Original Film Title: NAPOLEON DYNAMITE. English Title: NAPOLEON DYNAMITE. Film Director: JARED HESS. Year: 2004. Stars: JON HEDER. Credit: 20TH CENTURY FOX / Album
P1EG8H Original Film Title: NAPOLEON DYNAMITE. English Title: NAPOLEON DYNAMITE. Film Director: JARED HESS. Year: 2004. Stars: JON HEDER. Credit: 20TH CENTURY FOX / Album

Coming to a cinema near you: the OECD Recommendation on Enabling Civil Society

Occasionally, a film is released with little fanfare and almost no marketing but, as word-of-mouth spreads and momentum builds, it becomes a worldwide success. This is what the film industry calls a “sleeper hit”.

The quirky 2004 comedy Napoleon Dynamite is a classic example. It was released with little promotion yet became a box office smash, and gathered a handful of awards along the way.

In our world, we don’t have many sleeper hits – documents or outputs that prove to be wildly successful or influential despite their modest launch. Grameen’s introduction of microcredit was perhaps one, as was the publication of Do no Harm in 1999.

But now we have another possible contender, and it comes from the most unlikely of sources.

Last year, with almost no fanfare, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) released Recommendation on Enabling Civil Society in Development Co-operation and Humanitarian Assistance – a title so dull it’s no wonder it received almost no attention. But here we have the first international standard for donors that will maximise the contribution of civil society to the 2030 Agenda. Crucially, this is a legally binding agreement, which all OECD DAC members have signed up to. This means that all DAC members – some of the biggest donors in the world – will now be thinking about how to implement what they have committed to.

A progressive approach

Most importantly, the recommendation provides a genuinely progressive set of commitments. Pillar one focuses on the need to respect, protect and promote civic space, and in particular promote an inclusive and independent civil society. There’s a lot of good stuff here, such as supporting greater and more inclusive civil society participation in public policy.

But it’s pillar two where things get really interesting. Included in the ten commitments are pledges to promote and invest in local civil society leaders, and provide financial support for diverse civil society actors, as independent development and humanitarian actors in their own right. There’s a commitment to increase direct, flexible and predictable support, including core support, to enhance local civil society actors’ financial independence, sustainability and local ownership. There’s even a commitment to ensure local civil society actors are involved in decision-making based on equal power relations, which may be the first commitment that explicitly acknowledges the unequal power relations in the system.

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Pillar three focuses on the effectiveness, transparency and accountability of civil society organisations, which includes a commitment to supporting equitable partnerships between international and local non-governmental organisations.

There are so many good commitments across the three pillars, particularly in pillar two, that’s it’s difficult to do them justice here. All the more reason for you to read the recommendation, then share it with your policy team, local partners and anyone else who might be interested.

A tangible advocacy tool

For organisations such as Peace Direct, which has been calling for structural changes to the international humanitarian, development and peacebuilding system for years, reading the OECD recommendation feels like receiving a Christmas present halfway through summer, which coincidentally is when this document was released, just over a year ago. I remember sharing it with my peers at the time, and for the most part being met with blank, expressionless faces. At the time it seemed this had well and truly slipped under the radar, and this needs to be reversed.

Before we get too excited, quit our jobs and skip off into the sunset, we must acknowledge that we’ve been here before. The Grand Bargain contained some of the same commitments, including more funding, more transparency and fewer transaction costs. And, shamefully, the amount of funding for local organisations has shrunk since those commitments were made, illustrating just how stuck the sector is in the process of transforming itself.

Like most documents produced by donors and policymakers, the recommendation is far from perfect. But what it does give all of us who are pushing for changes to policy and practice is something very tangible to use as we advocate for a more locally led approach. Bond’s Changing Donor Policy and Practice working group, of which I am a member, will certainly be using it to engage the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office. I encourage you to do the same with any of your government donors, some of whom may be unaware of what they have signed up to.

This is how to keep building the momentum around the recommendation. And who knows? This often-missed, yet hugely important, offering may just become our very own Napoleon Dynamite. You heard it here first, folks. Grab some popcorn and enjoy the show.

To hear more about the need to push for a locally led and anti-racist approach to international development, and what that should, or could look like in practice funders, governments and INGOs join us at our Power in Development Conference next week. Final chance to book your tickets now.


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