Friday, 26 June 2015 00:00

No CSO Effectiveness without Istanbul Principles

No CSO effectiveness without Istanbul principles

Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) have over the years become channels for social solidarity, service and mobilization to enable people to better claim all their rights to improve conditions of life and to build a democratic society. Through CSOs, people actively express their ‘citizenship’ in relation to the accountability of state and government obligations to respect, protect and fulfill human rights. Alone and in collaboration with CSOs and other actors, CSOs act in development to carry out mandate that includes but isn’t limited to delivery of basic services and essential infrastructures at local level, particularly in social services such as health protection and care, education, water and sanitation, while empowering communities to seek fulfillment of their right to these services from government; Engaging communities, civil society, the private sector, local government authorities and other development actors to collaborate and seek synergies based on mutually agreed development priorities and approaches; and Monitoring government and donor policies and development practices, through policy research and development, policy dialogue and facilitating democratic accountability for excluded and marginalized populations, based on local knowledge. 

Suffice to say therefore, that CSOs are a vibrant and essential feature in the democratic life of countries across the globe. All governments, as signatories to the Paris Declaration and the AAA, are to work in partnership with all development actors, including CSOs, to create enabling environments that extend their commitments from aid to development effectiveness. CSO development effectiveness speaks to the impact of CSO actions for development. These actions for development will be effective if they bring about sustainable change that addresses the causes, as well as the symptoms, of poverty, inequality and marginalization. For CSOs, development effectiveness is linked to multi-faceted human and social development processes directly involving and empowering people living in poverty and discriminated and marginalized populations. 

For CSOs, development effectiveness requires openness to many development alternatives, which are increasingly informed by human rights, environmental sustainability and improved living standards. People living in poverty and marginalized populations have unequal access to development resources. This inequality has persisted not only because of limited capacities and finances for development, but also because of the concentration of socio-economic and political power and barriers to gender equality and rights of minorities. Effective CSO development action, therefore, involves direct engagement with populations living in poverty, not as abject victims, but as development actors and political proponents for development in their own right. 

At the 2008 Accra High Level Forum, all donors and governments committed “to work with CSOs to provide an enabling environment that maximizes their contributions to development”. And one of the key civil society expectations from Busan was a firm, clear and explicit commitment towards providing an enabling environment for civil society, in the face of a wave of restrictions and attacks on CSOs across a wide range of countries. Unfortunately, since then, many CSOs, North and South, have experienced deteriorating enabling conditions for their work. Although governments made explicit commitments to provide an enabling environment for civil society, civil society around the world has seen a regressive trend of shrinking space, and is facing various legal, policy and regulatory barriers as well as unwarranted harassment and persecution. Paragraph 11(b) of the Busan outcome document stipulates that all development actors, including CSOs, should ‘align their efforts with the priorities and policies set out by developing counties’, but this statement should not lead to governments to encroach upon the independence of CSOs, their role as watchdogs and their pursuit of innovation. 

CSOs, as recognized development actors, have shown their commitment to improving their effectiveness in development through their constructive engagement in the Busan process, and must continue to be included in the dialogue. However, global partnerships and international negotiations will only be successful when the enabling environment for CSOs is fully respected. Without guarantees for an enabling environment which respects the fundamental freedoms of civil society, CSOs are unable to play their full role as development actors.

Acknowledging not only their contributions, but also their weaknesses and challenges as development actors, CSOs have affirmed their commitment to take action to improve and be fully accountable for their development practices. They have done this by unanimously adopting the Istanbul principles for CSO Development Effectiveness, which are the result of thorough consultations with thousands of CSOs in more than 70 countries and sectors.  The Istanbul Principles are the foundation for the International Framework for CSO Development Effectiveness , adopted in June 2011 at the Second Global Assembly in Siem Reap, Cambodia. It is a shared framework of principles that defines effective CSO development practice and elaborates the minimum standards for an enabling environment for CSOs, while at the same time promoting civil society’s essential role in the international development system. This framework is therefore the basis for CSO engagement and collaboration with all development actors to achieve the goals of the Busan 4th High Level Forum on Aid Effectiveness (HLF-4). It also sets out guidance for interpreting and aligning CSO practices with the Istanbul Principles in diverse local and sectoral settings. 
The Istanbul principles as a measure of CSO development effectiveness are as explained below:-
1.Respect and promote human rights and social justice: CSOs are effective as development actors when they develop and implement strategies, activities and practices that promote individual and collective human rights, including the right to development, with dignity, decent work, social justice and equity for all people. 
2.Embody gender equality and equity while promoting women and girl’s rights: CSOs are effective as development actors when they promote and practice development cooperation embodying gender equity, reflecting women’s concerns and experience, while supporting women’s efforts to realize their individual and collective rights, participating as fully empowered actors in the development process. 
3.Focus on people’s empowerment, democratic ownership and participation: CSOs are effective as development actors when they support the empowerment and inclusive participation of people to expand their democratic ownership over policies and development initiatives that affect their lives, with an emphasis on the poor and marginalized. 
4.Promote Environmental Sustainability: CSOs are effective as development actors when they develop and implement priorities and approaches that promote environmental sustainability for present and future generations, including urgent responses to climate crises, with specific attention to the socio-economic, cultural and indigenous conditions for ecological integrity and justice. 
5.Practice transparency and accountability: CSOs are effective as development actors when they demonstrate a sustained organizational commitment to transparency, multiple accountability and integrity in their internal operations.
6.Pursue equitable partnerships and solidarity: CSOs are effective as development actors when they commit to transparent relationships with CSOs and other development actors, freely and as equals, based on shared development goals and values, mutual respect, trust, organizational autonomy, long-term accompaniment, solidarity and global citizenship.
7.Create and share knowledge and commit to mutual learning: CSOs are effective as development actors when they enhance the ways they learn from their experience, from other CSOs and development actors, integrating evidence from development practice and results, including the knowledge and wisdom of local and indigenous communities, strengthening innovation and their vision for the future they would like to see.
8.Commit to realizing positive sustainable change: CSOs are effective as development actors when they collaborate to realize sustainable outcomes and impacts of their development actions, focusing on results and conditions for lasting change for people, with special emphasis on poor and marginalized populations, ensuring an enduring legacy for present and future generations.
The essential characteristics of CSOs as distinct development actors – that they are voluntary, diverse, non-partisan, autonomous, non-violent, working and collaborating for change – are the foundation for the Istanbul principles for CSO Development Effectiveness. These principles guide the work and practices of civil society organizations in both peaceful and conflict situations, in different areas of work from grassroots to policy advocacy, and in a continuum from humanitarian emergencies to long-term development. The “Toolkit for Implementation of the Istanbul Principles” , with further elaboration of guidance and indicators, will enable CSO actors to adapt and work with the Framework in the context of their organizational mandates and program realities. 

However, while CSOs are independent and autonomous, they are not development actors working in isolation. Their capacities to live up to principles for development effectiveness are affected by the actions of other development actors. CSO development actors are profoundly affected by the context in which they work. Progress in realizing the Istanbul Principles in CSO practice depends in large measure on enabling government policies, laws and regulations consistent with the Istanbul Principles. Guided by these Principles, CSOs are committed to take pro-active actions to improve and be fully accountable for their development practices. Equally important will be enabling policies and practices by all actors. Through actions consistent with these principles, donor and partner country governments demonstrate their Accra Agenda for Action pledge that they “share an interest in ensuring that CSO contributions to development reach their full potential”. All governments have an obligation to uphold basic human rights – among others, the right to association, the right to assembly, and the freedom of expression. Together these are pre-conditions for effective development. 

All development actors must therefore continue to work together to advance human rights, gender equality and social justice through reforms in development cooperation. The International Framework for CSO Development Effectiveness, with its principles, norms and guidance, is a significant CSO contribution to these reforms. But in the absence of some basic minimum enabling standards on the part of donors and governments, CSOs will be thwarted in their implementation of the Istanbul Principles.
More information on the Istanbul principles and their domestication can be accessed at
Article by: Christine Saru Ndau | Programs Associate, Research & CPDE
christine saru
 Christine Saru is a program associate working under the research program dealing with issues of Policy space and Enabling Environment for CSOs in Africa. Among the countries that have benefitted and continue to benefit from this program include: Zambia, Malawi, Tanzania, Lesotho, Burundi etc. She is also in charge of the execution and operation of the CSO Partnership for Development Effectiveness (CPDE) Platform whose African secretariat is hosted by the organization.
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