The 2030 Agenda recognizes that the realization of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) can only be successful with strong global partnerships and co-operation. Civil society organizations (CSOs) are recognized as key partners in the successful implementation and monitoring of the SDGs. In the face of this increasingly urgent agenda, the Task Team on CSO Development Effectiveness and Enabling Environment (Task Team) commissioned a research study focused on the identification of factors that help and hinder the engagement of CSOs in the implementation of the SDGs. The study was undertaken by the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS), a renowned higher education and research institute of social science that is part of Erasmus University Rotterdam, under the leadership of Professors Kees Biekart and Alan Fowler , Key messages discussed here are derived from the Synthesis Report, summarizing evidence from 21 case studies in six countries: Costa Rica, Ghana, Hungary, Lao PDR, Nepal & Tanzania.


Activating Civil Space for Sustainable Development Study

None of the countries studied were found to have ignored their commitment to the SDGs. Although the SDGs appear to provide a positive shared agenda for action and an accepted framework for conversation with governments about CSOs’ operating environment, the engagement of CSOs was found to be irregular and non-inclusive, conclusions that echoed the findings of the 2018 Global Partnership Monitoring Round.


The CSO enabling environment and CSO development effectiveness are prerequisites for CSOs to be able to act as implementers of the SDGs and watchdogs for accountability. As the Task Team advocates in its Guidance and Good Practice on CSO Development Effectiveness and Enabling Environment, only when these commitments are met, can CSOs contribute to implementation and monitoring of the SDGs.


The study found that there is a lack of diversity of types of CSOs engaged in multi-stakeholder dialogue, with those CSOs that are part of the aid system and in an urban location at an advantage: “This six-country study sees not only an urban bias in CSOs pursuing the SDGs, but also an intellectual class bias that is globally connected” (Biekart, Fowler 2020). During the Global Partnership 2018 Monitoring Round, CSOs reported that “…these consultations are not systematic, which hinders their ability to provide quality input. Results indicate that these engagement opportunities by both partner country governments and development partners could be more regular, predictable and involve a more diverse set of actors” (GPEDC 2019). Not recognizing the need to diversify the types of CSOs engaged in multi-stakeholder dialogues, only perpetuates the participation of the same group of urban and aided CSOs.


The lack of diversity of CSOs engagement may be accounted by the finding that the SDGs have not brought about any significant change in the way donors, within the official aid system, function towards CSOs nor that the SDGs have led to any significant increase in coordination amongst donors. This includes a lack of long-term support to CSOs. Unequal support favor large (inter)national CSOs with little activity found at lower (local) levels. The 2018 GPEDC monitoring round also found that “CSOs do not consider development partners’ funding mechanisms to be predictable, transparent or accessible to a diversity of CSOs” (GPEDC 2019).


There is a general government interest in the additional resources that CSOs can bring to the table, but within narrowing rules, limiting their autonomy as independent development actors in their own right. Implementation of the SDGs does not lead to an ‘opening’ of civic space - CSOs’ engagement in the SDGs provides insights about respect for civic freedoms but it says little about actual compliance with international civic freedom agreements. The study shows a variety of mechanisms used by government to constrain civic space ranging from limiting information access, selective CSO inclusion/exclusion to stringent laws inducing self-censorship. The GPEDC 2018 monitoring round also confirmed that the enabling environment for civil society organizations is deteriorating.


These findings demonstrate a clear non-compliance with international commitments made to ensure that CSO contributions to development reach their full potential. And we are not helped by the fact that there is no SDG indicator monitoring and measuring the engagement of CSOs in SDG processes at the country level.


Looking at the above, the Task Team’s approach and work is still urgent and relevant: bringing together donors, partner country governments and CSOs to engage in open and inclusive dialogue to find common ground, recognizing that this is a shared responsibility. A practical way this is done is through country level workshops which provides the opportunity to raise awareness on international commitments on CSOs in development and offer guidance, evidence and practical tools to further their implementation. The Task Team is partnering up with the GPEDC under its work programme 2020-2022, action area 2.4 on civil society partnerships, to hopefully reach more countries and consequently achieve greater impact in furthering the engagement of a diverse civil society in development processes.