No longer automatically regarded as the “magic bullet”, European NGOs have come under pressure to be increasingly accountable, and re-examine and explain their autonomy, added value and traditional roles in the development sphere.

This is particularly relevant in view of the emergence of a whole new array of development actors, which despite their sometimes long experience in development, have recently incurred in the EC external cooperation (like trade unions, political foundations, philanthropic foundations, cooperatives,...).

Other significant factors pushing current debates are:

  • (i) the increasingly expanded and diversified amalgam of CSOs& LA in partner countries;
  • (ii) the growth of social movements and Diasporas within civil societies and;
  • (iii) as a response to current debates and requirements of the aid effectiveness agenda. Debates are not new, nevertheless, as can be drawn from discussions held by CONCORD back in 2004, in the course of its general Assembly, around the roles of European NGOs.

Indeed, European NGOs –for a longer time- but also “new” development actors- are increasingly confronted with a number of fundamental questions, like: do European NGOs need strengthening in their emerging roles (watchdog, advocacy and capacity building roles), or should they continue playing an operational role in developing countries? What are the roles that partners countries CSOs and LAs expect European NGOs and other European CSOs to play? Where does the added-value of the European NGOs lie? What is the added value of the “new European development actors? How should their right of initiative be interpreted particularly in view of the AAA? (see Working group 1)

As a number of studies argue the 21st century presents a combination of characteristics that require NGOs involved in international development to change more in this decade than they have done in the past three.

The rise of Local Authorities in international cooperation

Until very recently, the realm of international relations was the sole preserve of national governments. European local and regional authorities, for their part, focused on issues to do with the basic services provided to residents and with urban and regional management, which were regarded as strictly local matters largely untouched by dynamics at an international level.

The phenomenon of globalisation and the evolution of political dimensions other than the state-nation (transfer of competences to supra or infra-state institutions, processes of decentralisation) in the last decades altered this situation and created the conditions for the emergence and/or strengthening of cities and regions as key players in international relations. In parallel, decentralisation processes in most developing countries enabled local authorities to carry out new functions and responsibilities.

As a result, international cooperation between sub-state authorities (known as decentralised cooperation) is now an emerging, dynamic and complex phenomenon that is transforming the practice of local stakeholders and at the same time offers EU cooperation new perspectives and innovative approaches.

Indeed, several multilateral programs, such as Urb-Al or Asia Urbs, have given financial support and fostered innovative decentralised cooperation approaches, showing the complexities of spontaneous relations between local and regional governments of the European Union and partner countries, as well as their potential benefits (e.g. institutional strengthening that is fostered on both sides; positioning the local sphere on the agendas of higher institutional levels; allowing local levels to articulate their demands on fields such as democratic governance, poverty reduction and regional integration; etc).

Building on the momentum to enhance current rethinking and reengineering efforts

Experience shows that it takes time to translate a new policy framework into a consistent set of strategies and practices. This is particularly the case of the EC, as reflected in the various recent studies, according to which, despite the progress that has been made on mainstreaming participatory development and the capacity that the EC has shown to innovate and develop new relationships with CSOs&LAs, much remains to be done to bridge the gap between stated EC policy objectives and actual practices.

Nevertheless, the EC has developed positive initiatives to integrate CSOs&LAs throughout the programming cycle, like:

  • Various consultation processes organized in partner countries, even in fragile environments, throughout the cooperation cycle –namely during the programming phase of Country Strategy Papers and National Indicative Programmes, and on occasion of Mid Term and Final Evaluation exercises-, as well several consultation processes held in Brussels (like SAG by DG DEV) and frequent hoc meetings with CSO and LA umbrella organisations .
  • The shift towards an actor-based approach, particularly evident in such instruments as the NSA&LA or the EIDHR thematic programme.
  • The commitment to use EC geographic and thematic programmes in a complementary and coherent manner in the EC's engagement with CSOs & LRAs at country-level .
  • The use of geographic programmes as a strategic framework for strengthening local civil society’s advocacy, watchdog and service delivery roles , while at the same time fostering interaction between CSOs and the State at central, regional and local level.
  • The use of thematic programmes (in particular, NSA&LA and EIDHR programme) to support CSOs & LRAs, particularly in sensitive areas of work (in Countries where it is not foreseeable to sustain CSOs directly through the National Authorities of the partner country) .
  • Positive developments noted in sector budget processes, even though opportunities for CSOs & LRAs to participate strategically in sector and macro-economic approaches are still limited .
  • The establishment of a Civil Society Help Desk (CISOCH), conceived as an interactive platform designed to provide stakeholders with clear and coherent information on and for civil society through a central point of access .

Recommendations issued from major recent EC evaluations

These innovations and changes are still in an incipient phase. Implementation limits and shortcomings remain, some of which are already being tackled, while others are still being analysed.

The Evaluation of EC Aid Delivery through CSOs

The evaluation underlines that the EC finds itself in a transition period towards implementing participatory development. The overall recommendation calls upon the EC to ensure a much more consistent application of its new political commitments towards civil society with a view to improving the relevance, effectiveness, efficiency and sustainability of aid delivered through CSOs. Bold changes are required to

  • (i) enhance policy coherence in the use of the CSO channel;
  • (ii) make a better use of the added value of CSOs;
  • (iii) ‘scale up’ positive gains at project level by binding them into a viable strategy;
  • (iv); use the full range of EC aid instruments, including new aid modalities and;
  • (v) safeguard the credibility of the EC in providing support to CSOs. Finally, the evaluation also underlines that in order to develop a culture of participation, it is necessary to properly institutionalize a learning process, as well as changes at the level of attitudes, working methods, instruments and procedures.

The European Court of Auditors (ECA) report

The report looks at whether the EC

  • (i) ensures that NSAs are effectively involved in development cooperation;
  • (ii) has efficient management systems to give funding to relevant and results-oriented NSA activities; and
  • (iii) whether it allow for adequate capacity building of NSAs. The ECA report highlights the importance of consultations to deliver more meaningful engagement with NSAs in the development cooperation process, as current practice falls short of the sustained and structured dialogue envisaged by EU legislation and guidelines. Secondly, the audit states that Capacity building is a core mechanism of EC support to NSAs, and recommends a more strategic approach towards this as found in some African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) countries.

The Capitalisation Study on Capacity building Support Programmes for NSAs under the 9th EDF

The study provides an in-depth assessment of the Capacity building programmes supported by the EC in the ACP region. It underlines that EC NSA support still revolves around a project-based logic and has not really progressed towards an actor-based logic, whereby the emphasis is put on the process of supporting NSA within and vis-à-vis the country-specific contexts, and on their role of potential drivers of change. It also highlights the need to develop a clear view on the added value of the various families of CSOs, and recommends mappings as a key diagnostic tool. As regards capacity building, the reports underlines the need to have a consistent overall approach , and proposes several improvements on the tools which are currently used (i.e. calls for proposals, etc) as well as innovative mechanisms which could be adapted to EC cooperation. In terms of NSA participation in general, the report advocates the need for the EC to elaborate a global, country-specific strategy for engagement with NSA, and to search Complementarity between geographic and thematic instruments. The report also emphasizes the need for regular and structured consultation processes which reinforce the role of NSAs as development actors, particularly their participation in political dialogue and watchdog mechanisms.

Mid Term review of the NSA&LA thematic programme

The review intended to provide recommendations for the formulation of the new strategy for covering 2011-2013, more specifically regarding the programme set-up and the management of modalities.

The figure hereafter traces, from a dynamic perspective; (i) the evolution of major dialogue and consultation initiatives between the EC, CSOs & LAs ; (ii) the momentum gained in the rethinking of EC- CSO & LA relations , based on the studies and evaluations conducted in the past years.

Background information on the relations between the EC and CSOs & LAs - related consultation processes and studies

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The next page of the background paper from the Structured dialogue is In conclusion: a relevant and timely initiative