Scotland’s International Development Alliance (formerly NIDOS – now known as The Alliance) held its annual conference and AGM in Glasgow last month. The event focused on the role of the different sectors which contribute towards Scotland’s international development activity, and considered how they might better cooperate in order to reach the 17 goals set out in the UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.
CABLE’s Caitlin Smith and Lyndsey Croal attended the event. In this article, they analyse the inputs and debates generated by the conference and ask how The Alliance might optimise cross-sector activity in Scotland in order to have the greatest impact.
In 2015, a landmark was reached with the signing of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by almost every United Nations member country and associated nations. With 17 goals and 169 targets, the 2030 Agenda aims to have an impact on five key areas (the five ‘Ps’): people, planet, prosperity, peace, and partnership.
Scotland’s First Minister was one of the first national leaders to sign up to the SDGs. Since then, the world has been confronted with some major challenges. These have included the rise of populism, Brexit, and an increasing number of natural disasters linked to climate change. At a time when President Donald Trump has signaled his intention to remove the US from the Paris climate accord, Scotland has enhanced its commitment on this front through the introduction of an ambitious Climate Change Bill in the Scottish Parliament.
The Scottish government’s plans include embedding a commitment to climate justice – the principle that those who have contributed most to climate change must be involved more closely in its mitigation. Critics argue that the Bill has not gone far enough, but Scotland has nevertheless been more ambitious than most in setting its targets.
On the whole, Scotland can say that it has a pretty good record on the international development front. But it could certainly do more to help create a better and fairer world. The Alliance – Scotland’s umbrella body in dealing with those organisations who operate in this sphere – is committed to this end. In the words of Jane Salmonson, CEO of The Alliance: “we may be a small nation, but we have the opportunity to be exemplary”.
THE ALLIANCE CONFERENCE: WHAT’S IT ALL ABOUT?
Scotland is an engine of activity for international development work. However, like many other nations, it faces obstacles to increasing this work, and to consolidating activity amongst the various sectors involved in its delivery: the private, public, academic, and third sectors.
The Alliance’s annual conference in September focused on breaking down those obstacles. In opening up its membership beyond just internationally focused nongovernmental organisations (NGOs), The Alliance hopes to bring all sectors involved in international development closer together in order to produce more coherence and greater action.
During the conference, Jane Salmonson talked about building closer partnerships and “breaking down the silos that used to exist between different elements of society, to release some of the synergy between the activities which are going on in each sector”. Ultimately, the aim of breaking down those ‘silos’ is to amplify Scotland’s actions and voice in international development, with an eye on the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.
So what are the challenges in achieving this?
BREAKING DOWN WALLS, BUILDING TRUST
One of the first key points raised in conference was made by Jane Salmonson: the need for the third sector to overcome its innate suspicion of the private sector.
Third sector work is often driven by a commitment to underlying beliefs and aspirations. Organisations operating in this sphere are likely to arrange their strategy according to those beliefs and aspirations. Activity within the private sector is also underpinned by beliefs and aspirations – however, profit is a driving aspiration for organisations within this sphere, something which consistently allows environmental standards, human rights, and good practice to be overlooked.
It is largely for these reasons that third sector practitioners have traditionally regarded the private sector with suspicion. But if the two sectors are to work together, that suspicion must be overcome. This will be crucial if The Alliance is to succeed in its aim to bridge the gaps between different sectors and harness their contributions to international development.
Achieving success in this endeavour might allow better engagement with problems such as misplaced government aid and development projects, which some argue have been responsible for propping up ‘broken systems’ and supporting governments (or other key actors) who don’t have communities’ best interests at heart. Dealing with these challenges required not only working with partner governments to ensure better oversight of development aid, but also with other sectors here in Scotland to try to enhance Scotland’s approach. One key partner in this process is the education sector.
Panellists from the morning session discuss the role of different sectors in international development and the potential for closer partnerships. From left to right: Jane Salmonson (CEO of The Alliance), Ann McKechin (Scottish Power), Chris Haggerty (Chair of session), Chizoba Obi (PhD candidate, Glasgow University) and Professor John Briggs (Glasgow University).
MOVING CLOSER TO THE ACADEMY
The Alliance also recognises the need to enhance relationships with educational institutions. From the voluntary and charity sector’s perspective, academia can play a significant role in optimising funding and project outcomes through its distinctive approach and the excellence of its research. By expanding its membership into the universities and research institutes, The Alliance seems hopeful that academic institutions will integrate more closely with NGO programme design work, adding precision and value to what Scotland’s NGOs already do.
Academics may well be excited at the prospect of accessing NGO networks and benefiting from their on-the-ground knowledge.
For this to be successful, academics and their respective institutions would need to accept the invitation for greater engagement with the NGO sector. But it’s easy to see how this can be a win-win situation if this is managed effectively. Academics may well be excited at the prospect of accessing NGO networks and benefiting from their on-the-ground knowledge.
One of the opportunities we have in Scotland is a relatively small population base. Whilst other factors are also important, this helps to facilitate the sharing of expertise and knowledge across sectors. It may also make the arranging of conferences and meetings a less daunting task. There is, it seems, a clear opportunity to foster partnerships which could lead to a genuine enhancement of what currently exists in Scotland.
RESEARCH AND ACTION
The Alliance AGM heard from John Briggs, the Chair of the Interdisciplinary Glasgow Centre for International Development (GCID), and Vice-Principal of the University of Glasgow. John talked about the role of education in strengthening capacity and skills development at all levels of Scotland’s internationally focused activity. He noted the importance of local level partnerships when developing and implementing development projects overseas, expressing some concern at the sometimes-overpowering role of ‘experts’ in this regard.
We’ve heard a lot in recent times about the ‘experts we no longer need’ (an assertion many of us regard as quite concerning). Briggs may go too far in suggesting that the ‘experts’ take a step back, given that they play such a vital part in defining and delivering development agendas. It might instead be prudent to encourage experts to assume roles which might allow them to work more effectively with local communities. Practical training in community work may also be beneficial – even for experts!
DEALING WITH DEBT
Chizoba Obi, a PhD candidate at the University of Glasgow, made an impassioned appeal to the conference to put pressure on both the Scottish and UK governments to deal effectively with the issue of debt relief. Many Heavily Indebted Poor Countries (HIPCs) are reaching a state of ‘debt distress’, with unscrupulous private agencies often acquiring debts ‘second hand’ from original lenders and then intensifying pressure on HIPC governments.
This is widely recognised as an issue which needs strong, coherent partnerships across sectors to make a difference. It is most important that government are on the ball on this issue and are willing to act in order to tackle it effectively. Action is essential if poorer countries are to move forward and build with any confidence – let alone if they are to manage to implement, or even attempt to impact, the 2030 SDG agenda.
Action is essential if poorer countries are to move forward and build with any confidence – let alone if they are to manage to implement, or even attempt to impact, the 2030 SDG agenda.
Organisations such as Jubilee Scotland campaign hard to end what they call ‘global debt slavery’. However, as Chizoba noted at the conference, what currently exists is not sufficient. There needs to be further action on this issue and it seems to require exactly what The Alliance wishes to see: stronger cross-sector collaboration, with other bodies stepping in to offer third sector actors (like Jubilee Scotland) more assistance and greater strength. Although not specifically mentioned as a target for future Alliance work, this issue needs to be tackled.
IMPLEMENTING CLIMATE POLICY
Climate change is undoubtedly one of the biggest issues facing the international development community. This was a commonly discussed topic throughout the conference. Kirsty Lewin, who heads the Scottish Government’s Climate Change Delivery Hub, observed that her team regularly found that Scottish-run climate projects didn’t work as effectively as they might, due to inadequate local government support in partner countries.
It is important to note that in many countries, ineffective government, red tape, corruption, and inequality often prevent sufficient levels of community participation in projects. This may not be a novel observation but it remains a pressing issue. A key challenge thus remains ensuring that ‘our’ efforts have optimal benefit for the communities and nations we are working with. Overcoming the barriers to this remains a central challenge for The Alliance and its partners, and requires some bold thinking.
It is important to note that in many countries, ineffective government, red tape, corruption, and inequality often prevent sufficient levels of community participation in projects. This may not be a novel observation but it remains a pressing issue.
Speaking to this issue, May East, Chief Executive of Gaia Education, talked about the importance of being ‘reflective practitioners’ when working with communities in other countries. This involves getting to know the elders and leaders of partner communities to gain a wider knowledge and appreciation of working relationships beyond the mere physical implementation of the project itself.
The challenge of developing closer ties with communities in this way would seem to revolve around language and cultural barriers, and the financial constraints which may bar organisations from having the on-the-ground presence they might wish for. A further challenge may lie in the quality of the feedback loop between communities, NGOs, governments, and the private sector at the point of implementation. Good communication is so important.
It will be interesting to see what strategies The Alliance puts forward to tackle these different challenges.
As providers of energy and investment, corporations hold huge sway. Recognising and harnessing that influence is vital to meeting climate targets, and is a crucial part of ensuring that the wider development agenda is met as well. The education sector also holds a vital key to understanding and tackling climate change issues. It remains fundamental to shaping good policy, and to building the narratives which develop public understanding.
NGOs aren’t as directly engaged with research in Scottish universities as they could be. NGOs and academic institutions should work harder to let each other know where mutual strengths and interests lie.
There are many research organisations working closely with governments across the world already. The International Institute for Environment and Development (IEED), for example, has been working with Least Developed Country (LDC) governments on developing climate-friendly policies. Governments also need ‘the will, the need and the tools’ to create and maintain positive change – academic research clearly has a crucial role to play here but its potential can undoubtedly be enhanced through stronger cross-sector collaboration.
There appears to be much scope for improvement in Scotland. NGOs aren’t as directly engaged with research in Scottish universities as they could be. NGOs and academic institutions should work harder to let each other know where mutual strengths and interests lie. They could also work more closely to secure funding which can facilitate successful academic research alongside effective development work.
THE CORPORATE TABOO
On the morning panel, Ann McKechin, Head of Corporate Social Responsibility at Scottish Power and a former MP, talked about the role of the corporate sector in committing to the UN’s SDGs. Scottish Power is a world-leading wind power company and therefore a key player in helping to achieving the ‘planet’ goals of the SDGs.
Currently working extensively in Brazil and Mexico, Scottish Power has far-reaching influence and significant financial clout. However, as Jane Salmonson notes, the only way to improve sustainability is to ensure deeper local in-country partnerships. This means working ever more closely with communities, ensuring proper and sustained stakeholder engagement. For example, if a project focused on irrigation, deep in-country partnership would mean working closely with local farmers, workers, land owners, and nearby communities who would be affected by changes.
A pluralistic, cross-sector approach to international development must include corporations. But establishing them as trusted participants in international development work requires a full and honest discussion.
As we have seen often in the past, effective in-country partnerships don’t always feature in Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) programmes. An audience member at the conference asserted that multinational investment has often made communities ‘passive participants’ in corporate profiteering, rather than genuinely improving and empowering the local areas where they operate. This is a well-established criticism and it certainly underpins enduring public skepticism of the role that corporate actors play in development work. As mentioned earlier, the third sector is also known to harbour this skepticism. It remains a barrier which all sides – corporate and non-corporate – must work to break down.
A pluralistic, cross-sector approach to international development must include corporations. But establishing them as trusted participants in international development work requires a full and honest discussion. It may well be that the NGO sector needs to take a more open-minded view of what corporates can bring to their work, whilst making clear what is and is not acceptable.
Returning to Scottish Power, Ann McKechin emphasised the positive impact that voluntary commitments can have on private sector investment and decision-making. When there are clear criteria for companies to follow, she observed, processes can be measured and this can help to drive innovation in the private sector and eventually influence policy change.
Given that corporations are driven by profit, it is difficult to tie them to binding agreements. It is thus unlikely that a set of agreed rules will be developed which might bind the NGO-corporate working relationship. Nevertheless, as CSR becomes a more common preoccupation in private firms, some commonality in sustainable practice is developing, according to Ann. And whilst she acknowledged the profit motive, she nonetheless supports the idea that greater cross-sector partnership represents progress.
If CSR is becoming more deeply rooted in corporate culture, what can The Alliance do to influence that process?
Perhaps a practical step forward is accepting that corporates will likely continue to operate under their own set of principles, whilst also acknowledging that this needn’t necessarily conflict with, or hinder, the aims of NGOs.
Despite third sector suspicion towards the private sector, they share many of the same goals – even if it is sometimes for different reasons. The private sector is certainly better resourced than the average NGO. And if corporations are increasingly turning to CSR as a way of building brand and ‘putting something back’, NGOs must seize the opportunity that this presents.
For The Alliance, there are two key questions. If CSR is becoming more deeply rooted in corporate culture, what can The Alliance do to influence that process? And how can The Alliance encourage further corporate support for NGO work, as much as possible on the terms emphasised by the NGO community?
Delegates sit attentively during one of the panels at The Alliance annual conference and AGM, 13th September 2017.
The Alliance’s plan to develop cross-sector partnerships is both ambitious and necessary. Recognising the challenges that lie ahead, the organisation is hopeful of future successful relationships – although a clear plan for achieving this does not yet appear to be on the table.
With ongoing challenges across the globalised world, we must also look beyond plans and actions, and recognise the risk of language and imagery that may skew the international picture negatively. Failure to do so could darken perceptions of the need, usefulness, and cost of international development work.
Ultimately, the sharing of knowledge, expertise, and past experiences can help make international development activity more economical and more effective – to those delivering as well as to those receiving.
Public support is crucial for the work of internationally-oriented NGOs. Therefore, public engagement, and the fostering of discussion on the important issues, is vital for maintaining a connection to the ideals of internationalism, and for thwarting prejudice and suspicion. Given the position it occupies, The Alliance must certainly tackle this issue and recognise that by galvanising cross-sector support in Scotland (thus uniting as many actors as possible behind similar aims), public exposure to, and positive discussion on, the important development issues is far more likely.
Ultimately, the sharing of knowledge, expertise, and past experiences can help make international development activity more economical and more effective – to those delivering as well as to those receiving. Cross-sector collaboration is key to enhancing Scotland’s performance in the international development sphere. Recognising others’ strengths, and accepting compromise between different methods of delivery and engagement, may be the first steps to bringing the key sectors together.
Lyndsey Croal has a Master’s degree in Peace and Conflict Studies from the University of St Andrews and is interested in international security, human rights, international development, and terrorism studies. She runs her own current affairs blog, The Peace and Conflict Thread (The PACT), volunteers with an NGO on the Thai-Burma border, and works with CABLE on their communications. Lyndsey is on twitter as @LyndsCroal and can be contacted by email on: email@example.com
Caitlin Smith is a recent graduate of the MSc in Global Governance and Diplomacy at the University of Oxford, receiving an Outstanding Academic Achievement award for her studies. Her most recent research focused on surveillance and nonviolent resistance movements and has previously examined CSR and intra-state conflict. Contact Caitlin at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Feature Image: The morning session of The Alliance conference, 13th September 2017. With thanks to The Alliance for providing the images for this article.