Normative Narratives


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Transparency Report: Civil Society Activism, Social Accountability, and Sustainable Human Development

The UN Human Rights Chief Navi Pillay opened the high-level segment of the 25th session of the Human Rights Council with a “call to protect, support civil society activism“:

“Streets, airwaves, entire countries are buzzing with demands for economic, social and political justice,”

Setting out this agenda and acknowledging the hard work that lay ahead in ensuring that all people enjoyed equal rights, Ms. Pillay emphasized the important role of civil society in those efforts. “We need to work together to ensure that the space, voice and knowledge of civil society is nurtured in all our countries,” she stressed.

[General Assembly President John Ashe]  drawing attention to upcoming initiatives on human rights issues in the General Assembly, stressed the human rights relevance of his body’s work in setting the stage for a new international development agenda following the 2015 deadline of the Millennium Development Goals.

Overcoming the rise in inequality around the world and the increasing marginalization of people living in poverty is particularly important in that light, he said.

He too pointed to the importance of civil society in pursuing those goals, given “how much courage and fortitude is required by those who champion human rights, when it is so easy to look the other way or take a less courageous stand.”

In related news, the United Nations Development Group (UNDG) announced it will hold 50 new national level consultations as part of its efforts to build local support for the Post-2015 Development Agenda:

The consultations will take the form of public meetings and discussions where policy planners, civil society representatives, community and private sector leaders will discuss how to best deliver the next sustainable development agenda that will build on the success of the Millennium Development Goals (MDG).

“We are committed to changing the way multilateral development diplomacy works,” said Olav Kjorven, Special Advisor to the UNDP Administrator on the Post-2015 Development Agenda. “We will continue to expand the areas where people will be able to engage with the work of the United Nations.”

Sustainable human development begins and ends with people. The human rights based approach (HRBA) to development champions both the political and civil rights needed for people to be active participants in change, as well as the economic, social and cultural rights people need to live dignified lives. The HRBA recognizes that these rights are interrelated and interdependent; for example, political reform cannot be put off in the name of economic growth.

There are universal means to improving standard of living; education, food, rule of law, responsive governance, healthcare, sanitation, access to energy, employment to name a few. How these means can be best implemented is context-sensitive; thinking we know better than those at a local level is an exercise in hubris, not development.

Social Accountability (p 44-45) “is used to refer to a broad range of activities in which individuals and CSOs act directly or indirectly to mobilize demand for accountability…Social accountability has worked best when the rules and frameworks in place provide legal sanctions in the event of wrongdoing and permit civil society to monitor effectively and access essential information.”

Without avenues for redress, the transformative value of social accountability activities ultimately depends on the willingness of duty bearers to engage with them. For this reason, social accountability may be more effective when its objective is to complement and strengthen the horizontal accountability mechanisms discussed earlier. Social accountability activities might aim, for example, to reveal the inadequacies of these mechanisms, lobby for their reform or seek to improve their effectiveness through greater public participation. Such interventions can encourage the formation of new “diagonal” accountability mechanisms, such as citizen oversight committees or grievance redress mechanisms (with varying degrees of formality and legal authority).

While social accountability can be a powerful tool, it is most effective when complemented by governments committed to human rights accountability and willing to cede some control over the legal process to CSOs. Essentially, social accountability mechanisms can be made as (in)effective as a government is willing to make them. If governments are ultimately accountable to people, they should do everything in their power to empower their citizenry, enabling effective social accountability. 

Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) aside, the Post 2015 Development Agenda is a blueprint; a way to show governments how effective inclusive and consultative governance can be. It is not enough to remember the role of regular people in bringing about change while drafting development agendas, or during times of election or revolution. The roles of civil society activism and social accountability must be promoted and protected everyday.

Ultimately, progress is brought about by and for people; governments, institutions, declarations, and development agendas play an enabling/complementary role.

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