Irish NGOs: working with each other, and with Government
The global “aid effectiveness” debate has thrown new light on the role of NGOs and other civil society organisations in development cooperation.
While many UN agencies and donor governments are unsure about their motives for working with civil society organisations, parts of the Paris Declaration clearly aspire to apply to NGOs. Civil society groups, for their part have decided that it is time to come up with an alternative vision of “Development Effectiveness“.
Amidst the confusion, there may be positive lessons to be drawn from the Irish Government’s approach of working with structures set up by civil society itself.
Inspired by its White Paper on Supporting Voluntary Activity, published in 2000, and the2002 European Commission presented a “Communication” on “Non-State Actors” in EC Development policy-making, the Irish Government set out its vision of the role of civil society in a comprehensive policy paper in 2008.
In those documents, the European Commission and Irish Aid acknowledged that over the last decades civil society organisations have increasingly become key partners in development policy. In fact, most other donors and inter-governmental organisations see a positive role for civil society either as deliverers of essential services, or as facilitators that can demand efficient public services and hold developing country Governments accountable. Some donors also acknowledge a role for NGOs in influencing government policy and lobbying for change.
In recent years, most UN and donor organisations have begun to look critically at their engagement with NGOs, mainly in light of renewed emphasis on large-scale donor-led programmes, often managed on the basis of public tendering procedures open to NGOs and for-profits alike.
The donor community thus is in two minds about the role of civil society. On the one hand, it recognises that the development of an effective civil society with space for critical reflection and debate is crucial for poverty reduction. On the other hand, the focus on effectiveness means that many UN agencies and donor Governments see NGOs first and foremost as providers of services.
In reality, most Governments’ understanding of the role of civil society is less than black-and-white. They recognise the vital role of NGOs to (in the words of the World Bank) “give voice to stakeholders – particularly poor and marginalised populations – and help ensure that their views are factored into policy and program decisions.” Those Governments have taken steps to facilitate dialogue and partnership with civil society organisations and their representative structures and emphasise the need for special consideration of NGOs as a key element of civil society.
In Ireland, the Government has long recognised the added value of NGOs, and this has translated into a number of measures, such as:
- the shaping of a strategic relationship with Dóchas, the national umbrella organisation of Development NGOs;
- strategic, multi-annual funding relationships with individual Irish NGOs; and
- support for NGO capacity building and training in Ireland.
A central element in this strategy is the role played by structures set up by NGOs themselves – structures such as Dóchas. As a membership-driven organisation, Dóchas’ role is first and foremost to stimulate cooperation among the Irish Development NGOs. Through Dóchas, the 45 members of the network exchange experiences and standards of good practice, and formulate common responses to the challenges they face in their work.
To date, Dóchas has adopted two Codes of Conduct and developed a series of guidelines on issues such as HIV/AIDS, gender and rights-based approaches to development. Dóchas acts as a focal point for information and dialogue on policy and practice in the Irish development NGO sector and a catalyst for debate. By building strategic partnerships with Government, academia and media, Dóchas fosters an enabling environment in which its member organisations can further develop their organisational and institutional capacities. By linking in with the CONCORD network, Dóchas ensures a flow of information and experience among the hundreds of Development NGOs in the 27 member countries of the EU.
Dóchas’ member organisations are committed to working with each other and with others, seeking collective strength, mutual learning and increased impact. And most critically, they do this in partnership with their Government, so that the learning generated also informs Irish official development assistance.
More than contractors or service deliverers, Irish NGOs see themselves as “partners” in Development. And so does their Government.