In The News

Asian Civil Society Mobilizes for Major Role in Busan

September 7, 2011

The Fourth High Level Forum on Aid Effectiveness (HLF-4) at the end of November in Busan, Korea, will be the most inclusive global consultation on development cooperation ever held. As national host of the forum, the Korean government has created a unique opportunity for all major aid players to come together by throwing open the doors to representatives of non-governmental organizations and the private sector.

Busan cityscape

In November, Korea wil host the Fourth High-Level Forum on Aid Effectiveness in Busan. Photo by Flickr user LWY.

At a conference last week in Seoul, the Seoul Civil Society Forum on Aid and Development Effectiveness, co-organized by The Asia Foundation and the Korean Civil Society Forum on International Development (KoFID), representatives of civil society organizations (CSOs) from around Asia came together to finalize their strategy for contributing to an outcome at Busan that has a strong potential to make a difference in the lives of people in developing countries.

The Seoul forum was also an opportunity for Korean and regional CSOs to engage in direct dialogue with the Korean government on development issues. In a remarkable two-hour session, CSO representatives interacted with Enna Park, director general in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, who leads the Korean government’s preparations for the Busan meeting. Many international participants expressed their appreciation for the way Park responded positively and candidly to their suggestions and questions regarding the Korean government’s stance on the issues to be discussed at HLF-4.

The global community has long admired Korea for its rapid progress toward economic and political development. As demonstrated by this forum, the world is also recognizing that there is much to learn from the role that Korea’s own civil society has played in its swift emergence on the world stage. Korean civil society continues to play a central role on the domestic scene, but Korean NGOs are also rapidly increasing their international programs. The 83 member NGOs of the Korean Council for Overseas Cooperation (KCOC) implement projects in developing countries and also advocate with the Korean government for increasing the quantity and quality of Korean aid.

The HLF process was initiated by the exclusive club of major donors, the Development Assistance Committee (DAC) of the OECD, some 10 years ago. The second forum held in Paris in 2005 agreed on a set of principles aimed at improving the delivery and effectiveness of aid, known as the Paris Declaration. While aid experts praised the DAC for its encouragement of better practices, the limitations of focusing narrowly on better coordination and transparency in aid delivery quickly became apparent.

One problem was that the voices of non-governmental development actors were missing from the HLF process. These include the NGOs, based in both donor and developing countries, that are actively involved in implementing development projects, as well as broad-based advocacy groups that lobby for development and aid that improves the lives of the poor and marginalized in developing countries. These civil society organizations and coalitions represent a major resource for both development cooperation and for mobilizing the necessary political support that will make aid more impactful.

Refusing to be left outside the tent, civil society organizations formed their own global process and sent representatives to Accra, Ghana, where the Third High Level Forum was held in 2008. The perspective of CSOs was reflected to some extent in the Accra Agenda for Action that emphasized donor accountability to partner governments and more broadly to the people of the developing countries.

Korea’s offer to host HLF-4 appeared to represent a major risk as well as an important opportunity for the newest member of the DAC. Korea’s history as a donor country is relatively short and the volume of its aid remains modest. Nevertheless, it quickly became apparent that Korea was more than ready for the challenge. First of all, the Korean government is rapidly increasing and reorganizing its own aid program, with a pledge to triple its aid volume by 2015. Also, the government reached out to Korean civil society to include their voices in this global event. Even more significantly, Korea used its influence as host country to convince the other DAC members to open up the planning process and the Busan HLF itself to international civil society as well as private sector representatives.

Thanks to Korea’s initiative, CSOs are no longer outside the tent looking in; they are now inside, contributing their perspectives to the debate over the direction of international development cooperation. This means that civil society now shares ownership for the outcome and ultimate impact of all the high-level talk about development, and CSOs are taking this responsibility seriously. In Seoul last week, representatives of Asian CSOs agreed to take a common stance to hold donor governments accountable for commitments they made in Paris and Accra, to emphasize democratic ownership of the development process in developing countries, and to strengthen their own role in development by implementing the CSO development effectiveness principles adopted in Istanbul last year.

Many of those at last week’s forum in Seoul will return to Korea at the end of November to represent Asian organizations at the Civil Society Open Forum to be held for three days in advance of the official meeting. They will help finalize global civil society’s input to the Busan Outcome Document, and at the HLF itself they will directly engage with donor and aid recipient governments to help shape the future direction of international development cooperation. The productive collaboration between the Korean government and Korean CSOs in preparing for HLF-4 bodes well for a positive outcome in Busan, while also demonstrating a model for government-civil society cooperation that other countries might emulate. In the end, the measure of the impact of these various meetings will be positive changes in the lives of the poor and marginalized in developing countries.

Edward P. Reed is The Asia Foundation’s country representative in Korea and can be reached at ereed@asiafound.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation.

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