The UK government’s recent commitment to underwrite UK civil society organisation (CSO) contracts for European Commission Humanitarian Aid-funded humanitarian programmes in the event of a Brexit no deal was welcome recognition that their role needed protection.
The UK’s Department for International Development also successfully secured confirmation that, like all OECD member countries, UK organisations will continue to be able to apply for funds from the development cooperation funding instrument for programmes in the world’s poorest and heavily-indebted poor countries in the event of a no-deal, and following Brexit.
These safeguards go some way in clearing a path for UK development and humanitarian actors to continue supporting the most vulnerable and poorest communities.
But they do not compensate for the potential loss if UK CSOs are unable to share their globally respected expertise and inform policy debates.
This is why it will be essential for the UK and the EU to listen to the voices of civil society in the UK, Europe, and in developing countries so they can fully understand the implications when they are negotiating a future partnership agreement in order to mitigate any detrimental outcomes.
The UK has one of the biggest development and humanitarian civil society sectors and has a long-standing tradition of delivering aid and development at scale, with innovation and technical expertise, as well as a strong track record in leading advocacy and campaigning globally. If UK CSOs are excluded as partners in EU programmes both EU partners and the sector will lose.
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Collaboration on EU-funded projects leads to valuable outcomes, including greater impact thanks to coordination, shared learning and capability-building, information and analysis exchange, and extending the reach of programmes so we can help as many people as possible.
To get the best value-for-money, the best option for the UK, EU and developing countries is to find financing arrangements and policy dialogue that promote, rather than restrict, collaboration.
This requires consensus and alignment of objectives, strategy and operation, reached through fair and open dialogue.
The UK has traditionally always championed an EU development and aid agenda which focuses on fighting the root causes of poverty and retaining a focus on poorer countries.
If the UK loses a voice at the table there is a real risk that EU priorities could shift towards a more political and national interest agenda.
The latest drafts of the EU’s multi-annual financing framework – the EU’s budget for the post-Brexit period, 2021/27 – already show worrying signs: there is limited reference in the EU’s external priorities related to development cooperation and its main objective, the eradication of poverty; and, despite a proposed increase in aid allocation to the EU’s neighbouring countries and Africa, it is unclear whether low-income countries within these regions will be prioritised.
This move mirrors the current trend which gives increasing importance to new investment facilities that are more likely to concentrate on countries that are better able to attract investment.
The new priorities set out in the EU’s multi-annual financing framework could restrict how civil society works with the EU in future, especially if funding is only available under specific priority funding streams, such as those related to security or migration.
Historically, ensuring funding is accessible to a multi-disciplinary sector through different instruments and programmes has been a crucial element in the EU’s efforts to support the strengthening of civil society.
This commitment needs to be continued and further strengthened in the next multi-annual financing framework by supporting civil society as a partner when it comes to the governance of EU funding, as well as an implementer and development actor.
UK CSOs have a long and established tradition of being a strong and effective force for positive change in the EU – and Europe more widely.
Their reduced role will hurt the sector and our poverty alleviation and humanitarian agenda. It’s therefore vital that development and humanitarian CSOs also invest in unifying and collaborating as a sector so its strength and influence are greater than the sum of its parts.
This article was first published in Public Finance International.