Brussels, 18 January 2019 – In some parting reflections, Seamus Jeffreson, CONCORD’s outgoing director, looks back on five eventful years in the NGO world. Despite current political pressure on CSOs and the work still to be done, his outlook for civil society is one of solidarity, humanity, and resilience.
Over the last five years of my time leading CONCORD, the development sector has changed.
Aid levels have largely held up but meanwhile there has been an increased use of development cooperation for domestic priorities by European countries and by extension EU institutions. European security, migration prevention and a greater role for large private sector actors became more pronounced in external cooperation. This has been to the detriment of the real aim of EU development cooperation (as described in the Treaty on European Union) which is tackling poverty and inequality and reaching sustainable development globally.
Current EU migration policies betray Europe’s proud tradition of championing human rights and human dignity. They are false solutions to a natural phenomenon and one that could also be a benefit for Europe given our ageing population. As a consequence, development cooperation risks being tainted in the eyes of our partners in Africa and by a European public (millions of whom support our NGO members) who see this cooperation as an act of solidarity and humanity, not an instrument for conditionality.
Current EU migration policies betray Europe’s proud tradition of championing human rights and human dignity.
At the same time, the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development has provided a framework for a positive vision for progress in all countries and continents (including our own). Civil society organisations in Europe and around the world should be proud of driving a truly ‘paradigm changing’ replacement to the millennium Development Goals (MDGs). I think it’s a truly visionary agreement, one that promises a clear transition pathway to a world in which people and planet come first. It’s an antidote to the defensive, inward looking and chauvinist vision that has gained such ground in Europe since the financial crisis in 2008 and the subsequent increase in inequalities worldwide.
The UK’s vote in 2016 to leave the EU was a huge wake-up call for people who believe in cooperation and in Europe. The statement produced by +170 civil society organisations soon afterwards showed the path to a new way of thinking and working so we, NGOs, could play a more effective part building a progressive Europe.
The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development promises a clear transition pathway to a world in which people and planet come first.
The last 12 months have been a real challenge for many development NGOs in the wake of sexual misconduct stories and #metoo. The NGO community was forced to have a deeper examination of power relationships and the effect of privilege in our organisations and in relations with those we work. NGOs are reviewing and strengthening their safeguarding procedures, looking at how and who they recruit, reinforcing whistleblowing procedures, above all paying attention to survivors. This is being done at individual agency level, and by NGO representative platforms often working with donors. There are lessons here for other actors in international cooperation who also need to look to their safeguarding – donors, embassies, private contractors, UN. But a bit of humility and more self-awareness can leave our organisations and sector stronger. I have worked with NGOs with a huge sense of pride and am sure my colleagues in the sector do too.
Over the last years, as an umbrella organisation, I could also notice an increased legislative funding and political pressures on civil society and on our members in Europe. Last year civil society’s role was even called into question by some (mainstream) members of the European Parliament. More extreme political voices say we don’t represent anyone. Behind our organisations are millions of active supporters and volunteers. They want development NGOs to stand up for marginalised people in Africa, Asia and Latin America and to promote European policies that improve lives, be they textile workers in Bangladesh, street traders in Zambia or small scale farmers in Peru.
Taking inspiration and strength from our supporters, we should be confident of public support of our role in a democratic society as a watchdog, demanding accountability of governments and institutions. We need to be making the case to incoming Parliamentarians and Commissioners that European policy is richer and better if informed by NGOs’ policy and advocacy work.
As of January 14th 2019, Seamus Jeffreson has handed over his role as CONCORD’s director to Tanya Cox. The confederation thanks Seamus for years of dedicated work and his passion to advocate for more just and sustainable policy-making. We are curious to see what his future endeavours will entail. For that, we wish him all the best.