What were the key takeaways from the AfDB’s Civil Society Forum?

The African Development Bank’s recent Civil Society Forum underscored the importance of greater engagement between the institution and civil society organizations. Below, we discuss the principal recommendations for the AfDB to collaborate with CSOs in pursuing more inclusive, sustainable development.

On November 26-27 2020, the African Development Bank (AfDB) hosted its 2020 Civil Society Forum under the theme: ‘Engaging Civil Society in Building Africa Back Better After COVID-19.’ The forum provided a platform for civil society organizations (CSOs) to share their concerns and recommendations regarding the AfDB’s plans for an inclusive and resilient recovery from COVID-19. While AfDB leadership emphasized the need for greater engagement and claimed a renewed commitment to partnering with civil society, organizations continued to express concerns about the difficulty in connecting with country offices and project-level staff. The civil society forum offered an opportunity to discuss those gaps and identify avenues for improving collaborations between CSOs and the AfDB. 

During the forum, CSOs led sessions on climate, gender equality, accountability, and more. Participants discussed best practices for collaboration between civil society and the AfDB to address the health and socioeconomic impacts of the pandemic. The event also featured the AfDB president and senior staff discussing key steps the AfDB will take to increase engagement with CSOs, including strengthening CSO capacity and the AfDB’s engagement at the community level on issues related to gender equality, anti-corruption, and the environmental and social safeguards. The sessions resulted in the following main recommendations for the AfDB: 

1. Strengthen social inclusion to reduce inequality. CSOs focused several sessions on the need for the AfDB to improve policies and channel resources to make projects more accessible and inclusive for marginalized groups, as this is essential to building back a more just society post-pandemic. CSOs also discussed the need for inclusive public education by pursuing innovative strategies to reimagine the classroom beyond the traditional four walls, make education accessible for all students, and provide WASH facilities to enable children to stay in school. Numerous sessions reinforced the importance of increasing investment in youth as they make up more than half of Africa’s population. The AfDB should also enhance collaboration with CSOs working on gender issues, as they can utilize community connections to reach out to some of the most marginalized women for more inclusive access to project benefits. In light of COVID-19, health concerns remained at the forefront, as CSOs urged the AfDB to build strong and resilient health systems. The AfDB must take an active role in strengthening primary health care to reduce inequalities. 

2. Improve stakeholder engagement. CSOs emphasized the importance of inclusive stakeholder engagement that effectively informs and listens to communities affected by AfDB projects. One of the most valuable steps the AfDB can take is to translate documents into local languages. Currently, the AfDB publishes documents and conducts consultations primarily in English and French, excluding many communities who speak different languages. Lacking information, these communities are therefore unable to provide feedback to improve projects, often leading to negative outcomes. Partners referenced an AfDB project in Kenya which provided project documents in Portuguese, despite the fact that Swahili is one of the national languages with far more speakers. In Egypt and Tunisia, the majority of the population speaks Arabic, yet none of the documents are made available in Arabic. Thus, CSOs advocate for the AfDB to provide these translations as a vital component of access to information

3. Make the Independent Review Mechanism accessible. The forum also provided more information and engagement around the ongoing review of the Independent Review Mechanism (IRM) at the AfDB. BIC is currently participating in the review process, advocating for changes to improve grievance and redress options for communities affected by AfDB projects. CSOs emphasized the need for the AfDB to publicize more about the existence of the IRM, its application to projects, and how CSOs can participate in the review process. CSOs commented in the ongoing IRM review that 2019 project documents revealed almost no mention of the IRM, and most communities noted that they had never heard about the mechanism. Drawing on the structure at the World Bank, CSOs advocated that communities should be able to participate in submitting grievances and contributing to management action plans. In order to truly serve communities, project-affected peoples must be part of the solution. 

4. Increase openness to CSO involvement. CSOs pushed for the AfDB to create opportunities for dialogue about host project design and implementation. These opportunities for interaction and dialogue, which should be offered virtually as well, will help create connections between AfDB country staff and CSOs, thus facilitating more productive collaboration. CSOs also urged the institution to update their CSO database so more organizations receive updates and information to engage with the AfDB.

CSOs urged the AfDB to implement the recommendations made at the forum and use the existing tools and policies to improve on CSO engagement and promote inclusion, transparency, and accountability in AfDB processes. Strong support from the AfDB President and senior leadership to partner with CSOs indicates a commitment to CSO engagement. However, the incorporation of this commitment at the country and project level remains to be seen. 

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