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Constructive engagement: parliament and civil society

Posted on 27/01/2014
By Myn Garcia
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Presented by Myn Garcia, Deputy Director, Commonwealth Foundation at the Professional Development Programme for Members of the Tanzania Women’s Parliamentary Group (TWPG), 23 January 2014, Westminster Hall, London UK; organised by the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association

Over the past two decades, civil society participation has become recognised as critical to the national ownership of development processes. An active civil society with the ability to suggest different methods of political participation is a cornerstone of democratic governance.

This is at the heart of the Foundation’s work: supporting people’s participation for effective, responsive and accountable governance. In September 2013 the Foundation developed a Civil Society Engagement Strategy which aims to focus on the need for strengthening its mechanisms for relationships and coordination with CSOs. The Strategy is premised on the theory of change: that stronger and more organised voices, increased capacities in policy and advocacy, clearer messages, and sustained opportunities to work collaboratively with governance institutions will lead civil society to participate more effectively.

While there is no one defined method or rulebook for pursuing inclusive and democratic governance, the Foundation believes that each country defines its own unique process based on its values, standards, history, local realities and by learning from the experience of other countries.

The distinctive rise of shared governance is a development of recent decades, where the participation of non-state actors (particularly CSOs) in global policy making has increased significantly. Recent moves towards government decentralisation in a number of countries with greater decision making power/finance provided at local levels, have built upon and often extended the scope for CSOs to influence policy at the local level.

Decentralisation and devolution has increased citizen participation and promoted civil society activity. Meaningful public participation in decision-making, implicit in which are strong civic capacities and a healthy associational life, is a foundation of social stability and peace. In Tanzania for example, Policy Forum, a network of more than 100 Tanzanian civil society organisations, is promoting fiscal accountability and the importance of transparent and inclusive budgeting for improved service delivery.

In 2012, the Commonwealth Foundation contributed to the architecture of the Post 2015 Development Agenda. In partnership with the UN Millennium Campaign, it published Commonwealth Perspectives: Ideas for a new development agenda, which articulates civil society analysis of the progress of the Millennium Development Goals (MDG) in Commonwealth countries and the contributions of civil society, the usefulness of the MDG framework and the issues for a post 2015 agenda to consider.  One of the 14 countries covered by Commonwealth Perspectives is Tanzania

Building on the Commonwealth Perspectives, the Foundation supported a series of Commonwealth regional consultations which identified emerging regional priorities for Post 2015. These priorities were then further deliberated on at the Commonwealth People’s Forum in Sri Lanka in November 2013, which resulted in the formulation of the CPF 2013 Declaration for Post 2015.

One of the biggest lessons from and a widely shared critique of the MDGs is the need for adaptable, localised goals. The research in Tanzania led by the Tanzania Association of Non-Governmental Organisation (TANGO) certainly highlighted that localised and flexible goals imply that CSOs need to be involved in the design of development frameworks in order to play a better role in implementation. Enabling conditions for civil society participation underpins development effectiveness. What is needed is more attention to supporting the conditions such as enabling laws and policies and building capacities of civil society so they can play a full role. The Tanzania report in Commonwealth Perspectives reiterates this need for an enabling environment for civil society participation, ensuring that the Post 2015 framework will be responsive to the needs of citizens, particularly those living in poverty.

The next step now is for civil society to engage in the spaces with the decision/policy makers at the global, regional and national levels to influence the discourse and the architecture of the new development goals.

In 2011, the Parliamentarians who came together at the International Parliamentary Conference on the MDGs pledged to strengthen participatory democracy through deepening engagement with civil society, encouraging and supporting their participation in decision making and maximising their roles as independent development actors. The Commonwealth Foundation at the Africa Parliamentary Conference on MDGs in 2012 called for a strong partnership between civil society and parliaments across the Commonwealth, and pointed out the crucial nature of this partnership to guide the architecture and ensure the ownership of the new development goals. This call resonates at this time.

The IPCP 2015 Conference Communique and the recommendations for parliamentary engagement to the Open Working Group of the UN and the Post 2015 Action Plan for Parliamentarians are critical commitments and provide a meaningful framework for civil society engagement with parliamentarians on the Post 2015 development agenda. One of the cornerstones of participatory governance is dialogue. And Parliamentarians are key and critical champions for dialogue. Meaningful change takes time but if the lines for listening, learning and engaging are kept open, we can collectively make change happen.