Roadmaps to resilience: how team leader Carlo Merla heads an EU Facility that helps empower civil society

Carlo Merla CSO RF (Roadmap Facility) Banner Carlo Photo Fanainga Ceremony

Carlo Merla, the Team Leader of the Global Civil Society Roadmap Facility, at the Fanainga Ceremony

At the heart of the EU’s Global Civil Society Roadmap Facility is providing INTPA G2 and EU Delegations around the globe with much-needed technical assistance in their work to support civil society organisations (CSOs). This Facility is led by civil society expert Carlo Merla, who shares insights and successes, as well as setbacks, that are shaping this critical project today.

March 12, 2023
  • SDG: #5, #10, #16
  • SECTORS: Development Consulting
  • DONOR: European Commission
  • DURATION: April 2021-2025

A world without civil society groups is a world devoid of voices advocating for the vulnerable members in our community. In it, accountability is diminished and democracy threatened, making it all the more necessary for CSOs to flourish and receive help where needed.

Civil society is widely recognised as instrumental to tackling climate change, advancing human rights – particularly women’s rights, promoting a circular economy and other global concerns. But it also faces a series of barriers hampering its progress, such as restrictive government policies, a lack of funding and limited resources. Because of this, readily available assistance for CSOs is indispensable.

In consulting, there are times when expertise is used without the intention of developing value-adding insights. But with NIRAS, since the beginning, it was quite different — you can see it is mission-driven and has put at the centre the human capital, and there’s always this attitude to how NIRAS can allow you to operate at your best.

Carlo Merla, Team Leader of the EU Civil Society Roadmap Facility

One of several Facilities that provide funding and technical assistance to support different EU policies and objectives, the NIRAS-led Civil Society Roadmap Facility (CSRF) brings together experts to give technical assistance to EU Delegations around the globe in their efforts to develop and implement the Roadmaps for EU engagement with civil society.

Roadmaps are tools meant to strengthen the relationship, cooperation and dialogue between CSOs and the EU Delegations, the EU notes. They are spaces where “best practices with EU Member States and possibly other international actors active in support of CSOs” are shared and applied, empowering EU Delegations to assist them to make progress in common priorities.

In addition to the Civil Society Roadmap Facility, NIRAS is implementing the Civil Society Operational Facility. In a nutshell, the goal of a Roadmap Facility is to influence policy and strategy affecting civil society groups, while the Operational Facility’s primary focus is on enhancing funding mechanisms for the same.

A civil society expert with years of experience in the field, Carlo Merla is the Team Leader for CSRF. Together with his core team of three – comprising Geoffrey Weichselbaum, Juan Enrique Nicolás Adán and Pamela van de Bunt – and an extended pool of non-key experts, Carlo heads the Facility that provides tailored services in response to Delegation requests.

“The Roadmap Facility provides readily available technical assistance for Delegations to deal with complicated matters in relation to civil society knowledge, policy and actionable strategies,” Carlo explains.

“We help with all matters, from drafting terms of reference that take into consideration best practices, contexts and other aspects to acting as a sounding board for Delegation staff assisting CSOs and promoting the exchange of ideas on strategy and policy.”

A long-time champion of the underdog

Presently the chair for Publish What You Pay, a global campaign working to ensure transparency in extractive industries and to guarantee that communities benefit from their natural resources, Carlo has been engaged with civil society groups from a young age. As a teenager in Italy, he volunteered and engaged with various organisations in his hometown, later expanding his work to include NGOs in countries such as Costa Rica, Cameroon, Chad, Bolivia and other countries in South America.

In his continued spirit of volunteerism and a drive to immerse in civil society, he eventually worked on policy strategy issues for the sector and then developed Roadmaps for Delegations in Botswana, Angola and a few other countries, during which time he met colleagues like Bea Sanz Corella and Juan, fellow civil society consultants and experts at NIRAS. “Basically, NIRAS is a good match for our goals,” said Carlo.

Carlo Merla CSO RF (Roadmap Facility) 1

Experts on board: why the Facility is key to supporting civil society

With the fundamental changes civil society groups aspire to achieve, it comes as no surprise that many of them receive backlash, often from their respective governments. In a 2017 report, the EU revealed the alarming trend of countries imposing "legal and administrative constraints against CSOs" that run counter to their own constitutional and global commitments.

“There are several reasons why the Roadmap Facility is necessary,” Carlo says. “In addition to the on-demand technical assistance it provides to Delegations, we are available whenever urgent matters arise. So foremost, it provides readily available assistance without a bureaucratic process.”

Carlo emphasised that the CSRF is effective thanks to the CSO experts who bring in-depth knowledge and practical experience to the Facility. “This is the second reason why it is important,” he adds. “I think us experts as practitioners are not coming from a place of bureaucracy — rather, we add people from the ground, have a lot of experience and are true believers of the role of civil society in strengthening democracy across countries.”

Fundamentally, experts like Carlo and his colleagues strengthen civil society groups because of the connections they make. Despite not regularly interacting with CSOs in CSRF, experts often go out on missions where they are immersed in the social and political landscapes in which CSOs operate. “We bring them together — actors, countries, experiences, programmes, expectations and so on,” Carlo says.


the number of EU Delegations the CSRF is supporting globally in its current phase


the duration the CSRF is scheduled to run in months

Tending to tasks and tackling setbacks

On quiet days, the Facility has at least five tasks in the pipeline, mostly involving the core work of making recommendations for Roadmap documents, as well as assistance with country missions. Sometimes, the team gets requests of a “helpdesk” nature, Carlo notes.

On other days, the Facility receives high-alert demands concerning new decrees that slow down the mobilisation of civil society groups. “A concrete, and very recent, example is a new regulation in Togo that requires all organisations to receive approval from the government before implementing certain projects,” Carlo discloses. This has effectively prevented an EU grant from being used, one aimed at supporting an important climate change programme.

“Of course, we had to react to this immediately. We’re delivering an initial analysis on the situation and the entry point the EU could use to challenge this decree, and we are preparing also for deeper support with local and international consultants who are experts on legal issues on any infringements of freedom of association.”

The issue in Togo is not the first time the CSRF has encountered government-imposed setbacks. In fact, Carlo shares that the general trend with governments and CSOs “is going in the wrong direction,” underscoring the critical role of institution-backed support. In the more than 80 civil society Roadmaps adopted in the last three years, a consistent priority concerns the enabling environment of civil society. “Togo is actually the second case of the sort that we’ve had in a matter of months.”

Carlo Merla CSO RF (Roadmap Facility) 3

When heart and mission align: what Carlo says about working with NIRAS

Although the situation on the ground remains challenging, the CSRF continues to receive requests for technical assistance regularly. Serving around 60 Delegations since its inception, the Facility streamlines the process of handling requests by first determining the nature of the support required and then applying the best approach for the work ahead. To Carlo, tending to tasks and mapping out a plan of action are all in a day’s work, and he has found navigating problems more manageable with his team and an organisation like NIRAS behind him.

“In consulting, there are times when expertise is used without the intention of developing value-adding insights,” he says. “But with NIRAS, since the beginning, it was quite different – you can see it is mission-driven and has put at the centre the human capital, and there’s always this attitude to how NIRAS can allow you to operate at your best.”

An alignment of values is necessary for the Facility to work, and Carlo has found this alignment in NIRAS. To him, it is not just a job he shares with colleagues – it is also a vision and a genuine eagerness to uplift cause-driven groups.

“I’m a civil society expert not for the sake of it but because I believe civil society plays a fundamental role in bringing about change,” Carlo remarks. “And this Facility supports this idea by giving the best technical assistance, which I know CSOs need especially today, when their work is more important than ever.”

Biljana Kovacevic

Biljana Kovacevic

Team leader, Facility and Framework Contracts

Belgrade, Serbia