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With the “policy first” principle recently enshrined as a guiding rule for the programming of EU support under the unified NDICI (Neighbourhood, Development and International Cooperation Instrument), it is time to stop for a moment to consider how policy dialogue works in practice and in what ways it can strengthen EU Delegations in their role of development partners. 

Although the term “policy dialogue” has become almost ubiquitous, scarce attention has been paid to its operational implications or to the subtle ways in which it is transforming international cooperation.  Such a reflection seems especially timely given the current move towards “geographisation”, a devolution of responsibilities from headquarters to the country level that may increase both EU Delegations’ political clout towards partner governments and the pressure to deliver development outcomes alongside the new EU priorities for external action. 

Despite the many challenges ahead, EU Delegations hold a unique position to broker the kind of multistakeholder partnerships needed not only to attain the SDGs, but also to ensure a just transition to greener and digital economies. Such a profound transformation can only be achieved by making policy dialogue more inclusive and participatory so as to base EU support upon domestically owned agendas for reform.

Since 2012, the European Partnership for Democracy has been at the forefront of civil society efforts to make EU policy dialogue more inclusive and participatory through the development of the INSPIRED approach. This paper is based on the experience of the EPD Programmes Team in supporting policy dialogue processes in 20 countries over the last decade.

It draws on lessons from working closely with national authorities and the EU as well as from strengthening the capacities of over 100 CSOs in the use of policy analysis, monitoring tools and dialogue techniques. Engaging meaningfully in policy dialogue requires a healthy dose of common sense and a knack for understanding the sensibilities of different actors. In other words, engaging in policy dialogue makes sense, but it will only yield lasting results if it’s done with sensibility. 

 

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