The critical breakthrough contained in the Busan Partnership for Effective Development Cooperation is the expressed and detailed recognition of the role of civil society in development, as actors championing, and more importantly living out, democracy and civic participation. The Busan Partnership was the November 2011 consensus outcome of the 4th High Level Forum on Aid Effectiveness held in Busan, Republic of Korea, following three years of multi-stakeholder participation and negotiation, including civil society, to improve the effectiveness of aid by all development actors. Signatories to the document, including the US government, pledge that they will “Implement fully our respective commitments to enable CSOs to exercise their roles as independent development actors, with a particular focus on an enabling environment, consistent with agreed international rights, that maximises the contributions of CSOs to development.” The US government has supported this principle, and has also supported the development of enabling environments for CSOs in other countries through diplomatic efforts.
This contribution to the CIVICUS State of Civil Society Report addresses the current state of the US government’s engagement with US-based CSOs working abroad – here referred to as US NGOs – examining whether changes in funding modalities and other shifts in the nature of the government-NGO relationship actually improve the enabling environment for US NGOs to maximise their contributions to development. It focuses on three specific aspects of the relationship: shifts in funding modalities; the inclusion of US NGOs in private sector partnerships; and the impact of the US military’s expanding foreign assistance role on US NGOs.
Since the Busan High Level Forum, the international aid community has been adapting to a new era of development cooperation: an era guided by the 2005 Paris Principles, but taken to a new level of inclusive, democratised development involving many new partners. Most US NGOs actively champion these reforms. The US government, including the US Agency for International Development (USAID), has committed to a reform agenda and new forms of partnership with development actors, promising more effective and sustainable strategies for overcoming poverty. However, this agenda risks being compromised or derailed by a climate of severe budget constraints and competing demands for scarce public resources. US NGOs, their partners and allies must be a key part of USAID’s strategy for promoting effective global development.
US NGOs bring to the table a range of unique assets to development practice, which are relevant for today’s rapidly evolving results-based, multi-stakeholder development ecosystem. US NGOs have accumulated knowledge, experience and social capital that can contribute significantly to reaching development goals that all stakeholders share. Among these assets are established partnerships with local communities (in most countries, more than 90 percent of US NGO staff are local nationals); global reach – US NGOs work in every developing country, including areas where USAID has no presence; innovation and best practices based on research and experience in the field; and proven expertise in building the capacity of local CSOs.
As the Obama administration began, InterAction and its member US NGOs were increasingly concerned that the quality of the relationship between NGOs and USAID had eroded in recent years. This erosion flowed from disengagement and a fundamental misunderstanding by USAID of the assets that the NGO community brings to achieve better development results. One area of concern has been the inconsistency in the recent history of USAID’s policy engagement with NGOs, although there is now movement toward a model of more sustained and collaborative partnership. One negative example is the Advisory Committee on Voluntary Foreign Aid (ACVFA), a body that has existed since the end of the Second World War and currently is the principal interface and advisory body linking USAID to the NGO community: the Committee is rarely convened and when it does meet many of its recommendations have been disregarded. On the other hand, USAID and other relevant agencies engaged in thoughtful and detailed dialogue for more than a year with InterAction members and other NGO allies to prepare the US Government’s position for the 4th High Level Forum on Aid Effectiveness in Busan. In late 2012, USAID leadership expressed a commitment to renewing the USAID-US NGO partnership, and US NGOs look forward to engaging in substantive discussions during 2013.
A second concern is closely related to this renewal. It focuses attention on how to shift away from USAID control of NGOs as ‘implementers’ of USAID programmes to a framework of partnership in the field. InterAction members report that USAID field missions often view all US NGOs as implementers to be tightly controlled rather than true partners with expertise and experience in their own right. This is reflected in increasingly prescriptive funding solicitations, mandates to insist on preferred NGO staffing structures and overly burdensome reporting requirements. However, the leadership at USAID has been receptive to the concerns raised by US NGOs, and has engaged with InterAction members in a series of meetings to address these issues. To achieve durable change, the policy changes must be lived out in the field.