I was recently invited to address a range of experts on how we design development strategies for Southeast Asia, to give the Australian NGO perspective alongside other regional speakers.
My task? In three minutes, to answer the question “What is the key development challenge and opportunity in Southeast Asia in the next 5-10 years that requires a regional response?” And to be provocative. That last part was no problem; keeping it to three minutes was the hard part.
Narrowing it down
What is the one challenge? I did not say promoting gender equality and rights. Nor did I say the region’s transition to net zero emissions. Although, both of those come as hotly contested runners up, and frankly the net zero transmission could be considered existential to our planet.
If I have one challenge, facing the region right now, from an NGO perspective, it is shrinking civic space.
For those not in the sector throwing these terms around, that means people having the ability to organise, participate, associate and communicate without hindrance, so as to influence the political and social structures around them. It is a necessary foothold to all the other changes we want to see happen.
This is embedded in the important work of CIVICUS and others, and can be traced right back to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948.
In the threads across our work at ACFID we have very real examples of this problem. From board meetings to communities of practice, the examples are regular and confronting. Oxfam’s offices being raided in India with staff held for 48 hours without their phones. Organisations where CEOs receive monthly calls from the intelligence agencies, just ‘checking in’. Media who are told what to write, and what to leave out. New registration fees that are prohibitive for NGOs, quietly accompanied with a ‘by the way your policies must comply with Government positions’ and what that suddenly foreshadows.
I can tell you why this matters and four reasons why the Australian Government should care about it.
1. It is limiting the vital work of Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) to deliver services. The NGO sector is in many ways the workhorse of the development program, delivering programs often where states can’t or won’t. This is not just a problem for ‘NGO programs’ – it also impacts multilateral organisations and managing contractors.
2. It is impeding opportunities to advocate for social justice, equality and social accountability. These are important in their own right, outside of Australian–funded development programs. If we want to be a global leader and point to the importance of a rules-based order, then we have to acknowledge that shrinking civic space is a threat to that very order.
3. Civic space delivers on the Australian Government’s objectives – especially if it is serious about locally led development, enhancing state and community resilience, and supporting effective and accountable states. Those simply will not be realised without a strong focus on civil society strengthening and safeguarding civic space in Southeast Asia.
4. Finally, in geostrategic terms, it is about Australia’s soft power. People-to-people links is everything here and will help tip the balance in the region. If Australia wants to foster honest, respectful partnerships and strong healthy democracies, it is civic space which will help achieve that. This is what soft power is all about.
What is the opportunity? The good news is that Australia has a blueprint for how to address this challenge.
In 2021, Australia was a strong contributor to the drafting of the OECD DAC legal instrument on enabling civil society in development cooperation and humanitarian assistance. We made an explicit commitment to supporting civil society– not just as implementing partners for development assistance – but for a strong, vibrant civil society as an important development outcome in its own right.
Recently at the 2023 Australasian Aid Conference, I listened as a speaker quoted the famous Armatya Sen line, explaining that no country has ever had a famine that has also had a free press.1 I’d heard it before, but its message remains potent.
This is the key to ensuring long-term sustainability of development efforts – that’s jargon for making sure your investments actually take hold.
Putting money, decision-making and leadership in the hands of local actors means centering their lived experiences and depth of knowledge of the local context
As each Post conducts its country-level consultations, it would be instructive to ask:
1. How do we strengthen existing programs, organisations and movements that are pushing for reform? (Rather than bringing in our own organisations and ideas)
2. How can we encourage government counterparts to see civil society not as a threat to state authority, but as an important partner on the development journey?
3. How can we realise the intent of the DAC Recommendation to provide direct, multi-year and flexible support to diverse civil society actors, both as a development end in itself, as well as to implement programs and services? This is especially important for CSOs representing persons in the most vulnerable or marginalized peoples.
The Development intelligence Lab recently spoke about their Pulse Check results for the Office of Southeast Asia.
Australia asked our partners, ‘what disruptions are coming down the line?’ (Spoiler alert, experts agreed these are conflict, rising illiberalism and climate.)
Australia asked, ‘how can we better connect with countries via our development program?’ (Spoiler: governance and accountability.)
Australia asked, ‘What kind of partnership do you want?’
Respondents did not say ‘a regional architect partnership.’ They did not say ‘a technical expertise partnership’. They did not say ‘a focused and niche partnership.’ They said ‘a people partner.’
These expert partners surveyed in Southeast Asian countries are all saying the same thing.
They want deep relationships, built on decades of trust and to enable people to organise, participate and voice their concerns themselves.
It sends a loud and clear message to Australia: help protect civic space in the region. We have the blueprint – in fact, we helped write the one at the global level. Now we just need to translate it to the regional level, and invest in it. Do this well, and we will reap the benefits.
This post is adapted from a talk given at a DFAT event in November 2023. Written with inputs from Brigid O’Farrell and Stephanie Rowbottom.