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Published on: 15/07/2019

Speed read

  • The Netherlands is one of the few donors supporting more space for civil society organisations (CSOs)
  • Three strategic partnerships supporting water-related CSOs present lessons learned as inputs for the Dutch CSO follow-up programme (€ 1 billion, 2021-2025)
  • The role of Dutch NGOs in the new programme will change as a result of the focus on local ownership 
  • CSOs are encouraged to embrace activism as a tactic to get a seat at table
  • Flexible, longer-term approaches are needed, which take the local context into account (e.g. fragile states, CSO hostile environments)
  • CSOs can increase their influence by "broadening" or "smashing" the table
  • The sector will benefit from having empowered women at the table

The Netherlands is one of the few donors supporting more space for civil society organisations. In 2016, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs launched Dialogue and Dissent, a five-year € 925 million programme, which funds 25 international strategic partnerships aimed at strengthening civil society and the political role of civil society organisations (CSOs) in 72 low- and lower middle-income countries. The Ministry announced that it will fund a € 1,030m follow-up programme called Power of Voices starting in 2021. Together with the new € 410m SDG 5 fund for gender equality, the Netherlands has earmarked nearly € 1.5 billion for civil society strengthening for the period 2021-2025.

In the words of IRC CEO Patrick Moriarty, Dialogue and Dissent is an "incredibly exciting and innovative programme". "We know that politicians react to citizens and citizens' voice" and to drive progress in countries that are not on track to achieve to the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG 6) for water and sanitation, "we need to engage at the political level".

Drawing lessons from several water-related Dialogue and Dissent partnerships as potential inputs for the follow-up Power of Voices programme was the topic of a WASH Debate jointly organised by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, IRC and partners. These inputs were related to the different roles that CSOs play: claiming the human rights to water and sanitation; holding government to account; negotiating on water resources; and addressing power structures. A unique aspect of Dialogue and Dissent is that it encourages grant recipients to also hold the Dutch government to account or its development policies

The debate attracted some 51 sector professionals to The Hague on 26 June 2019 and over 100 viewers who followed or replayed the Twitter livestream. Participants engaged in a lively discussion with presenters from SNV, Simavi and Both ENDS, and representatives from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Pictures from the WASH Debate: Dialogue and dissent: Looking at the role of civil society in achieving SDG 6 by 2030, The Hague, 26 June 2019 

Getting a seat at the table

Before CSOs can ensure their voice is heard and advocate for political change, they first need to have a seat at the table. Representatives from two of the three water-related strategic partnerships told the audience at the WASH debate that they had successfully completed this initial step. A hostile environment for CSOs has so far prevented them for getting a seat at the table in the third partnership.
SNV WASH Advisor Sharon Roose presented the case of the sanitation component of the Voice for Change Partnership (V4CP) programme in Kenya, where CSOs are now able to join meetings where they can advocate for the human rights to water and sanitation. GIS mapping proved to be a powerful advocacy tool to produce easy-to-understand evidence-based visualisations to lobby for increased budget allocations.
Esther de Vreede, Director of Programmes at Simavi, told that the Watershed programme has helped CSOs representing women and vulnerable groups in both Bangladesh and Kenya to identify and participate in the right forums to get heard. In Bangladesh, participatory budget tracking resulted in increased WASH budgets in some districts. One year after nomadic people got a seat at the table of a water management committee, they were allocated a water source and sanitation services. In the Watershed video below we see Valentine Mombafi Keraita, Chairlady of Lakipia Women with Disability Amplified Voices "at the table" in Kenya.

In Jakarta, Indonesia, local CSOs were unable to get to the table themselves to support vulnerable groups whose livelihoods were threatened by a mega infrastructure project. Both ENDS Policy Advisor Giacomo Galli described how his organisation was able to "broaden the table" by relaying the concerns of the local CSOs to the Dutch government, which financed the development of the project's master plan. The lessons learned from this experience, making use of the 'Dutch trade and aid agenda' to hold the Dutch private sector accountable for applying human rights and environmental standards, were used to formulate a similar Dutch-financed master plan for Manila, in the Philippines.  

Be heard, be an activist

The CSOs involved in Watershed and Voice for Change Partnership, just as most organisations in the WASH sector, are more comfortable with dialogue than dissent. Senior Advisor at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and former GroenLinks (GreenLeft) politician Brechtje Paardekooper called on NGOs to adopt activism to strengthen their role in dissent. Every country or region has developed their own form activism, she added.
If existing power structures prevent citizen voices from being heard, they may need to be dismantled, Giacomo suggested. So "smash" the table and create a new setting for dialogue and dissent, for example within a community.
The best way to get things done is to have one foot inside and one foot outside the system, according to Brechtje. Giacomo added that if you are on the "inside" you also need to be credible for the "outside".

Fragile states

The new Dutch policy framework for strengthening civil society (2021-2025) will have a stronger focus on fragile states, while at the same time be more results-oriented. This will prove difficult to achieve in fragile states where both government and CSO capacity is weak. Both representatives from the ministry Brechtje Paardekooper and Policy Officer Renée van Hoof acknowledged this dilemma. They reassured the participants that the new framework, with its six progress-related indicators, is flexible enough to deal with local contexts. 

Local ownership

Only one of the 25 Dialogue and Dissent partnerships - Global Alliance for Green and Gender Action (GAGGA) - is led by a local CSO. This will change in the new Dutch policy framework for strengthening civil society with its focus on local ownership. This means a different role for Dutch NGOs, aimed at innovation (including local fundraising and digital technologies such as open data and social media), networking and international advocacy.

Empowered women

A 2014 study concluded that the WASH sector will benefit greatly from increased gender equality. A participant from the Women for Water Partnership (WfWP) told the audience that women know what is required to take up their role: "they are extremely fast learners". Examples of women's involved in Watershed programmes in Kenya and Bangladesh have been mentioned above.

"We need women at the table", said Esther de Vreede. "There are many women in the "soft" social side of WASH, but the technical engineering side is still male dominated. Decisions are made at the table where mostly men are sitting. That needs to change". In Tanzania there is change, reported the WfWP participant. It took 7 years to accomplish, but now nothing happens without consulting women's groups first.

Stop nerding-out

In her conclusion, moderator Daniëlle Hirsch, director of Both ENDS, urged Dutch development partners to engage in efforts to keep civic space as open as possible, even in partner countries where it is shrinking.

Patrick Moriarty thanked Brechtje Paardekooper for her call for greater CSO activism. "We have got to stop nerding-out as a sector", Patrick said. "Yes I believe passionately in evidence, I have a PhD, but we have got to learn how to communicate with politicians". In this respect, including advocacy and negotiation skills in curricula for water professionals would be a step in the right direction.

You will find more information about the current and proposed Netherlands policy frameworks for strengthening civil society, and the three Dialogue and Dissent strategic partnerships mentioned in the WASH Debate listed below under Useful Links. Under Resources you will find the three presentations and the Both ENDS report on the Jakarta master plan.

Acknowledgements: Thanks to Stef Smits and Tettje van Daalen for their inputs to this blog.


At IRC we have strong opinions and we value honest and frank discussion, so you won't be surprised to hear that not all the opinions on this site represent our official policy.

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