The Istanbul Principles for CSO Effectiveness

This week, the Open Forum launched its international framework for CSO Development Effectiveness. It’s an impressive achievement, very relevant to improving performance in NGOs.

Here’s what it means:

“CSOs” are Civil Society Organisations, including community organisations, non governmental organisations, religious groups, trades unions and others.

The Open Forum is a global initiative by CSOs to develop a set of principles that describe how they contribute to development. They expect to be held accountable for their performance against these principles.

The Open Forum was launched after the 3rd High Level Forum on Aid Effectiveness, held in Accra in 2008.

That’s some jargon!

The High Level Forums bring together government and multi-lateral organisations to work out how to improve aid. The 1st High Level Forum was held in Rome in 2003 and the 2nd in Paris in 2005. It created the ‘Paris Declaration’ of five principles to improve official aid.

The Paris Declaration has been influential, pushing for better practice in areas like country ownership of social programmes and accountability by donors. It’s helped ensure aid is used to help recipients, rather than donors’ commercial or foreign policy interests.

At Accra, CSOs were involved in the process more than ever before. They said to the donors ‘Do this better’, and the donors said to them ‘What about you? How are you accountable for the quality and results of what you do?’

A good question.

The CSO Open Forum is a good response. It’s a serious attempt to come up with a set of principles that define good practice for CSOs around the world.

Now they’ve just launched their final statement, approved by 240 representatives from 70 countries. It is based on the Istanbul Principles for CSO Development Effectiveness. (Another capital city! It’s global bingo here. This time it’s because the principles were developed at the Open Forum’s meeting in Istanbul in 2010.)

The Istanbul Principles are:

  1. Respect and promote human rights and social justice
  2. Embody gender equality and equity while promoting women and girls’ rights
  3. Focus on people’s empowerment, democratic ownership and participation
  4. Promote environmental sustainability
  5. Practice transparency and accountability
  6. Pursue equitable partnerships and solidarity
  7. Create and share knowledge and commit to mutual learning
  8. Commit to realizing positive sustainable change

The Framework includes guidance about what these mean in practice along with other thoughtful analysis. It has been prepared in time for the next High Level Forum, the 4th, in Busan, later this year.

So what does this mean for NGO performance? Well, quite a lot.

The Framework creates a foundation for improving transparency and accountability in NGOs – establishing this as one of the eight headline principles.

Purely on the financial side, NGOs that receive money from DFID are about to have to implement the International Aid Transparency Initiative standard. That’s a big deal, closely aligned with the High Level Forums.

The Framework emphasises that CSOs (including NGOs) have to be accountable to the poor people they serve – who are “the primary stakeholders in development”. It says: “Accountability for CSOs means maximizing efforts to take into account the views of people living in poverty.”

To take an analogy, the Framework emphasises that gender equality has to apply internally within CSOs (e.g. in their employment practices) as much as externally, by organisations they lobby (e.g. in setting laws). In the same way, the principles of participation and democracy have to apply internally within CSOs, as well as externally.

How can CSOs do this? As I’ve argued before, feedback systems provide a practical way of making local peoples’ views accessible to managers. They provide great data on NGOs’ performance. A new report from the Listening Project makes the same case.

The Open Forum doesn’t answer all the questions it raises. For instance, it’s a big step from global principles to practical improvements. And it’s not clear to me why they focus on voluntary mechanisms for improving accountability rather than approaches that are enforced.

But the Istanbul Principles are a great addition to the debate, providing strong foundations for all of us working to improve the effectiveness of NGOs.

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