How can Finland promote an enabling environment for civil society in its development policy and cooperation? (Statement at the Annual Civil Society Seminar, 15th March 2016)

Dear Guest of Honour Mr. Maina Kiai, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, dear friends and colleagues, ladies and gentlemen,

I am very happy to address this broad assembly of Finnish and international civil society representatives and others interested in the topic of the day, the current state of civic space and civil society. I will focus on the role Finland can play in supporting an enabling environment for the civil society, and the reasons for its importance in our development policy and cooperation, as well as in our foreign and human rights policies.

Ladies and gentlemen, let me first look into the Finnish history. The Finnish members of the audience are well aware of how the civil society has contributed to building of our society during our almost 100 years of independence. These efforts are visible in the fields of literacy and education, women’s rights, rights of persons with disabilities, and the awareness of environmental and climate change issues, just to mention a few. The strive of our pluralistic civil society, which has a broad base in the population, have assisted us in gaining the rights and freedoms we currently have. Finland ranks highly in several indexes measuring different aspects of a democratic and functioning society, for example the freedom of the press, freedom from corruption as well as peace and stability.
This is the story, the good example we can make use of in our efforts to promote the importance of freedom of assembly and of association, as well as in our efforts to develop the capacity of civil society actors as part of our development cooperation. Let us also not forget that Finnish development cooperation has its roots in the work started by Finnish missionaries already in the end of the 19th century. We all recognise this broad experience and the knowledge on development cooperation that exists among Finnish civil society actors.

Dear all,

The recently approved Government Report on Development Policy states that democracy and respect for human rights, as well as a free civil society, are crucial for the achievement of development and peace. One of the four priorities is work carried out towards more democratic and better-functioning societies. Therefore, our actions strive, amongst others, to improve the freedom of speech while promoting an enabling environment for the civil society to function in. This is a commitment that I trust the civil society can both share with us as well as hold us accountable for.

Democracy is increasingly visible on the global development agenda. The new Sustainable Development Goals are a clear sign of this. Specifically the Goal number 16 - about promoting peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, providing access to justice for all and building effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels - clearly states democracy’s importance in development. An enabling environment for a vivid civil society is a precondition for any country to successfully meet this goal. Certainly, the civil society has a broad and multifold role in the implementation of all of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals.
First of all, civil society actors are implementers of sustainable development work. Especially in the least developed and fragile countries, civil society actors may penetrate many hard-to-access parts of the society and offer support to populations which other actors cannot reach. As an example of this, I would like to mention the work of the Finnish Somali diaspora that is actively engaged in various development projects all around Somalia in areas not necessarily reached by bilateral programmes.

The Sustainable Development Goals are ambitious. It is clear that we need to find new partnerships and innovative ways of working and financing development. This is why my clear message to all development actors has been to find common and new grounds for collaboration and funding. To my delight, many Finnish CSOs have boldly taken on this challenge to find new partnerships in their development work.

Secondly, the civil society has a specific role in monitoring the implementation of the SDGs. CSOs can also provide new, bottom-up methods for the data collection as part of the monitoring of the SDG implementation progress. For instance, I know that Civicus, who has joined us here today, has done some innovative work in this regard, also with Finnish funding.

Thirdly, I would like to mention the importance of civil society participation in the communication and awareness-raising efforts of the new development agenda. We recognise the need for and importance of this work here in Finland. The global Sustainable Development Goals call for the participation of everyone. The increasing global interdependence and our joint challenges need to be understood by everyone, not only by development professionals, so that we can all do our share as individuals and demand appropriate action from our respective Governments.

Dear all, the civil society can only execute the above mentioned work if there is a conducive environment for the civil society to exist and act. Unfortunately, in recent years we have seen a growing negative trend around the world: resistance and hostility towards civil society actors, a trend which is, unfortunately, gaining more ground in different parts of the world. Especially human rights defenders have been the target of these actions. Governments in numerous countries are reducing the space for civil society to act meaningfully. This includes restrictions to the freedoms of association, speech and assembly.

The freedoms of expression and assembly are the cornerstones of vibrant and prosperous societies. It is of great concern that the work of individuals, journalists and civil society activists to speak up to defend human rights is made increasingly difficult, and dangerous, in today's world.

This restricted space of the civil society also impacts the private sector. I believe that businesses will benefit from a society, where rights and freedoms are respected, diversity of opinion is allowed, and peace and stability prevails. 

The space for civil society to act is increasingly reduced by new or amended restrictive legislation or regulation relating, for example, to registration and ways of receiving funding, or by promotion of a hostile environment towards specific groups and civil society organisations.

We should work to stop this trend. As Government we engage in continuous political dialogue on human rights and democracy issues with other countries, both bilaterally and as a member of the EU. The support that we channel to the civil society, both through Finnish and international civil society actors as well as direct support given to local civil society organizations are ways to strengthen civil society actors in developing countries.
In addition, our toolbox includes influencing international and regional organizations, the UN, the Council of Europe and the OSCE, to name a few. Supporting the work of the UN Special Rapporteurs -such as the UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders and the UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights to Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association - is critical. I am especially pleased that Mr. Maina Kiai is with us today, and will give a key note speech in our seminar.

Alongside the UN Special Rapporteur, we will today hear concrete experiences of the current situation by both international and Finnish civil society actors, and will discuss the many ways in which to work for a more supportive environment and a stronger civil society. We will also hear views of the private sector and Government representatives. I am confident that we will all take home some new ideas and inspiration from this seminar.

Ladies and gentlemen,

In the invitation to this seminar, the Ministry welcomed questions from the CSOs regarding the role of the civil society in development. We have been happy to receive numerous questions, and I will now answer some of them as we have limited time this morning.

Firstly, I was asked whether I have discussed and met with representatives of the civil society during my travels to developing countries or in the international meetings that I have attended. Indeed, I do widely meet different local actors during my travels. For instance, meetings with groups of local women in Saudi Arabia and Iran are strongly printed on my memory. These meetings offer valuable insight into each society. I also enjoyed the discussions with both Finnish and international CSOs during the High Level week at the United Nations.

Another question was about my opinion on the most important added value point of the Finnish civil society in development. I partly shared my views on this in the beginning of my speech, but let me emphasise one of the most important points. I see that the way in which the civil society practices the people-working-with-people approach is of essential value. This way of participatory collaboration differs greatly from those used in typical bilateral cooperation, where governments work with governments. Naturally, civil society actors also work with the public and private sectors, and we increasingly see the value of this kind of multi- and cross sectoral work.

The next question relates to the ways in which the enormous experience that civil society organisations possess can be used in developing private sector instruments in development cooperation. This is a very good and valid question. In the freshly published Government Report on Development Policy, we encourage different actors, including private companies, research institutions, municipalities and civil society organisations, to form partnerships and to work and learn together. This has also been taken into consideration in our development cooperation instruments, and many of them now enable a multi-stakeholder approach.

Then there was a fairly topical question about Finnish CSOs' contribution to the efforts to improve the situation and fulfilment of human rights of refugees? The issue of refugees is emphasised in the Government Report on Development Policy. It states that Finland will commit increased resources to ensuring the protection of refugees. These funds will be directed especially to countries of origin and transit as well as recipient countries of forced migration. This work is mainly channelled through international organisations and development financing institutions. However, civil society organisations with suitable expertise may have a role in the work of creating peaceful living conditions and reasonable livelihoods for people living in these countries of origin or in refugee camps.

There was also a question about what will be done in Finland's bilateral and multilateral development cooperation to better support the work of CSOs in promoting the rights of persons with disabilities?

In the Government Report on Development Policy, persons with disabilities have been mentioned as one of the groups that Finland specifically continues to focus its development co-operation on. In this work, the integration of the Human Rights Based Approach into all development work is one of the most important tools for Finland to ensure that all Finnish development co-operation produces inclusive, non-discriminatory development results. Persons with disabilities must be fully engaged in development processes and decision making as active members of societies. One important aspect of this work lays in Finland’s support to the multi-donor trust fund called UN Partnership to Promote the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. This trust fund supports developing countries in their efforts to implement the obligations of the Convention of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD). The results are very promising and Finland continues to be the biggest donor of this fund. 
CSOs continue to play an important role in the implementation of disability- specific projects and advocacy work. The co-operation between Finnish CSOs, disabled people's organizations and the Ministry has been excellent, and there are some great examples of the collaboration in Finland’s bilateral programmes. The work carried out in the promotion of inclusive water, sanitation and hygiene services in Nepal is a good example of this work.

There was also a question on the funding now focusing on big professional organisations with the fear of small voluntary organisations dying out. I agree on the significance of plural civil society and small CSOs with special expertise. There is actually no limit concerning the size of the projects supported with ministry's funding in the call for proposals, which is launched today. Still, we have to be realistic about our administrative resources and avoid fragmentation also for other reasons, but there will still be space for smaller, well-planned and results-orientated projects.

Ladies and gentlemen, thank you again to everyone who has sent questions in advance. I believe these questions demonstrate a great variety of ideas and concerns that I will still carry with me in my work as Minister.

My final words will be those of introducing and inviting the UN Special Rapporteur Maina Kiai to the podium. Mr. Maina Kiai has acted as the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association since 2011. A lawyer trained at Nairobi and Harvard Universities, Mr. Kiai has spent the last twenty years campaigning for human rights and constitutional reform in Kenya – notably as the founder and Executive Director of the unofficial Kenya Human Rights Commission, and then as the Chairman of Kenya’s National Human Rights Commission (2003-2008), work for which he gained national reputation for his courageous and effective efforts.

In addition, Mr Kiai has held key positions in several international human rights institutions and organisations, including as the Executive Director for the International Council on Human Rights Policy in Geneva and as the Africa Director of the International Human Rights Law Group.

Ladies and gentlemen, I would now like to invite UN Special Rapporteur Maina Kiai to deliver the key note speech of this seminar.