Monday, March 17, 2008

Andreas Vogt on the effectiveness of civil society organisations as agents of development

Source: Concord Flash 49, February 2008

Which is today’s greatest challenge the international NGO community, and civil society in general, must take up? The answers may vary, but they do at least have a common denominator: no one can speak on behalf of everyone. This rule is inherent in the very concept of civil society, whose diversity is what gives it its richness. The right of association, which is the foundation for collective involvement by citizens, guarantees organisations their independence and, thus, their diversity.

This situation gives rise to particular issues and challenges. The definition of the term “NGO” is itself rather vague, and it varies considerably from one country to another, even within the European Union. Another example: when civil society – whether it be at national, regional or even international level – finds itself facing a collective challenge, all too often its reaction is quite unco-ordinated, or even disjointed. These problems, which are inherent in the diversity of NGOs, can work against the legitimate interests and the reputation of a whole sector of civil society.

One of our collective challenges has to do with the quality of the work done by civil society organisations (CSOs) active in development cooperation. The general public, the media and donors all tend to simplify the vision they have of the world of non-state agents of development – they generalise, for better and for worse. In acute crises, such as the Tsunami or Hurricane Mitch, NGOs as a whole are endowed with an aura almost of otherworldliness. But when an unlucky act by some development player ends up at the centre of a media storm, the entire sector pays the price.

This question of the quality of development players’ work is an old one, but it took on new impetus with the debates around aid effectiveness and the Paris Declaration. Donors and governments have drawn up principles, criteria and indicators for measuring their effectiveness, and while CSOs approach these issues with a critical eye, they are asking similar questions about their own performance as agents of development.

A great many initiatives have been launched within CSO families, and in thematic and geographical networks, to improve and ensure quality. Codes of conduct and charters have been drawn up on particular aspects (partnership, accountability, transparency, etc.).

Growing numbers of civil society representatives feel that the time has come for these questions to be addressed at the global and trans-sectoral levels. The political impetus given by the Paris Declaration has created a window of opportunity for opening up the debates to include the guiding principles underlying the effectiveness of CSOs as agents of development. There is an ethical and holistic dimension to the questions now arising, but it has also to do with political will, collective ambitions and feasibility:
  • Do the main players in civil society who are active in development cooperation want to get involved in a collective, worldwide process?
  • Which players have sufficient legitimacy to facilitate this process successfully?
  • How can we build a consensus on sensitive issues relating to the quality of the work done by thousands of CSOs all over the world while respecting diversity and differences in organisational culture?
  • What ambitions might we have in terms of the promotion, application and verification of the guiding principles?
Since its creation in 2003, CONCORD has been reflecting with its members on the role of NGOs.

In the past six months CONCORD has also been addressing these issues, in an extremely constructive dialogue, with its members and other sectors of European civil society, and also with national platforms across the Atlantic and in developing countries. Given CSOs ’ involvement in this dialogue and the growing interest generated by these debates, there are grounds for optimism as to the short- and long-term future of the process.

In the coming six months CONCORD, with other key players, will try to establish the conditions necessary to ensure that the process will be inclusive and representative and will have a positive impact in the long term – promoting the effectiveness of CSOs as agents of development.

Andreas Vogt is Membership and Networking Officer at the CONCORD Secretariat (


See CONCORD newsfeed

See also Euforic's newsfeed on aid effectiveness