By Caroline Neligan. This was originally posted on the TechSoup Global blog.
Last month Robert Zoellick, President of the World Bank, gave a major speech announcing a ‘new social contract for development‘. The uprisings in the Middle East provided the ideal backdrop for this speech, in which he argued that the poverty, marginalisation, disenfranchisement and absence of justice experienced by many in these countries, has led to the public protests that are causing momentous shifts in power in these societies.
Zoellick argued that the lessons of Tunisia and the Middle East can be applied far beyond this region and should influence the shape of multilateralism in the future. His vision of ‘modern multilateralism’ requires “democratizing development economics so that all can play a part in designing, executing, and continually improving development solutions.”
This argument brings Zoellick to the importance of civil society organisations (CSOs) to his modern multilateralism paradigm. He stated, “our message to our clients, whatever their political system, is that you cannot have successful development without good governance and without the participation of your citizens…A robust civil society can check on budgets, seek and publish information, challenge stifling bureaucracies, protect private property, and monitor service delivery. Civil society can insist on respect for the rights of citizens. And civil society can assume responsibilities, too.”
Zoellick is right to make these arguments and to push his and other global institutions firmly into the 21st century where technology and social networks are enabling citizens to connect and organise in ways that were unthinkable only a decade ago. We must certainly encourage this kind of debate.
However, is any of this really new? Or does the current spotlight on citizen uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East simply force the leaders of our most powerful institutions to acknowledge these events and pay lip service to the activists?
The World Bank has for decades been pushed to take better account of the impact its policies have on the most marginalised and, at least rhetorically, the Bank has been vocal in its recognition of the role that CSOs play, both in terms of service delivery as well as providing a counterweight to government. John Garrison, a civil society specialist at the Bank, argues in his blog that the Bank can point to some progress in this area over the last decade or so. But, he asks, can Zoellick’s speech be considered a milestone for the way the Bank thinks about and works with civil society, reflecting the same shift with respect to the private sector in the 1950s?
This remains to be seen. But if the World Bank is serious, then it needs to understand that supporting civil society requires more than consulting CSOs on policy issues and providing project support. Investing in the necessary infrastructure to build sustainable, resilient sectors will be the real test of its sincerity. This means promoting the establishment of supportive legal and regulatory frameworks that promote organisation and independence; encouraging and enabling transparency and accountability; and recognising the needs for access to appropriate technologies that enable CSOs to do their work most effectively and efficiently, as well as to connect with peers and create communities of practice that reinforce and disseminate their work. The World Bank can’t be expected to do it all, but providing funding mechanisms that enable this would be an important indication of intent and would establish itself as a pioneer in modern multilateralism.
If they choose to take this approach, they already have plenty to support as CSOs at national and international levels are acutely aware of the infrastructure deficit and are taking actions to address it.
Arguably the biggest barrier to the effective and consistent support of CSOs is the information vacuum that exists with respect to the status of these organisations: not only is it incredibly challenging to get a good picture of who’s doing what, where and how, but the inconsistency of regulation and the lack of transparency provided by regulators (and funders) means that ascertaining the legal status of an organisation and, therefore, its eligibility to receive support or funding is a real impediment.
Through TechSoup Global’s GuideStar International programme, we promote CSO transparency and reporting and, vitally, provide a venue for all organisations, regardless of their size or means, to describe their work to the public. In addition, our NGOsource initiative, undertaken in partnership with the U.S Council on Foundations, is creating a centralised repository that will offer the U.S. grantmaker community a streamlined solution to the often expensive, complicated, and duplicative task of equivalency determination (the process by which U.S. grantmakers evaluate whether a potential foreign grantee is the equivalent of a U.S. public charity).
With our global reach and experience in promoting CSO transparency and delivering eligibility verification services through our product donations programme* and NGOsource, we consider ourselves well placed to further develop these services, which we believe will help to address civil society’s Achilles heel; the paucity of information and transparency. These activities will enable more efficient and confident philanthropy, as well as broaden the number of CSOs known to funders, policy makers and regulators. And this can provide a real foundation upon which Zoellick’s vision of ‘modern multilateralism’ can be built.
* TechSoup Global operates what we believe to be the largest technology product philanthropy programme in the world, with a catalogue of more than 450 products generously donated by a growing roster of 44 technology corporations, including industry leaders such as Microsoft, Adobe, Cisco, Intuit, and Symantec. Globally, we work with partners in over 35 countries to provide a socially responsible supply chain for technology products and support, which connects and builds the capacity of CSOs and the disadvantaged communities that rely on them. To date, these partners have made more than USD$2 billion in product donations available to civil society.