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"Nothing about us without us”:

Tamas Wells asks whether this the moment donors need to go beyond civil society consultation?

I had started working for an NGO health project in Myanmar. I was pretty new to the aid sector and one day, for the first time, I met a group of people who were living with HIV. Of course I knew that as part of our project we wanted to advocate for the rights of people living with HIV, to get treatment or simply to be cared for in communities. But I was really struck by this idea that was put forward at the time - ‘Nothing about us without us’. What that meant was that they didn’t just want people to advocate on their behalf. They didn’t want aid groups to channel their ideas to government or to donors. What they wanted was a seat at the table when decisions were being made. It wasn’t enough to simply represent their ideas. They wanted to be represented as people. For me that was a fascinating new idea and made me feel as though, for all the best of intentions, the advocacy ideas I had in mind missed the mark. I wonder whether a similar thing is going on with donor consultation of civil society at the moment in Myanmar. Whether it is the EU ‘Roadmap’ or other donor efforts at consultation, I get the feeling that there is a kind of fatigue amongst many local groups. Many leaders in local organisations are tired of donors and aid agencies asking them what they think. I wonder whether this is a moment when many local organisations are actually thinking - similar to that HIV campaign – “nothing about us without us”. Perhaps they don’t want to be consulted and then have their ideas fed into donor or government strategies that are devised far away in rooms in Naypyitaw or Brussels. I suspect what many actually want are seats at the table. Seats at the table when the government and donors are making decisions - whether it is about the aid architecture, or the country’s economic future, or the strategies for health and education. It is not about feeding ideas into the real conversation but about civil society groups being “present” in the thick of those conversations. Not donors as an intermediary who can feed information to the government but donors fostering a direct relationship between civil society and the state. The challenge is that the idea of “nothing about us without us” also reshapes power relationships. It is easier for donors to do consultations and then mediate the way that they represent the ideas of ‘civil society’. That is a privilege that donors are literally paying millions of dollars for. Having civil society groups represent themselves is far messier. But in the end I suspect this round of donor consultation will only go so far. And eventually local groups will start asking for more. The “presence” of people living with HIV at the decision-making table made tangible changes in the way their views were represented. Perhaps the same thing needs to happen with “civil society”?

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