There is no sustainable development and democracy without free civil societies

Civil society has played a key role in Finland's development. In a similar vein, civil society organisations’ contribution is needed in developing countries, says Anu Ala-Rantala, senior officer of the Unit for Civil Society. In our series entitled ‘Three questions about development cooperation’, we ask Foreign Service specialists about their work.

Anu Ala-Rantala
Anu Ala-Rantala in Hargeisa, Somalia.

1. Why do you want to do work in the area of development cooperation carried out by civil society organisations?

“I became interested in matters relating to democracy when I was a student and I have been particularly inspired by the role of civil society actors in that they promote human rights and call for transparency and accountability from the part of governments. Civil society provides people with an opportunity to influence development is society. The international disability movement has an excellent slogan ‘Nothing about us without us’, which highlights the principle of inclusion in decision-making. I consider that there is no sustainable development and democracy without a diverse, free civil society.

Civil society plays a major role in all societies:  organisations act as watchdogs of power, lobbyists, reformers in society, and service providers. All these role serve important and useful purposes also in development cooperation.

Organisations engaged in development cooperation come from very different backgrounds. They work in several thematic sectors ranging from the rights of children to environmental matters and from corporate responsibility to peace work. Some organisations are based on membership, while others are specialist organisations. I think that one of the factors common to organisations, which brings clear added value to development cooperation, is that they are willing and capable of promoting the rights and position of vulnerable people in society. This promotes the “leave no one behind” pledge contained in the 2020 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

2. Can you mention an achievement reached in cooperation with CSOs that has made you particularly happy? What discourages you?

“There are plenty of examples of good achievements, and organisations’ wide significance for the results of Finland's development policy shows in Finland's Development Policy Report, submitted to Parliament a few years back. I have a vivid recollection of the achievement that I have had a chance to witness in the field; one of the things that adds spice to this work is encounters with people who have got hold of a life their own, having first lost nearly everything and having experienced blind cruelty.

Uganda is one of the countries of the world receiving most refugees. Approximately 1.4 million refugees from the neighbouring South Sudan and the Congo live in the country.  These people need not only immediate humanitarian assistance but also support to be able to get hold of everyday life and livelihoods while the crisis in their home countries is being protracted. Finnish organisations have supported refugees, for example in developing education and life management skills, and provided psychosocial support to people affected by conflict. Even if refugees were able to return to their countries of origin, this work is not done in vain; on the contrary, returnees will have better opportunities to rebuild their lives and to take part in the reconstruction of their country.

As far as reconstruction is concerned, a good example is the work of the Somali Diaspora in Finland in our development cooperation in Somalia. Civil society organisations form an important channel through which the diaspora assets and commitment can be taken to benefit the country's development. Organisations have succeeded in developing healthcare services for women and girls in particular, in protecting the environment that is very fragile and susceptible to climate change, and in promoting journalism and freedom of expression in a country that is one of the most dangerous for journalists. There is reason to be proud of the wide cooperation with organisations.

I get depressed when I see that the space for civic society is shrinking. CIVICUS is a global civil society alliance that monitors civil societies’ opportunities to act. According the CIVICUS Monitor, only three per cent of the world population live in countries where civil society organisations are free. Two thirds of the world population live in countries where the civic space is closed or repressed.

In the fight against coronavirus, there is a risk that governments will not lift the imposed restrictions after the coronavirus situation improves but will use the measures in the interest of their political motives. We have seen this happen when civil societies’ liberties have been limited under the pretexts of fighting terrorism.”

3. What do you say to those who consider that CSOs are not needed in development cooperation?

“When former UN Special Rapporteur and Kenyan human rights activist Maina Kiai visited Finland, he ask us to imagine a world without civil societies and consider what societies would look like then.

The question keeps ringing in my head. When seeking a response to the question we could look at Finland’s own path and the role of civil society in, for example, the development of literacy, promotion of women's rights, and now in how we tackle climate change.

Finnish organisations play an important role when they support civil societies in developing countries and act globally. The work is not fiddling around but consists of activities pursued by professional organisations or actors that are deeply committed to their work. Organisations’ activities supported by government grants are also monitored very closely.

Organisations can be awarded small-scale funding for a specific purpose and that may lead to results producing models for further development. Larger civil society organisations’ work as such may lead to very effective results. In the past few years, I have had a chance to follow the work done by Finn Church Aid and seen that the organisation plays a truly significant role in the development of vocational education and in raising respect for it in countries where youth unemployment is a key to development.”