Women at Centre de Sante Integre in Niger

ICAI review presents an opportunity to reshape DFID’s partnerships and improve CSO performance

The Department for International Development (DFID) is underperforming in its collaboration with civil society, according to a recent review into the department’s partnerships with civil society organisations (CSOs).

The Independent Commission for Aid Impact (ICAI) gave the department an amber/red rating for its lack of commitment to understanding the wider contexts CSOs operate in, as well as its complex approach to funding.

Despite examples of good practice and good intentions, the review finds that DFID isn’t fully recognising the benefits of a strong, healthy civil society. Our recent report also highlighted DFID’s need to adequately engage with CSOs for inclusive and effective policies and programmes. There is too little flexibility to allow relationships to evolve, discouraging space for innovation and forward thinking.

ICAI’s evidence highlights an opportunity for DFID to engage with CSOs in a meaningful, inclusive and deliberative way. Government must invest the necessary time and resource required for meaningful engagement to support a thriving civil society.

DFID should review its approach to funding to empower CSOs to be more adaptive and sustainable through meaningful consultation with civil society to address the systemic issues that prevent government and CSOs from effectively helping the world’s poorest. This includes looking at their approach to funding, the use of fund managers, procurement practices and core funding. This way, DFID can develop an approach that meets the objectives it set out in its Civil Society Partnership Review. To this end, we have invited DFID to engage with our members on the challenges set out in the review and are pleased that they have accepted.

Report findings: Red alert for civic space

ICAI identified DFID’s good practice in maintaining and expanding civil space at a country level, and credible efforts to promote learning in its civil society partnerships, but recommended a greater emphasis on building sustainable capacity for local civil society in its programmes.

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Ultimately, the determining factor for the amber/red rating was DFID’s insufficient attention and “influencing efforts of the wider UK government aimed at strengthening civic space”, which is suffering global decline. ICAI recommends a stronger focus in achieving long-term results in these areas.

A restrictive funding approach

ICAI said that DFID has “chosen a funding approach that treats CSOs as project implementers, with funding tightly conditioned by results frameworks. This limits CSOs’ ability to manage their own capacity development and to adapt to the evolving contexts in which they operate.”

ICAI identified some key issues in DFID’s approach to funding:

  1. Delays in funding cause uncertainty for CSOs and the people they support. There are often long delays between funding calls, funding decisions and funding disbursement, and this is the norm rather than the exception.

    Consequently CSOs struggle to plan for the future, as they are forced to cover gaps in funding with their reserves. They may lose the local partners and organisations that they have signed up to work with. Their projects often start late, which hampers overall programme efficiency and effectiveness, commonly leading to “reduced first year outcomes and shortened project cycles”.

  2. The end of core funding for CSOs and the focus on short term project-based results. The end of the Programme Partnership Agreements (PPAs) and the focus on delivering results reduces “CSOs’ opportunities for self-driven capacity development, longer-term strategic thinking and adaptation to the evolving contexts in which they operated.”

    CSOs’ flexibility is restricted by higher planning and reporting costs. DFID’s project-based funding means that CSOs recruit staff on a project-based contract, which makes it difficult for CSOs to retain good staff after the project ends. CSOs struggle to build their own sustainability, fulfil their mandate and achieve their objectives.

  3. DFID’s approach to funding stifles innovation. Despite having several innovation funding windows, DFID’s approach to funding doesn’t facilitate or promote innovation. Their focus is on compliance, which means that innovation is hindered.

DFID has invested a lot of resource in improving its thematic learning, especially focusing on gender and disability. The civil society learning journey is a good opportunity to build more evidence on the effectiveness of their approach to funding and share mechanisms of working with civil society. It will be interesting to see how the results are implemented through the department.

The need for more understanding of a difficult operating environment

The report also highlighted key findings on civic space and over-compliance:

  1. DFID doesn’t have a central approach to supporting civic space. The closing of civic space, an important area for DFID, needs a more joined-up approach and is “unlikely to contribute to reverting this global process of declining civic space”. DFID is making progress on bank de-risking, driving processes which directly involve civil society and demonstrating some agility and flexibility, but this progress is not replicated in other policy areas.
  2. DFID’s approach to safeguarding compliance as a useful step. DFID took an important leadership role on safeguarding after last year’s revelations, which undoubtedly took away resource and caused delays to other areas of their work. DFID grantees now must adhere to core standards to reduce the risk of exploitation and abuse. ICAI said it was difficult to assess this compliance-heavy approach but it “can be a useful step, provided it is implemented in parallel with wider efforts to make the sector safer.”

In sum, this is a key moment for DFID to engage with CSOs in a meaningful, inclusive and deliberative way and respond to the recommendations laid out by ICAI. Our recent report shared principles and practices to do this well. We and our members look forward to supporting them in doing that. To this end, we agreed with DFID that we will host a discussion with them on the challenges set out in the report, which signals their desire to engage more fully with the sector.

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