The Australian Government, through AusAID, is about to launch its Civil Society Engagement Framework, which will outline the way in which the Australian aid program will engage with civil society into the future. I’ll be eagerly awaiting its release not only because ACFID helped to develop the Framework, but because I believe civil society
engagement is essential for effective, long-lasting development.
In 1823 Alexis de Tocqueville described a new sort of activity, which had sprung up in the ‘new world’: America. This activity ‘…stressed volunteerism, community spirit and
independent associational life as protections against the domination of society by the state, and indeed as a counterbalance which helped to keep the state accountable and effective’. He called this activity ‘civil society’.
Civil society has come a long way since then. Non-profit organisations,voluntarily established and run for the benefit of communities, are now a hallmark of free, democratic societies.
As the Hon. Kevin Andrews noted just last week, Australia now has over 600,000 voluntary and charitable organisations representing a wide diversity of interests, groups, and services. The vast majority of them are small unincorporated entities. Excluding volunteers, the sector made up 4.1 per cent of GDP in 2006-07, a contribution of $43 billion to the Australian economy. Almost 320,000 people were employed by the sector, which also attracted 4.6 million volunteers. Clearly, Australian civil society is blossoming.
In the countries in which Australia delivers aid, civil society organisations have often stepped in where governments have failed. They deliver services like health and education and advocate for vulnerable people.
Australians expect certain rights such as freedom of speech – these things are a feature of our democracy. Where we deliver aid, the most extreme circumstances could see the staff of civil society organisations being arrested or their organisations shut down entirely. Recent events in Libya and now in Syria, where guns have been turned on people protesting for certain rights and freedoms, are obvious examples.
One essential role that many civil society organisations undertake is to help ensure that governments are doing their job: providing the conditions of freedom, accessible education, housing and opportunities for their citizens that we all deserve. This is what makes civil society is a key ingredient to successful development. A strong, robust civil society within a country not only fosters freedom and democracy, it helps to make change happen, and make it last.
Whether formal or informal, large or small, civil society organisations often stand up
for the rights, wants and needs of people in countries all around the globe. As
Tocqueville put it, the job of civil society is to ensure there are protections for people against the domination of society by the state and to ensure that the state is accountable and effective.
Australian civil society organisations, including charities and NGOs, have been working in developing countries for decades to help change people’s lives for the better. We are supported by the Australian public, who donate over $800 million to international aid and humanitarian charities annually. We are partners with the Australian Government in delivering aid. So why do we require a Civil Society Engagement Framework for the Australian aid program?
As the Australian aid budget moves toward 0.5 per cent of gross national income, the way in which AusAID engages with civil society organisations will inevitably change. The framework will help to ensure that civil society organisations and AusAID are delivering aid effectively. Central to the Framework are five key objectives:
- Improved effectiveness and impact
- Reduced risks and shared accountability
- Efficiency and value for money
- Diversity and innovation
The framework will support and strengthen the partnership between civil society
organisations and AusAID, and result in better development outcomes overall.
About the author: Marc Purcell
Marc Purcell is the Executive Director of the Australian Council for International Development (ACFID), the peak body for international development and humanitarian NGOs in Australia.