Article written by Justin Kilcullen, former Co-Chair of Civil Society Partnership for Development Effectiveness (CPDE) and former CONCORD President.

It is now a month since the High-Level Meeting 2 in Nairobi concluded. Looking back, was it a success? Certainly as the HLM concluded the civil society delegates were delighted with the outcome. Here is how it happened.

A look back on the Second High Level meeting

Following an inspiring opening speech by the CPDE co-chair, Tetet Lauron, we settled back for the usual dreary opening remarks by ministers, OECD and UNDP senior officials, and the rest. Then up stepped Swedish minister Lovin. “Aid is to fight poverty, not for the military” she declared. Time to sit up again. She added “There is a backlash against civil society around the world which must be opposed”. She later went on to extol the role of civil society in the development of Sweden, mentioning, among others, trade unions, the women’s movement, the temperance movement and sporting bodies, and how they contributed to institution building and economic development.

That was terrific, we thought, in the civil society cheap seats off to the side. But as if stung into action, the Dutch minister was not to be outdone. She centred her remarks around Kenyan Nobel Peace Prize winner and environmental political activist,  Wangari Maathai, “in whose city we are meeting”. This was a paean of praise for Wangari, her courage, her vision and for the role of civil society in development. And so it continued, as almost each other speaker affirmed that civil society must be an integral part of any outcome that was serious about contributing to the delivery of Agenda 2030.

Surprised as we were, the old pessimism crept back in. These opening statements were the easy bit, we thought. Let’s see what the final outcome document, still under negotiation, would produce. And indeed the negotiations did turn out to be tough.


The early drafts had been very disappointing, with language on human rights and civil society very weak and aspirational. This was in contrast to language around the role of the private sector which was being seen as a license to plunder at will. Even Development Assistance was being redefined as leverage to encourage private investment. The idea of ODA as an instrument to tackle poverty had disappeared.

The main culprits for this change were seen to be The Netherlands. Also proving difficult were the Egyptians, participants in the negotiations, but relatively new to the HLM process, and who seemed never to have heard of Busan. They were appalled at the prospect of civil society having a “watchdog role” on the works of the government, and were blocking the development of any role for civil society. The civil society team then went back to the Busan and Accra agreements, and instead of negotiating new wording asked for the inclusion of previously agreed wording in the outcome document.

This proved to be a bit of a masterstroke. The negotiations chair, Ambassador Kamau from Kenya, was under fierce pressure to have an outcome document to present to President Kenyatta at the end of the conference. It was inconceivable that the conference would end in failure. He saw the wisdom of the civil society approach and supported it. As a result the outcome document now commits to reversing the trend of shrinking and closing civil society space and recognises that implementing previous commitments is central to moving forward with effective cooperation.

Meanwhile our allies in the trade unions were negotiating on the role of the private sector. They were insisting on international norms, such as ILO labour standards, UN Principles on Business and Human Rights and OECD guidelines on Multinational Enterprises, also forming part of the agreement. In they went! The ambassador was leaving nothing to chance.


When the final outcome document was circulated at lunchtime on the final day we were thoroughly surprised. It was difficult to believe that just four days previously, at the CPDE board meeting, we were having a contentious discussion as to what would be the appropriate timing for a walk out from the negotiations. Of the four possible outcomes we had discussed the one symbolised by a bottle of champagne, that we would get all our key asks met, was quickly dismissed. Now we wondered why we hadn’t brought a bottle with us just in case.


Why was Civil Society so successful? I think that Civil Society was the best prepared of all the sectors participating. We had put in months of work. We had a negotiating team of eight supporting our two negotiators. Positions were well thought out. Briefing documents on key asks had been prepared and widely circulated. Ours was a very coherent position.

We had sound allies in the Trade Unions, Local Authorities and Parliamentarians. Together we advanced the prospect of a fourth GPEDC Co-chair position being created for the non- governmental sectors in the partnership.

How we build on this success must be carefully handled. If Civil Society is seen to become too influential it will weaken the interest of many governments in the GPEDC process. We must look for win – win scenarios that keep every partner engaged.

So, is it all perfect? Far from it. But one can argue that the perfect agreement is one where everyone is a little unhappy, but happy enough to sign. The Kenyans certainly achieved that.

We must also be aware that one document does not change deep underlying trends. Parties to it will take from it what they like and try to ignore the bits they don’t like. Civil Society is concerned at the absence of the concept of “democratic ownership”, one of the key principles of Busan. Another development of concern is the changing of the understanding of the role of international finance, from the focus on eradicating poverty and reducing inequality, to its use now to promote private sector development.

A further worry was the lack of ministerial participation by the donor countries, excluding Ireland, The Netherlands and Sweden. A senior political official from a major European donor said he had failed to convince his minister of the importance of being present.

The Global Partnership is still under the shadow of the glamour of Agenda 2030. However, in the coming fifteen years it will play a vital role in delivering that agenda, and ensuring that “Leave nobody behind” is not just an empty slogan. As civil society, it behoves us to get on board with this agenda, now successfully negotiated in Nairobi, and convince our governments that delivering the political imperative of Agenda 2030 is more than just about slogans.