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Involving local authorities and Civil Society Organisations in EU development cooperation


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This has been an intensive week for civil society organisations and local authorities from the North and the South: the 2nd Assises of Decentralised Cooperation for development meeting was held in Brussels and the closing sessions of the Structured Dialogue (SD) took place on top of it.

The Assises of Decentralised Cooperation for development meeting consisted of five round tables dealing with issues related to the role of local and regional authorities in food security, achieving inclusive growth, promoting sustainable development and strengthening multi-level governance. A fifth roundtable aimed at linking this event with the European Commission’s Structured Dialogue process by discussing local authorities’ involvement in aid policy and aid delivery mechanisms. There, EC representatives presented the first lessons learned from the process on strategic programming, implementation and aid delivery mechanisms specific to local authorities.

Most participants welcomed the initiative of the SD and reminded the EC of the need to make a clear differentiation between the role local authorities (LAs) and civil society organisations (CSOs) in development. This means not only recognising LAs at political level in official communications, but also considering their added-value and compelmentarity role to CSOs and adapting financial mechanisms to avoid competition for funds. A representative of Southern local authorities also pointed out the importance of the political role of EU institutions. According to him, the EU institutions “have the capacity to build and facilitate dialogue among different stakeholders in partner countries” as it has happened in Colombia with the Peace Laboratories. Such types of support sometimes can bring “more added-value and be much more powerful than providing aid” he said.

The intensive debate on the results of the SD took place during the two following days at the closing sessions of the SD. Local Authorities joined Civil Society Organisations, representatives of European Member States and Parliament participated. Three working groups discussed the conclusions in order to reach a consensus on:

  • the definition of the roles and added value of CSOs and LAs in EU external cooperation;
  • complementarity and coherence within the aid effectiveness agenda; and
  • aid delivery mechanisms.

While more or less common and mature definitions of the roles and added-value of NSAs and LAs in EU development cooperation seemed to be reached by the end of the SD, issues of complementarity, coherence and aid delivery mechanisms still required some lively and detailed discussions.

The working group on complementarity and coherence within the aid effectiveness agenda intensively discussed the implications of including conditionalities as a mechanism to achieve good governance, the right of initiative and involvement in the division of labour and harmonisation. Members from Northern and Southern CSOs pointed out the risks of using conditionalities to achieve democracy as they are currently conceived. According to them, conditionalities could work if there is “common understanding and aims shared by all stakeholders”.  They also underlined that it may go against the Paris Declaration. The right of initiative was another controversial point. CSOs claimed that the right of initiative should be seen as “right to autonomy for independence, but not as an opportunity”. A third discussion was focused on the implications of considering division of labour and harmonisation as a challenge for LAs and CSOs. Some CSOs agreed that division of labour and harmonisation should not be considered a challenge for them, and maybe not even as desirable, since going into division of labour and harmonisation among CSOs may mean getting involved into national politics, being instrumentalised and undermining the right of initiative as well as the pluralistic nature of civil society. In the same line, a representative of a EU Member State suggested that avoiding duplicity could be tackled by increasing transparency, dialogue and coordination.

The last working session focused on discussing the aid delivery mechanisms proposed during the SD and the feasibility of them being adopted by the EC. It seems there is a general acknowledgement of the need to simplify the call for proposals, making them more flexible without risking transparency and avoiding over-subscribed systems within the current legal framework. As “no mechanism is a panacea”, there was also a common agreement that the choice of modalities should be based on mapping development needs, skills and capacities, programming priorities and cost-effectiveness while looking for complementarity. Nevertheless, it was clearly stated that some of the proposed modalities may not be feasible. In this sense, the EC indicated that budget support to LAs would pose “huge political and technical challenges to EU institutions and partner countries as well as to LAs”.  But the EC reiterated its commitment to reinforce LAs autonomy and participation by supporting decentralisation process at political, financial and technical level.

Now, after the meetings, the challenges are how to make all those recommendations operational and translate them into contributions for the high level aid effectiveness Forum in Busan and for future SD. With more or less equal enthusiasm, participants welcomed the SD initiative. LAs and CSOs hoped that this won’t become a one shot-experience and non-meaningful process and hence called on the EC to take account of the results of the SD and ensure follow-up.  The EC, for its part, made a commitment to look carefully at the SD results, but also called for realism and shared responsibilities: “Proposed changes may require adapting EC procedures and capacities, but also efforts from CSOs and LAs”.

Up to now, the Structured Dialogue can be considered a unique and genuine process that, for the first time, brought EU institutions, Member States, LAs and CSOs from European and partner countries to talk openly about key issues and responsibilities in development cooperation.  It seems there is a general will to give a follow-up to this process, which will be discussed in the final SD session in Budapest from 17-19 May.  This is a great opportunity for the EC and EU institutions to build a real dialogue with CSOs and LAs, reiteratively committed in different policy communications and agreements. However, this can only be done if such process and results are taken into consideration at policy and political level. If not, there is the risk that they become counterproductive by undermining EU credibility and creating participatory fatigue.

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African institutionsEuropean external affairsAfrica-EU Dialogue on Governance for DevelopmentEU Development Policy and PracticeCivil societyNon-state actors (NSA)

External authors

Gemma Pinol Puig