Civil society as part of Finland´s foreign policy
Mr Chair, honorable civil society colleagues, your Excellency Mr Kiai, ladies and gentlemen,
Thank you for the invitation to address this assembly of experts on Kepa’s development policy day. The theme you have chosen for this development policy day is very important in many ways and personally close to my heart. Looking at the programme of the day I can’t help but think that this is somehow a reflection of the society we live in. This event brings together different types of actors from civil society, academia, the UN and the Finnish state with the intention of discussing the role of civil society in development. As we all know, this type of gathering in the spirit of open dialogue isn’t to be taken for granted. The political space of civil society unfortunately leaves room for improvement in many countries.
Development without human rights stands on thin ice and is untenable in the long run. Or, as our development policy states, respect for human rights and – I stress this – their implementation are a prerequisite for achieving sustainable development. In our view, development policy and cooperation support the basic pillars of democracy with the separation of powers, or the three branches of government, free and fair elections, as well as freedom of expression, association and assembly, political parties and freedom for civil society. The North African Arab Spring taught us to see past apparent stability, and put even more emphasis on prioritising support for democratic development on a broader basis. In order to have truly good governance we must apply the principles of openness, right to information and access to decision-making throughout society. Dialogue which allows differing opinions and invites active involvement of different types of actors develops the thinking of all concerned. This entails one of the key roles of civil society: working as non-state actors with oversight functions on the public sphere, and demanding discussion and action from state bodies. To be able to do this, the basic freedoms of association and assembly must be respected and real space provided for civil society actors to do their work.
Finland’s new development policy programme was published in February of this year. The human rights based approach has been placed at the core of this policy. The role of civil society organisations is being exceedingly emphasised in our work and funding, which is also stated in our Government Programme. This is a good basis and a response in itself to changes in the international operational environment as well as a clear statement of resolve. But naturally, putting these policies into action is the real challenge we face.
Mr Kiai, you have in some of your highly topical statements called for state actors, such as Finland, to approach states that try to violate the rights of assembly and of association. While it may not be a legally binding obligation under international law, action taken by civil society and providing
support for their action is an accepted basic principle of democracy, good governance and rule of law. In our view also linked to the result-oriented approach of our development policy.We pay special attention to effectiveness and impacts of our policies, and consider it to be vital that we are aware of and accountable for not only the direct impact but also for the unintended results of our actions. From our point of view this challenges us as donors to plan our activities in a way that includes analysis of short, medium and long term effects as well as the possible side-effects and risks of our policies. In short, we need to have a type of SWAT matrix in our minds as we plan for implementation of our policies.
We believe in the power of example. Finland has developed a habit of working in close cooperation with civil society in the field of development policy. We consider it important and productive to have representatives of civil society organisations in many of our official delegations, a practical though perhaps not so dramatic tool for cooperation. Much of the work we do is barely visible in public, but this is simply due to the nature of diplomacy. Political dialogue is sometimes slow and cumbersome but it is at the core of our “toolbox”. The ”official” Finland brings up issues regarding limitations on civil society action and freedom of association on all levels available for politicians and civil servants. Limiting the space for civil society takes various forms ranging from stigmatisation and criminalisation of CSO actors to administrative and legislative restrictions or even physical harassment. None of these are in any way acceptable, and this we continue to state in our policies and show in our actions.
Using all the tools at our disposal to support the strengthening of civil society is particularly important in situations where the opposition is weak and the media is unable or unwilling to criticise government actions. In such circumstances, providing subtle support to help civil society actors organise themselves and develop their practical capacities and skills can play a key role. The need for such skills is emphasized when the space to act is limited for civil society.
A dual phenomenon appears to be in process for civil society action. The negative developments to limit space for CSOs often seem to occur in parallel to international processes which emphasize the importance of civil society and stress the expectations of their impact and effectiveness. Simultaneously to encouraging CSOs to take up advocacy roles, the space for just these roles seems to be shrinking.
Civil society organisations are independent development actors in their own right. The Accra Agenda for Action and the Busan Joint Action Plan recognizes this as well as the necessity of governments to provide an enabling environment for them. This recognition and commitment is stated also in a recent Communication by the European Commission. This Communication stresses the importance of CSOs being able to fully play their role in the delivery of social services, transparency and good governance advocacy, and contribute to policy making. On the same line, the OECD’s Development Policy Committee (DAC) calls for partnering more strategically with civil society organisations and encouraging democratic processes, where the aim of strengthening civil society plays a key role. Finland has stressed this independent role of CSOs in the international dialogues on aid effectiveness and continues to be committed providing a more conducive environment for civil society actors. This commitment can be seen not only in the strong emphasis on civil society in the new Development Policy Programme but also in the open dialogue process that led to the materialisation of it.
An enabling environment is the basis for supporting civil society action in foreign and development policies. The basis of a democratic society lies with a functioning civil society which represents the voice of the people. We believe that an open and transparent dialogue with civil society on policies, partnerships and programmes enables trust building, improves accountability, and helps identify common ground for collaboration for sustainable results. The dialogue between the Finnish state and civil society organisations is close – and we take pride in this – but we also find it important to respect your independence and role as non-state overseers. As I mentioned, we believe in the power of example. Just as we encourage and support dialogue between state and non-state actors in Finland, we also work with all the tools available to us to strengthen the role and space for civil society action outside our national borders.
Without human rights, including civil and political rights, we cannot have a democratic society. And democratic institutions, in turn, ensure equality and equal treatment of all citizens. They lay the foundation for economic and social development as well as for an equitable social policy.
We have succeeded to reach results on several fronts, but much work still lies ahead of us. A joint cause to enhance the situation for civil society organisations is shared, dare I say, by all of us present here and many of our partners around the globe. I encourage you to continue your valuable work, and wish you fruitful discussions today and in the future.