Implementing the SDGs: why are some civil society organisations being left behind?

By Vanessa de Oliveira, Task Team on CSO Development Effectiveness and Enabling Environment

Civil society organisations (CSOs) are widely recognised as important partners in the implementation and monitoring of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). But to what extent is civil society really engaged and involved in SDG processes or consultations at the country level?

A new Task Team study undertaken by the International Institute of Social Studies points to a lack of diversity in the types of civil society organisations engaged in these processes. Organisations that are part of the aid system – typically urban, often international or based in donor countries – are at a clear advantage.Similarly, another study (the 2018 Monitoring Round of the Global Partnership for Effective Development Co-operation) found opportunities for civil society organisations to be irregular, unpredictable and lacking the involvement of a diverse set of actors. The latest OECD study on Development Assistance Committee members and civil society also echoes these conclusions: dialogues between donors and CSOs are more likely to take place at the donors’ headquarters, and lack general good practice standards like setting a joint agenda.

So what prevents a broader range of civil society organisations from engaging in the implementation of Agenda 2030?

One explanation is that governments largely decide which ones get to participate in the dialogues. In such cases, it is common for governments to implement measures like limiting information access and curtailing foreign funding. A less discussed reason is that information about, understanding of and financing for the SDGs tends to be concentrated in capital and provincial cities. Important information related to the SDGs is not trickling down to the local levels of public administration, nor to different types of CSOs in more remote areas. Country-level SDG implementation and monitoring processes tend to leave out a wide array of local, traditional and/or informal CSOs – such as community-based organisations, co-operatives or village associations, failing to tap their unique knowledge, expertise and areas of influence – which can be powerful resources.

Donors also share the responsibility for this situation: the SDG agenda has not led to significant changes in the way they support civil society. Traditional competitive bidding and short-term support to primarily large international or donor-country, urban CSOs, remain the norm. The OECD report identifies several reasons: “[…] members’ legal or administrative requirements; transaction cost considerations; these CSOs’ experience, including in demonstrating results; and their role in public awareness raising. Member funding also tends to flow to formal CSOs rather than extending to broader civil society”.

What can governments and donors do to help, rather than hinder, effective CSO participation in SDG processes?

On one hand, partner governments have an important role in creating an enabling environment for CSO engagement in the SDGs, by promoting adequate legal and regulatory frameworks, and offering effective support to civil society organisations beyond the “usual suspects”.

Donors, on the other hand, by changing their practices, could also help make SDG processes more inclusive, for instance by setting up common SDG funding pots, or effective national platforms for dialogue among donors and civil society organisations. They could adapt their funding mechanisms and requirements, so that CSOs with less experience of, and less access to international funding, can meet them. They could also encourage more collaboration among CSOs, and build their capacity in terms of transparency, accountability and effectiveness, to improve their chances of being included in development co-operation processes.

In conclusion, involving only certain types of civil society organisations in SDG processes does not necessarily signal an ‘opening’ of civic space nor compliance with international civic freedom agreements. Unless action is taken by all actors to protect and promote truly open civic spaces, and encourage a more genuine multi-stakeholder dialogue, the same highly visible group of large, urban, and aided organisations will be sitting at the table of SDG processes. Bringing in a wider range of organisations, and expanding the diversity of perspectives and interests in the dialogue will not make things easier, but it is essential to effectively delivering shared progress on Agenda 2030.

The Task Team is committed to bringing together donors, partner country governments and CSOs in open and inclusive dialogues to find common ground on the way forward. You can find out more about these issues, and the factors that help or hinder effective CSO participation in SDG-related processes here.