OPINION: The Importance of Civil Societies for Inclusive, Ethical and Sustainable Development Projects

Topics Development studies | Cross-sector partnerships | Evidence-based practice | Research partnerships | Humanitarian | Human rights and culture | Tools & Guidance
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By: Alitzel Valadez (RDI Network Intern). Alitzel is studying her Master of Development Studies at the University of Melbourne. She has been a great help updating our website, pulling together our newsletter and supporting our everyday activities.


Civil society’ is a term that encompasses various and diverse groups of people, including non-governmental organisations (NGOs), faith-based organisations, labour unions, universities, and community groups. These groups, also known as ‘grassroots’ organisations or networks, allow for individuals to voluntarily organise outside of the state and the private sector, and to form support groups and associations in order to protect or extend their interests, values and identities (Veltmeyer 2008). The importance of civil society lies in the idea that they are considered agents of change and social transformation by giving power to the people, and especially to those that would not be heard. This includes those that are silenced.


When referring to a development project, we have to remind ourselves that, at its core, it is about supporting the people to improve their current living conditions (Mensah, J. & Sandra Ricart Casadevall S. 2009). Development serves the people and therefore, the first thing that needs to be done is to consider the people’s needs. The project is intended to benefit (and even in a broader sense, anyone that can be potentially impacted by it) and to engage actively with the people to ensure the right-fit.


The role of civil society organisations (CSOs) is crucial to this type of localisation, as they “have a deep understanding of context and extensive networks – including working relationships with communities” (RDI Network 2020, 25). In fact, the RDI Network recently published the paper ‘Building Together: Seven principles for engaging civil society to deliver resilient, inclusive and sustainable infrastructure in the Pacific islands’, which is an insightful paper that gives practical examples on why and how to work with civil societies. Through various case studies, the importance of civil society, and their role as key partner for the delivery of quality inclusive infrastructure in the Pacific is highlighted.


Including local actors in the decision-making process has, in fact, a two-fold effect: it ensures that real local priorities are being met and it gives legitimacy to the project itself. Moreover, it can help staff bridge gaps in the understanding between foreign nationals and local communities. Because the scope of civil society is vast, it allows for development researchers to engage with different types of organisations or groups across the board in order to better comprehend the needs of a community. This is the most ethical and sustainable way of achieving the intended development goals.


Not including local organisations / civil societies can lead to the isolation of the most marginalised people of the community. It also continues to perpetuate inequality (ACT Alliance 2019, 52). By not including local organisations, the needs or desires of those that are already secluded remain unknown, and an adequate translation from intended goals to tangible solutions and long-term development is not possible. Consequently, any development attempt will be completely foreign, untrustworthy, and even counterproductive.


Engaging civil societies ensures 1) transparent decision-making, 2) gives legitimacy to the process and to the organisation itself, and 3) fosters mutual ownership of the outcomes. This ownership is possible because locals become active participants and their insights become part of the project itself. Additionally, as they are not foreign to the development process, it is not seen as an imposition and thus helps legitimise the project and demonstrate why development practitioners are involved in the first place.


Engaging in a collaborative project (or co-production) will ensure that the project is compatible with the cultural, social, economic and political precepts of a country. It gives local voices the chance to be heard, and to be actively involved. It is important to be aware that, because of the differences in sizes and areas of specialisations within CSOs, there is a variability in management capacity and quality assurance processes. This is why it is essential to have a monitoring and evaluation framework that can ensure accountability at both ends and the establishment of a genuine relationship.


When doing development research, have a clear knowledge of who the actors involved are and who will be impacted by the project (even if only indirectly). Afterwards, find out what civil society organisations or groups can be reached to further your knowledge of the situation. Instead of only doing research from an external point of view, talk to locals, hire locals to become co-researchers and/or fund the involvement of civil societies. Seek and nurture relationships that are mutually beneficial, based on trust and with a shared commitment to specific objectives. It is always better to take more time and resources in project planning than to create a project and then see it fail because of the lack of civil society engagement.



More information on civil society participation and engagement:





ACT Alliance (2019) Development Needs Civil Society – The Implications of Civic Space for The Sustainable Development Goals. Authored by: Naomi Hossain, with Nalini Khurana, Sohela Nazneen, Marjoke Oosterom, Patrick Schröder, and Alex Shankland (Institute of Development Studies).

Mensah, J. and Sandra Ricart Casadevall S. (2019) Sustainable development: Meaning, history, principles, pillars, and implications for human action: Literature review, Cogent Social Sciences, 5:1, DOI: 10.1080/23311886.2019.1653531

Płachciak, A. (2009) Sustainable Development as the Principle of Civic Society, Economics & Sociology, Vol. 2, No 2. pp. 85-90.

RDI Network (2020). Building together: Seven principles for engaging civil society to deliver resilient, inclusive and sustainable infrastructure in the Pacific islands. Authored by: Wesley Morgan, Rebecca McNaught, Sally Baker, Fulori Manoa and Jope Tarai.

Veltmeyer, Henry. (2008). Civil Society and Local Development. Interações (Campo Grande), 9(2), 229-243. https://doi.org/10.1590/S1518-70122008000200010