6 ways donors can help build effective civil society

13 August 2015
Author: Mayur Paul

Civil society is a powerful thing. It can change discriminatory lawstransform societies and hold governments to account. But how can donors contibute to building effective civil society?

This was the big question of a twitter chat Bond co-hosted with the Department for International Development (DFID) as part of DFID’s review of its partnership with civil society. 700 tweets from over 170 participants in 11 countries tried to answer the question. Here are six ways that stuck out for me:

1) It’s the money, honey

No big surprises here. First and foremost, civil society organisations (CSOs) need flexible, long-term strategic funding that gives them space to innovate. Free of top-down controls and log-frameitis, this funding should enable CSOs to learn from unintended consequences and focus on delivering long-term results.

Good examples include SIDA and Irish Aid, which provide strategic funding, and Comic Relief, which works with grantees to define reporting requirements. This can still deliver value for money for taxpayers, in the same way that venture capitalists do for their shareholders. There is a place for “projects”, but a sense that we haven’t got the balance right yet. Furthermore, when providing project funding, a realistic approach to enabling full cost recovery, like USAID’s, can help build more resilient civil society.

2) Diversity by design 

Not all CSOs are created equal, and different kinds of civil society have a role to play. Southern or national CSOs should be put in a position to take the lead. International NGOs have a role to play sharing learning across countries and providing solidarity and partnership to national NGOs.

New kinds of civil society should not be ignored and donors need to have the courage to support movements and others that do not fit into a normal organisational box. Requirements on pre-financing, match funding, due diligence and so on need to be tailored to ensure that not only classically constructed organisations are funded.

3) Partnership is key

Civil society needs to have a seat at the table. For example, DFID hosts a forum for NGOs in Malawi. True partnership between donors and all kinds of civil society and investment in building more formal avenues for regular face to face interaction is important.   

4) Protecting operating space

Donors can play a role in providing political support to civil society when its operating space comes under threat. The Case for Space project is a good example of this in practice. CSOs working on peace and justice in particular face specific threats.

5) Networks work

Strong support was voiced for all different kinds of networks  from NGO families like Oxfam and Action Aid to regional and national networks like SWIDN and Bond – working in collaboration does seem to be the way forward. Southern networks were highlighted as an underdeveloped potential resource.

6) Unique value of Civil Society

Civil society has a unique and key role to play in humanitarian support, policy development, service delivery and accountability. Because it can be more nimble than governments and has more passion than private companies when it comes to addressing systematic development challenges, it is uniquely placed to deliver lasting results. It brings depth of understanding of context, challenges, and opportunities through proximity. In a word: legitimacy. Apparently 5000 people surveyed in 64 countries agree!

CSOs are often the actors who reach the poorest and most marginalised when others cannot. The conversation concluded that there is a definite need for all kinds of civil society – local, national, international and movements.

About the author

Mayur Paul
CARE International UK

Mayur Paul is head of communications and campaigns at CARE International