Copilots, not passengers: The story of the Policy Forum on Development
For ten years, the Policy Forum on Development has gathered EU institutions, civil society organisations and local authorities working on EU development cooperation. Amandine Sabourin looks at the added value of the forum and argues that the EU’s engagement with civil society and local authorities needs to find new momentum in light of the changing environment at the European level and globally.
Localising policies is the best way to fight inequalities and give more space to civil society organisations (CSOs). This seems to be the joint vision of both CSOs and local authorities (LAs), despite their differences in objectives and roles. A vision that has been raised and debated in the framework of the Policy Forum on Development (PFD).
The forum has managed, since its creation ten years ago, to put around the same table EU institutions, civil society organisations and local authorities working on EU development cooperation. However, there are clear signs that the engagement with civil society and local authorities needs to find new momentum in light of the changing environment at the European level and globally.
New participants to match new priorities
The recent PFD’s global meeting celebrated its tenth anniversary but also confirmed the paradigm shift of the EU’s policy towards partner countries, with a focus on the Global Gateway (GG) strategy and its impact on CSOs and local authorities. The meeting showed the growing gap between the strategy’s ambitions and its modes of governance. The Global Gateway is an economic and investment plan with five main priorities mostly aiming at attracting private investments. This may come at the expense of the EU’s commitments towards the SDGs and support to civil society.
A Business Advisory Group (BAG) was set up earlier in 2023 and launched in September by the European Commission (EC). In parallel, CSOs and local authorities have been working on setting a similar mechanism as part of the PFD to play an active role in the GG’s governance; this led to the newly created Global Gateway CSO and LA dialogue platform. The objective, in theory, is to have members who are experts in the areas of GG to discuss its main challenges, but their capacity to influence is not a given: unlike the Business Advisory Group, civil society organisations and local authorities will be informed about the projects only after they have been designed and approved. This questions the willingness of the EU to engage with the CSOs and local authorities to co-create the EU’s agenda.
Civil society organisations and local authorities will be informed about the projects only after they have been designed and approved. This questions the willingness of the EU to engage with the CSOs and local authorities to co-create the EU’s agenda.
The priorities of the EU are shifting towards more private sector investment, loans and blending; the new members of the forum should also reflect today’s realities and stakes. The forum, as it was first conceived, expressed the need to bring together CSOs as the roots of democracy and sustainable development and local authorities as state actors, contributing to public policies and delivery of services at a local level.
This was a big step, allowed by the 2012 and 2013 new policy framework. It contributed to gather a variety of actors which were not yet represented at EC level, and strengthened mutual understanding between local authorities’ associations, non-governmental organisations, trade unions, cooperatives, and professional and business associations, all together into one platform at the EC level.
Ten years on, civil society and local authorities have changed. Now, the PFD should offer more space for grassroots organisations, including youth organisations. It should build bridges between civil society, local authorities and the GG’s Business Advisory Group that represents a new type of private sector: EU-based and able to mobilise investments to contribute to local economic development.
Multiplication of platforms: Loss of added value?
In recent years, there has been a multiplication of platforms for the EU’s engagement with civil society organisations and local authorities, whether geographically focused or issue-specific, which questions the added value of the PFD. The Global Gateway adds yet another layer. The potential channels of influence are becoming more diverse but also more and more targeted.
This also contributes to diversifying participation beyond the PFD. For instance, the EU has been reflecting on establishing a civil society and stakeholder participation in the EU-OACPS partnership, while the latter is being totally redefined. In other cases, the EU chooses to engage separately with civil society and local authorities: on the one hand, CSOs and the EU are creating a mechanism for civil society engagement in the AU-EU partnership, while, on the other hand, local authorities have included the follow-up of the AU-EU 2022 summit as part of a policy dialogue between EU Commissioner Jutta Urpilainen and the five associations of local authorities signatories of a partnership agreement.
Bridging global goals and local challenges
The EU’s way of working with CSOs and local authorities is also evolving with the new instrument – the NDICI-Global Europe and the principle of ‘geographisation’, which confirms that both the engagement and the support of the EU towards CSOs and local authorities should primarily take place at country level.
The forum remains relevant in the framework of the NDICI-Global Europe’s programming process as the place to consult CSOs and local authorities on the various regional and the two thematic programmes on civil society organisations and human rights and democracy, as well as on cross-cutting issues such as the implementation of the 2030 Agenda or the Global Gateway.
However, the NDICI-Global Europe now requires the EU delegations to formally consult with CSOs and LAs during the programming phase. This represents a big change, even though the role of CSOs was already acknowledged as crucial by the European Development Funds and the Development Cooperation Instrument to set the cooperation priorities.
To remain relevant, the forum should bridge the challenges of the EU’s engagement at regional and global levels, with the ones raised at the country level.
To remain relevant, the forum should bridge the challenges of the EU’s engagement at regional and global levels, with the ones raised at the country level. Indeed, it is both about policies and practice: consulting CSOs and local authorities on the EU agenda should go hand in hand with exchanging views on funding issues.
In most countries, financial support is vital for CSOs and local authorities to exist and grow. Yet, this is not happening. The EU delegations should seize the opportunity to support the growth of local ecosystems in partner countries since they are the first interlocutors for both grassroots and international organisations when it comes to funding opportunities. At the end of the day, partner countries are the place where global goals, like the localisation of SDGs, and local challenges can meet.
The views are those of the author and not necessarily those of ECDPM.