Five years ago I facilitated a visit of CIVICUS to the Netherlands in the context of collective learning of civil society organisations at the start of the previous co-financing scheme. CIVICUS attempted to measure the strength of civil society and their Civil Society Index was referenced in the policy framework linked to the co-funding facility. Seeing a clamp down on civil society globally due to restrictive regulatory environment, increasing power of corporates over states and weakening of the social contract between citizens and their governments, CIVICUS invented the Civil Society Index and did a series of country studies. CIVICUS also publishes an annual State of Civil Society Report.
Having a global constituency and the above knowledge body in place, CIVICUS has managed to turn their relationship with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs into a strategic partnership within the funding framework "Dialogue and Dissent". For the Ministry it was clear that CIVICUS provided an important international space for learning with regard to the enabling environment for lobby and advocacy called civil society. However, unlike in the previous round, the CSI was not specifically promoted. Instead CIVICUS was invited to present to the 25 other strategic partners a number of tools and offered a convening space for country panels of some 300 experts, which could be consulted on a number of topics in due time but would primarily be used to evaluate the enabling environment for civil society at a regular interval. Though the Ministry went out of its way to emphasize that participation was not obligatory in any way, it is clear that offering the opportunity for CIVICUS to tap into the networks of these strategic partners will provide them access to a wealth of information, but ! .... within the boundaries of Dutch policy priorities.
And this is where the math does not add up. A closer look at the policy letter "Dialogue and Dissent" may help to uncover this. The letter in itself is a brilliant piece in bringing out the critical role of civil society. It rightly states that civil society operates at the interface between state, market and citizens. However, what if a state does not deliver for its citizens and just controls the market for individual gain? The policy letter articulates a clear role for CSOs to "effectively voice alternative or dissenting views in dynamic and increasingly global context." To materialize this the Minister supports the strengthening of the lobbying and advocacy capacity of local Civil Society Organisations. To do so the Ministry has entered into a strategic partnership relation with Dutch civil society organizations, requiring "respect for each other's independent roles and responsiblities" while "identifying opportunities for joint, complementary action to effectively advocate change and influence policy."
"Civil society organisations operate at the interface between state, citizens and market."
Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Policy Brief: Dialogue and Dissent
This sounds very promising and very daring from a governance point of view, and in some ways it really is. However, as always, the devil is in the detail: "A strategic partnership is made up of the Minister and one or more CSOs (or a consortium) working together in pursuit of a common strategic goal (...). This goal must be in keeping with the Minister's broad-based agenda on foreign trade and development."
The last sentence points to the achilles' heel of the funding framework. CSOs that partner with the government may be supportive to dialogue and dissent in partner countries of the Dutch government and within the confinement of the Dutch aid and trade agenda. The policy priorities, summarized in seven theories of change, do capture a significant part of Dutch engagement over the past decades (water, SRHR, gender, private sector development, food and nutrition, security and rule of law, climate change). However, the first breed of cofinancing instruments did not limit the scope of the cofinancing to a prescribed series of policy areas. This makes a lot of sense considering the functioning of civil society as a space where diversity is celebrated and even divergent views on policy priorities are common place, providing it the strength it needs to support sustainable development holistically, taking all perspectives into consideration. In a sense organizations availing their time and resources to become co-implementers and co-developers of government policies make themselves politically dependent on what a majority coalition would aim to do, creating a new dependency syndrome.
One could argue that the current policy areas are very broad and could encompass almost any cause. However, take for instance basic health care and basic education. They have been taken out of the priority list of the Dutch development aid, and as a consequence no longer feature in the government sponsored programs for civil society engagement already for some time now. Obviously the chances for Dutch industries on foreign soils may not directly improve by investing in health and education.
In the seventies the Dutch discovered gas reserves in their soils. As the Dutch were starting to exploit these reserves, their currency (the guilder), became stronger. However, the social-democrats were accused of investing the profits from this reserve in extra social services. The rest of the export-industry in the meantime suffered from the strong guilder. This became known as the Dutch Disease.
I am pretty sure that prioritizing some 'currency' is like a disinvestment in other 'currencies'. The typical Dutch civil society engagement with high concern for health and education outcomes has suffered from widespread depreciation. The recent strategy to invest millions in lobbying and advocacy capacity of local civil society may be applauded in its attempt to re-establish the social contract between governments and its citizens through improved taxation systems and strengthening countervailing power. However, with the lobbying agenda confined to Dutch policy priority areas, some other, possibly more critical, areas may be forgotten. One would argue that the recent proces in getting to the sustainable development goals somehow ensures a comprehensive global policy agenda with phrases like 'leave no one behind' featuring in the language. But what mechanism will ensure that local priorities are respected rather than donor priorities and wish-lists that align better with donor policies than with local realities in allocating funds and implementing programs?
Migrants may help turn the tide
Recent migrant inflows into Europe seem to turn the tide and (vocational) education regains momentum in budgets for humanitarian aid, like in the MADAD program of the European Commission. Donors have realised that education has been ignored as young graduates are looking for jobs but cannot find them. At the same time epidemics are driving people out of vulnerable areas towards areas where better health services are provided. Would you not do the same?
So what if Dutch civil society agencies were left to pick and choose their own causes and independent choice in connection with their target group and constituencies? It would certainly help redirect current funding for lobbying and advocacy towards the direct needs of local communities, which may evolve around health service and education provisions. Should such 'dissenting' priority not have been permitted, even when funded with government subisidies? It would have allowed civil society organizations to remain trustworthy partners towards their counterparts in developing countries, rather than having to align their programming with donor policies including the demands for matching funds. Unfortunately rather the opposite is happening given the recent move of the British government to include phrases in contracts requiring CSOs not to lobby against government policies with tax payers' money. This seems to me a sign of a weakening democratic order.
A healthy democracy is willing and able to even finance its own countervailing power. Still a dialogue could be nurtured with government about their priorities, but priorities of 'Northern' CSOs at least would not change over night when the political landscape changes in donor countries like in the Netherlands when the liberals took office and (with help of the Christian Democrats) undressed Dutch development aid. Hope they have realised in the meantime that the Dutch Disease may also play up for development when suddenly trade is prioritised over aid.