How we understand and approach International Development is on the cusp of major change. To remain relevant, Irish NGOs will, more than ever before, have to prove that working with or through them brings added value. ‘Guaranteed Irish?’ organised by Dóchas on 5 May, is a conference which asks whether Irish NGOs are up to that task.
By Michael McManus
The Arab spring has provided some interesting lessons for all involved in development. The situations in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, Yemen and Syria have raised questions about the nature of “development”, as well as the double standards which lie at the heart of western foreign policies. The popular uprisings have also made a very strong case for “Policy Coherence for Development”, and reminded us that the most powerful tool for development is – and will always be – a people united against injustice. In the midst of the somewhat narrow pursuit of the MDGs, perhaps donors and Northern Civil Society have lost sight of the importance of human rights for the achievement of sustainable development.
The Global Financial crisis is also of major relevance for development. While impacts were certainly felt in the global South, this time around the public in many Western countries are also suffering from the impact of neo-liberal policies. Yet despite the arrival of structural adjustment in Greece, Ireland, the UK, Spain and Portugal, so far Northern development NGOs have been unable and perhaps even unwilling to highlight the truly global nature of the crisis and the world’s reaction to it. Have Northern NGOs allowed themselves to be sidelined, or is it simply that addressing the failures of free market capitalism is too difficult for mainstream development actors?
On the ground in developing countries, a number of substantial changes have also been taking place. While the arrival of China, India, South Africa and Brazil as development actors may raise eyebrows, the role of such countries will only increase over the coming years. Other major arrivals include micro-credit and social business as well as private sector donors with resources to rival many public aid agencies. Joining them is a Southern Civil Society which is better organised and more capable than ever before, but in the face of widespread shrinking of civil society space their evolution into a force for sustainable change is under threat. Worryingly, research suggests that Southern CSOs do not always view their Northern counterparts as sources of solidarity but rather as donors or at the best unequal partners.
These changes come after over 10 years of concerted efforts and much progress around the Millennium Development Goals. But that process has also involved some major failures, such as the failure to agree new trade rules (Doha) and climate change mitigation (Copenhagen). With only a few years left until the MDG 2015 deadline, instead of overcoming these failures, the financial crisis means more and more donors are focusing on a seemingly narrow “results” agenda.
Where does this leave Irish development actors?
Measuring the ‘quality’ of the work of CSOs naturally depends on what it is they are trying to achieve. With an eye on the Fourth High Level Forum on Aid effectiveness in Busan this December; global civil society has taken on two major initiatives to deal with that key question.
The Better Aid Consortium is pushing governments to deepen their commitments to ensure the effective use of aid but also to look beyond aid and to consider other major development factors and, eventually to develop a new Convention on Development effectiveness. Running in parallel, the Open Forum on CSO development effectiveness focuses on CSOs only and what is required of them to best achieve positive and long term change for communities living in poverty.
It remains to be seen how much impact these initiatives will have. The proposal to shift the discussions from “Aid Effectiveness” to “Development Effectiveness” is, however, more than a matter of semantics – The focus on effective “Development” is a reflection of the changes listed above. In relation to the Open Forum, at the very least, it has helped CSOs to constructively reflect on their own roles in development.
Many Irish development actors, for instance, have actively sought to improve their effectiveness through greater transparency and commitments to codes of conduct. But in such a changing environment, many questions remain to be answered. Will smaller Irish NGOs get pushed out? Will we see greater or less convergence between Northern and Southern NGOs? Will Irish development actors become more specialised or more market-orientated? Would Irish development NGOs gain or lose value by becoming more politicised?
The Guaranteed Irish? Conference on 5 May certainly won’t answer these questions. It will, however, create the space for suggestions and debate on how Irish development actors can stay relevant in what is quickly becoming a very different development environment.
For more information see www.dochas.ie/guaranteed_irish
The conference will be held on 5 May at the Wood Quay Venue in the Dublin City Council, Civil Offices, running from 2-5.30pm.
Participation is by registration only and places are limited.
Fee: €25, Student/Unwaged €5, Dóchas members: free.
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