Home » Side event: Driving change from a shrinking space: Challenges to effective civil society participation in drug policy making

Side event: Driving change from a shrinking space: Challenges to effective civil society participation in drug policy making

Organised by the Brussels Federation of Institutions for Drug Addicts with the support of the Czech Republic, Spain, and the Civil Society Forum on Drugs in the EU, the Council of Europe – Pompidou Group, the European Union, and the French NGO Platform on Drug Policy

Laurène Collard, Civil Society Forum on Drugs in the EU. I am the chair of the CSFD and also work for Federation Addiction. On behalf of the CSFD, I thank the EC and EU for their support, as well as all the other sponsors: the Czech and Spanish governments, the Pompidou Group, Fedito and the French NGO platform. I also want to mention the situation in Ukraine, we are deeply shocked by the war and humanitarian crisis which means people have no access to food and water and essential medicines. We stand in solidarity with the people in Ukraine, people who use drugs and we worry that drug services don’t have the capacity to provide services for people who need them. We call on the international community, the EU and UN entities, especially the UNODC and INCB to work towards ensuring that people affected by the war continue to have access to health supplies, medication and drug services, including through humanitarian corridors.

Regarding civil society and civil society involvement, we represent the populations who are impacted by policies developed nationally and internationally. Issues that we push for are a result of discussions within the CSFD: evidence-based programmes, moving away from ideological approaches. We can’t do that without having a voice in the debates. We do have good practice examples in how to involve civil society in the debates but the situation is worrisome and could be improved.

We do have plenty of good speakers this morning, thank you for being here today.

Marie-Aude Tannou, European Commission. I work in the drugs team under DG Home in the EC. I cannot start without mentioning Russia’s military intervention in Ukraine which has serious implications for people, civil society and people who use drugs. This is a violation of international law. Civil society involvement is very important for policy making at EU level. I want to highlight the importance of retaining and increasing such participation. The EC has nurtured CS participation at EU level by supporting the CSFD, and I thank the organisers for inviting us here. When we use the term civil society we talk about a broad group of people focusing on prevention, treatment, rehab, people who use drugs, etc. They are the holders of valuable information that is relevant for decision making. They bring new information in a variety of ways: research, experience from the field, feedback from CSOs on effectiveness of implementation of previous policies to guide the implementation of new one. They contribute to the drawing of efficient policies. We have to involve civil society at all stages. CSOs can bring diverse opinions and ideas to our attention, to allow evidence based policies and programmes. I now want to highlight our commitments. Internationally, one of our commitments in the 2016 UNGASS outcome document was to involve civil society, we did this again in 2019 in the Ministerial Declaration. I’m pleased to see so many side events and such high participation. At EU level, there is also strong commitment to civil society, it’s not new, it’s longstanding, even before the 2006 Green Paper that structured such participation. Most recently it was reiterated in the EU Drug Strategy for 2021-2025, reaffirming the EU’s balanced and evidence based approach, grounded in human rights. It highlights the need to promote civil society participation and adequate funding. We will further strengthen CS participation at national, regional and international level. CS is key to implement the actions within our EU Drug Strategy and Action Plan, and to offer public health services. Continuing to engage CSOs while preparing our own policies, we will also promote CSOs in other fora. We aim to work together to find best practices and further improvement.

Peter Sarosi, Rights Report Foundation. I am the chair of the CSFD working group on civil society involvement at national level. There is a growing consensus that CS involvement is relevant in decision making. Our working group seeks to improve the quality of such involvement, and how we can make this involvement more meaningful in drug policy. Why do we need to speak about CS involvement? Previous studies pointed out the gaps between what it should be, and how it is in reality. High quality of CS involvement means it’s mutually relevant and meaningful for decision makers and civil society, it requires balanced and competence based representation of civil society, it should receive adequate, sustainable and formal funding. In reality, it’s often a ticking the box exercise, there is no or little funding, sometimes the participants are cherry picked so there is no balance of representation of communities, and sometimes it’s used to rubber stamp the decisions rather than meaningful involvement. Often it’s ad hoc and informal, there are no real structures or mechanisms. So if we have minimum standards for demand and harm reduction, why can’t we develop similar standards, principles and guidelines for meaningful CS engagement?

We reviewed available literature and published a report, we conducted an online survey among CSOs to assess the quality of their current engagement, and we developed these standards. Why is it useful for both decision makers and civil society? It’s a tool, guidelines for decision makers on how to involve civil society, identifying the necessary steps, identifying the actors within civil society, creating selection criteria for balanced representation, creating mechanisms for CS involvement, etc. For civil society it’s also good, it enables them to make their voice heard in a transparent way, it provides a point of reference for their involvement.

The cycle of planning, implementation, and evaluation was created for CS involvement, and consists of 6 steps: 1- mapping and selection CSOs, 2- formulating the mandate, 3- setting the agenda, 4- drafting and preparing decisions, 5- implementing, 6- monitoring and evaluation. In each step, 9 criteria should be applied: the process should be transparent, balanced, timely, government should be approachable, process should be competent, open and trusted, autonomous, sustainable and relevant.

We did a survey among civil society participants and asked them what kinds of mechanisms exist in their country and how good it was. We received 80 responses from 26 countries in Europe. In 79% of the respondent’s responses, there was a structured mechanism in their country. But the bad news is that they are informal and ad hoc mechanisms, and most respondents reported that the quality was poor and not adequate. The biggest issue was funding. Many NGOs expressed that they were not heard enough.

Our research identified challenges and opportunities for CS involvement. We could see that CSOs are in many EU countries the main service providers for demand and harm reduction, but vibrant CS is also an essential part of democracy. There are good practices, however, with CSOs able to shape good policies, reach out to the most marginalised, etc. NGOs are much more resilient and flexible to respond to new situations. The challenge is that there is a rise in populism and authoritarianism, which results in sidelining and scapegoating civil society activism, ending up violating the rights of vulnerable communities. There are also legal and administrative barriers, a funding crisis.

A few examples for a shrinking space for civil society: there are extreme examples for example in Russia with the “foreign agent laws” that block foreign funding for harm reduction, but in the EU too: in Poland and Hungary. What is shrinking? Funding, services closed, and undermining the legitimacy of NGOs by politicians.

We also made recommendations: our quality standards should be used by member states to develop formal mechanisms for CS engagement, and civil society should improve its networking to do advocacy more effectively. But we should also recognise that advocacy is work, it’s just like providing services, and it requires adequate funding. Importantly, we need to go beyond a box-ticking exercise, we need to use the creative power of civil society.

Right now, hundreds of refugees are coming into my city every day, and this shows how powerful civil society can be: if civil society has consciousness, the country will be able to carry out its duties. The best safeguard of peace and security is the meaningful engagement of civil society.

Matej Kosir, Institue for Research and Development ‘UTRIP’. I am talking to you from Vienna, and after this side event we have a meeting with the Executive Director of UNODC, which we will use to emphasise the importance of CS involvement to unshrink the civil society space in the global arena. I am also here on behalf of the VNGOC. For those who are not familiar with the VNGOC, it is a group of NGOs that provides a link with the Vienna based UN agencies. We promote collaboration, enhance communication and ensure balanced representation at UN level. We are a network of 325 member organisations from almost 100 countries across the world. We understand that after the pandemic started many barriers were created for CS engagement. We did a survey which shows that most NGOs did want to retain at least some elements of online engagement at the CND, so we do see some positives from the online participation. Our activities were of course affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. In the period 2021-2022, we did manage to deliver more than 10 online events and webinars in collaboration with UNODC and others. Some events would have probably been difficult to organise if not online. These events actually increased civil society participation, reaching more than 500 civil society organisations from around the world, many more than before. The membership of the VNGOC also increased, much faster than in previous years. To conclude, I would like to say some words about the Slovenian reality: in our case, as a prevention NGO, our space has increased during COVID-19. We initiated a resolution on early prevention with the government. If it all goes well, this resolution should be adopted. We are also involved in the EU Presidency of the EU. To conclude, not only bad things happened to NGOs during the pandemic. There is increased CS engagement online, including in low and middle income countries. The CND is now broadcast which is an opportunity to watch the plenary and side events. Of course, it’s obvious that the future will be hybrid. We will try to keep these positives, and hopefully next year we will be able to be there in person too. We still manage to have many more ongoing activities.

Joana Canedo, Grupo de Ativistas em Tratamentos (GAT), EuroNPUD. I belong to a new generation of advocates.

It’s such an opportunity to be part of this initiative and also of the CSFD Forum, where we are able to contribute to the design of new policies, strategies, action plans, minimum quality standards for interventions, international relations pushing for EU drug policy so we can push for potentialities of DU communities and enable the artisans to work further and push for progressive drug policy reforms. For the last few months, EuroNPUD has design an advocacy program led by Rui Coimbra where policy dialogue meetings where possible with different institutions meeting our community goals and aspirations. For the past years we have seen great organizations represented at European Level raising community voices, such as EuroNPUD, but so many other organizations that I had also lucky enough to be part of. We are also glad to have the present opportunity to work simultaneously in different working groups of the CSFD.

Drug policies reform voices should be integrated into both bottom up, grassroots and top down, state-sponsored and European-sponsored movements. DU organizing and programming must be informed by an intersectional lens. It is critical to recognize and respond to how the risks and harms experienced by People Who Use Drugs are shaped by intersections of class, race, gender, sexuality, and ability. It is also important to recognize the intersections between drug user activism, anti-poverty activism, housing activism, and sexual health activism. DU organizing and action should make space for collective action and solidarity when there are overlapping positionalities, concerns, and priorities.

I take the opportunity of speaking here today to state that, as community, we oppose approaches to preventing drug-related harms that are premised on abstinence. We enjoy this opportunity to demand accurate information about the risks and benefits of different drugs and how to practice different kinds of harm reduction including the evidence base knowledge produced by the community of PWUD (see for instants EuroNPUD Peer Lead HR Series). We believe that PWUD rights and harm reduction practices can be shared with caregivers, staff, providers, workers and decision makers from the various systems of care and supervision that PWUD often traverse. In this discussion we need to account the needs of BIPOC youth, gender diverse and queer PWUD, and self-identified young women. There should be dedicated programing and hours for young women (at least partially staffed by young women), gender diverse and queer people (at least partially staffed by gender diverse and queer young people),
and BIPOC  (at least partially staffed by BIPOC people). Mobile outreach vans
and safer consumption rooms are critical to making harm reduction and other forms of support more accessible. We have highlight, as well this issues, as well as peer professionalization in our contributions to EU strategies and action plans – so therefore we which to see this in practice.

We recall on the importance of stop pathologizing PWUD. Start recognizing that we have the human right to make decisions for ourselves and keep ourselves safe. As part of bigger decisions and participative processes It’s our duty as community and part of high level decisions to later avoid, at local level, processes of retraumatization for members of the community by professionals and decision makers. We need to start discussing safer supply, special considering those experiencing structural oppression (i.e., intersections of racism, classism, ableism, and cis-heteropatriarchy). We, PWUD in the context of greater privilege, as well as allies, should focus energy on fostering and extending the activism of in the context of street involvement, making visible the invisible, fighting back structural violence and reducing barriers to drug users when it comes to cultural, economic, civic social and health rights – that is why I am taking the opportunity to raise these issues here.  

It is important to remember Action 48 Promote and encourage the active and meaningful participation and involvement of civil society, including non-governmental organisations, young people, people who use drugs, clients of drug-related services, the scientific community and other experts in the development, implementation and evaluation of drug policies and provide an appropriate level of resources for all drug services and for the involvement of civil society. 7.3. Promote civil society participation and ensure sustainable funding. 2021-2025 Member States Council of the EU European Commission EMCDD A

Action 49 Scale up the availability, effective implementation, monitoring and evaluation of measures provided as alternatives to coercive sanctions ( 1 ) for drug-using offenders and for people in pre-trial detention, arrested, charged with or convicted of drug-related offences or people found in possession of drugs for personal use, such as (suspension of sentence with) treatment, rehabilitation and recovery, and social reintegration, in accordance with national legislation. Follow-up to the Study on alternatives to coercive sanctions as response to drug law offences and drug related crimes concluded in 2016

Thirdly, as Portuguese, we have a successful case study around peer work. We assist nowadays to the professionalization of peer workers in harm reduction programs, prevention, treatment, reintegration, housing programs, GBV. This has happened because of years of struggles work of civil society organizations and drug user activism, where community is nowadays represented to ensure our rights as users are represented in work conditions – low threshold works, non-abstinent related scaling up employability programs are worth to ensure drug users community has access to equal opportunities. We invite all member states to pay DU community for our work.

As future priorities – we reclaim our human rights but also more funding so we can have our voices represented and actually our work recognized as any other professional work, lead form living experience, research and advocacy. Enough of volunteering basis.

Finally, to state solidarity with drug users in Ukraine – inviting you to endorse INPUD’S statement stating our solidarity with the Ukranian Network of People who Use Drugs, Ukranian Network of Women who Use Drugs (UNWUD/VONA) and all Ukrainian peers, colleagues, and friends against the invasion of their country by Russia.

Katerina Horackova, Czech Republic. In the Czech Republic we ensure space for cooperation with civil society. It is a long term and key aspect of modernisation of drug policy. CS reps are members of our government council for drug policy coordination and they are invited to be part of working groups and committees, at national and local level. In the context of information sharing, we created a special working group for civil society with the aim to share information and discuss key issues on drug policy. We also meet ad hoc, including on the situation in Ukraine and the impact of drug policies. We decided to officially involve CS in the decision making process at national level, especially because CS are seeing the consequences of our policies and provide feedback to the government on what should and must be done, and they are close to the drug scene and know the needs of people who use drugs, so they can react before policies are officially approved. However, CS face strong discussions on their involvement in decision making. Even though they are part of working groups, their positions are not always included. It’s necessary in the long term to build mutual understanding and trust between state institutions and civil society. Cooperation and mutual understanding are key. The partnership must be based on active participation and involvement of a whole spectrum of civil society: NGOs, academia, research, expert organisations, service providers, and organisations of people who use drugs. We should not forget the influence of civil society on demand reduction and harm reduction.

Thomas Kattau, Pompidou Group. Katerina mentioned trust and understanding. These are the elephants in the room. I have the understanding that civil society are always alone. We don’t always speak the same language, we use different terminology which has different meanings. In the end, the elephant in the room leads to frustrations, where the potential of cooperating with civil society cannot be fully fulfilled. These issues should be addressed. We have adopted a policy makers on ciivl society engagement and drug policy issues, which seeks to address these challenges. This falls in line with what Peter mentioned earlier: to help constructively address the elephants in the room, looking at different forms of cooperation and what is possible and doable, who can play what concrete role within their capacity. We must also look at the means and tools for cooperation. It’s also a question of financial resources, and we must clearly identify where the challenges are. Shareholders have different expectations. The Pompidou Group’s policy paper will be shared with the participants.

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