Civil Society’s Voice Gets Audience in Busan

Posted by Sam Worthington
December 7, 2011
Sam Worthington, President and CEO of InterAction

As the civil society representative included on the U.S. delegation to the 4th High-Level Forum on Aid Effectiveness in Busan, I had a unique vantage point of the proceedings. From my perspective as an NGO leader, the summit was possibly the most successful to date for a variety of reasons.

How aid is delivered is evolving and we are in the midst of a series of reforms which challenge all of us involved in development cooperation. Whether you are in a foundation, government or work for an NGO, the entire aid architecture is changing and the pressure is greater than ever to deliver results.

What made the summit in Busan unique was that it was to my knowledge the first ministerial-level forum in which civil society was seen as a real player in formulating development policy. Via the group Better Aid, civil society had its own representative to shape new policies and there were clear results. An obvious win for us was that the outcome document of the meeting included that civic groups have the right to shape their country's development. Or as the document put it: "...(civil society organizations) play a vital role in enabling people to claim their rights, in promoting rights-based approaches, in shaping development policies and partnerships, and in overseeing their implementation.”

In the months leading up to Busan, USAID and InterAction co-hosted U.S. government consultations on issues such as country ownership; the enabling environment for civil society; transparency, accountability and results; and fragile states. A discussion on the role of the private sector, including trilateral NGO-private sector-government partnerships, will be the next of these ongoing consultations with U.S. civil society.

Various threads came together at Busan. Partner countries stressed the importance of using country systems -- namely not bypassing government structures -- and minimizing aid that is tied to donor country contractors. Donors challenged the aid system by insisting on the need to deliver results and value for money, especially in such a tough fiscal climate. Civil society pushed on several core areas, including having an “enabling environment” where NGOS can operate freely and development is recognized as a human right.

The challenge at Busan was to strengthen the current global system of development cooperation, based on common principles and goals. In my view, all countries, especially powerful emerging economies, must agree to basic principles of development cooperation. These include the upholding of human rights, a focus on results and transparency of budgets or aid flows. The United States played a critical role in ensuring that this outcome became a reality.

Busan confirmed that the basic principles of development effectiveness must apply to all donors. These principles must also influence how U.S. NGOs spend the estimated $11.8 billion they raised in 2008 from the American people. An international NGO cannot build a hospital without coordinating with the local ministry of health. At the same time, building the capacity of local civil society; increasing access to services; providing services that help local governments meet the needs of communities; or supporting local advocacy efforts, from a woman's right to own land to an anti-corruption campaign, are appropriate NGO programs that advance country ownership.

Universal endorsement of the Busan agreement is a step forward but the monitoring and coordinating mechanisms developed to follow up will determine its success. Some tensions clearly remain. Is country ownership solely about the state? The definition of country ownership in the Busan Outcome Document goes beyond the central government to include civic institutions, the private sector, local governments, communities and people. But not all partners endorse this approach.

Development needs to be driven by all these country-level demands. This is particularly challenging in fragile states or where a government reflects the interests of a ruling elite. Finding the right balance should shape U.S. development cooperation and Busan was a step in the right direction.

Editor's Note: The Fourth High-Level Meeting on Aid Effectiveness was held in Busan, South Korea November 29-December 1, 2011. For the first time, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) participated in negotiating the meeting's outcomes. Sam Worthington, President and CEO of InterAction, served as a member of the official U.S. delegation to Busan and represented civil society at the meetings. With more than 190 members, Interaction is the largest alliance of U.S.-based international NGOs focused on disaster relief and sustainable development.

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