NGOs: on the wrong side of Paris?

The Colombian government appears to have found a new policy document of choice. Rather than arriving at donor-recipient meetings armed with the latest dossier of stats showing how dreamily everything is going, government officials now turn up brandishing the Paris Declaration. Colombian NGOs are confused and rather nervous. Instead of discussing how to make a frustratingly slow process work better (which is what seems to be happening in many other countries), they have been left wondering whether they need a strategy to mitigate the damage the Declaration could do to civil society’s already limited room to manoeuvre. Why? How has Colombian civil society found itself on the wrong side of Paris?

The heart of the Paris Agenda is an emphasis on gradually transforming aid so that it supports, rather than undermines, recipient government priorities and institutions. The focus on ownership and alignment stems from an acknowledgement that in many aid recipient countries donors have sought both to set the policy agenda in an undemocratic and ultimately disastrous fashion, and to try to achieve development independently of the state. Many aid recipient countries will benefit from this renewed focus on partnership.

But what about countries where the state is not weak? What if donor cooperation is already well-aligned with recipient government preferences? In Colombia, where I work, aid demonstrably supports the government’s development model. This is most clear in the hand-in-glove relationship enjoyed by the Colombian government with the US administration, but is also apparent in its relationship with the European Union, the second biggest (although far smaller) aid donor to Colombia. A balanced analysis of the pros and cons of foreign aid in Colombia could not possibly identify lack of up-joinedness between donors and recipient as a priority.

The problem in Colombia is not a weak state but an overbearing one. Without writing a detailed critique of the present Colombian administration, one of its most distasteful features is a tendency to harass critics, especially human rights defenders and vulnerable communities that don’t happen to agree with its version of reality. Armed groups claiming to support the government go a step further – it is a rare and happy day when I don’t receive an email denouncing another atrocity against a trades union leader, community organiser or politician. As civil society seeks to reemerge as an organised political actor after years of murder and threat, government figures not only brand it as inefficient and misguided, but condemn its leaders as friends of the guerrilla – a lie. The Colombian administration is wildly popular, which only make life harder (and more dangerous) for those who dare to oppose it.

Donors should have two urgent priorities at this stage of Colombia’s history. One is to continue to strengthen state institutions. But the other equally pressing need is to build up those other parts of the state, including citizenry, which must hold those institutions to account. Many aid officials understand instinctively the importance of protecting civil society, the media and opposition voices, especially in a context of armed conflict. The European Union has so far made a point of distancing itself from much of the more bellicose priorities of the Colombian and US governments. Most official donors keep plenty of funds ring-fenced to support work that distinctly does not meet with government approval, supporting communities and organisations that stand up for human rights and dignity in the face of attempts by the government and its allies to undermine them.

But how long will they resist pressure to tow the government line? Colombian civil society has devoted much energy in the last five years to sitting down with government and donors and thrashing out an aid strategy for the country that it can live with. Human rights leaders are now concerned that the Paris Declaration will tip the balance the way of the government, and that those most needing international assistance (political as well as financial) will lose out. Will the government be able to use the Paris Declaration to strengthen its desire to control aid money further, and undermine international support for critics or opponents? How much will the government be able to scrutinise donor funding and influence where it goes? There is only a finite amount of aid cash after all, especially in a middle-income country like Colombia. With even more pressure to fund government initiatives, will there be less money for non-government schemes. Will indigenous, afro-Colombian and peasant communities which vehemently oppose neo-liberal policies and seek to protect their ways of life find it harder to access funds?

Accra should address these concerns head on by placing a much greater emphasis on the role of civil society. Rather than the uni-directional call to align donors with recipient government priorities, the Paris process should emphasise a twin agenda – supporting the state but also building up civil society. It is not only Colombia where this is important. In all aid recipient countries where the state needs to be supported and strengthened, so does civil society.

A mature government does not seek to silence its critics; it encourages debate. Colombia does not need more alignment – it needs opposition voices to be heard and protected. It needs alternative development models to be tried and tested, in safety. It needs a powerful and effective civil society to make sure basic human rights are respected. It needs the international community to play its part not in making the executive stronger, but in making democracy more real.

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