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Civil Society Partnership Review: weekly focus on effective civil society

Posted by: , Posted on: - Categories: Africa, Asia, Development Debates, Other

Following on from last week’s blog, we want to hear from you on the first line of enquiry as part of the Civil Society Partnership Review. This week we’re focusing on the effective civil society strand. This focuses on two key areas: the enabling environment; and incentives for developing capacity and capability.

Enabling environment
Developing and strengthening civil society can lead to empowerment of people in developing countries. When done effectively, this can lead to greater participation by people in development activities that affect them. We believe this leads to better outcomes for the people and societies in developing countries.

Thinking about your experience, is this broadly correct, and do you have examples of where this approach has been effective? We’d like to hear why you think this approach was so effective and what made it different from other approaches? Are there examples where this approach has failed, and what could have been done differently to make it work?

What do you think are the measures to help promote space for active civil society, how can this space be best secured, and what roles do, or should, donors and CSOs play to achieve this? Are there opportunities for donors and CSOs to collaborate more to achieve a better enabling environment, and how do you think this should be done?

We’re also focusing on the incentives in place, and how these affect development of civil society at an international, regional, national and local level. What roles do you think these different layers of civil society can undertake; what is each level’s comparative advantage in creating, maintaining and developing a sustainable and resilient civil society? What sort of activities are best undertaken at the international or regional level compared to the national or local level? How do you think donors can incentivise the right type of engagement from the right level of civil society?

How do you think DFID and other donors could support the changing relationship between CSOs at the international level and in developing countries? How could CSOs at all levels best position themselves to take account of this change in focus from international to national or local empowerment?

We’d love to see your comments below in response to some of these questions. Feel free to respond to other comments either in agreement, or to pose a counter view. Please take the survey for this theme and circulate this to your colleagues, contacts and networks. This survey will remain open until 28 August.

If you’d like to know more about the review check out our webpage, follow @DFID_Inclusive on Twitter and use #DFIDCSPR to engage. You can also engage via the DFID and Bond co-hosted Twitterchat this Thursday from 13.00, or follow Matt on Twitter.

We won't be able to offer personal responses to each and every comment, however they will be read and considered in our analysis during the review. Please do not submit written submissions concerning the Lines of Enquiry to the review team, as we cannot commit to reviewing these. For this reason, it is essential to engage with our blogs and surveys embedded in them.

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  1. Comment by Joel Hafvenstein, Tearfund posted on

    “How do you think donors can incentivise the right type of engagement from the right level of civil society?”

    At Tearfund, we would frame the different categories of civil society not solely by geography (international, regional, national, local) but by organisational type. We NGOs and most of our donors have a natural inclination to partner with other NGOs, i.e. that subset of CSOs with formal governance structures, legal identity, bank accounts, etc. We can find NGOs at every geographic level; and where we don’t find them, we can make them, by “capacity-building” local organisations until they’ve turned into NGOs.

    Yet in Tearfund’s experience, much of the most effective and transformative change is delivered by CSOs which are not “NGO-shaped”: local faith communities, social movements, community voluntary organisations, self-help group networks. They may not have an institutional bank account in which to receive external funding; but they have a tremendous capacity to generate voluntary collective action, to strengthen trust and relationships within households and communities, and to shape people's values and sense of identity. Government and business can also do these things, but usually less effectively, just as CSOs are generally less effective than governments at service delivery or businesses at job creation (despite circumstances sometimes requiring them to play those proxy roles).

    In areas where poverty is entrenched by deeply held values and negative relationships/roles - for example, in situations of oppressive social hierarchy, civil conflict, or high SGBV - or by lack of trust, this CSO role is irreplaceable. CSOs which mobilise an area’s poorest people for collective action are directly tackling some of the primary determinants of poverty: disempowerment, social exclusion and isolation. Non-NGO CSOs often have a flexibility, adaptability, and results-orientation which NGOs struggle to recapture, as well as a higher level of local legitimacy. And in the many contexts where repressive states or insecurity place restrictions on formal civil society, the role of less formal groups becomes particularly critical.

    The bad news is that, whether coming direct from a donor or mediated through an INGO partner, external grantmaking and “capacity-building” aimed at increasing these local CSOs' ability to channel large funding flows very often have the unintended effect of making them less flexible, less results-oriented, less relational, and less appealing to their base of local volunteers and donors. They become NGO-shaped and lose their distinctive effectiveness. Masooda Bano’s "Breakdown in Pakistan: How Aid is Eroding Institutions for Collective Action" is a sobering analysis of multiple cases in Pakistan:

    As a donor/partner, Tearfund invests in facilitation that helps non-NGO CSOs mobilise their own local resources and bring about change at scale. For example, Church & Community Mobilisation (CCM) processes lead to local churches becoming a nucleus for broader community action against poverty using their own resources. Mobilised communities may for example begin carrying out effective advocacy with governments for service provision, which a Uganda evaluation found had generated $330,000 in benefits to 11 poor communities over two years:

    When a religious denomination is inspired to roll out CCM, thousands of churches can be mobilised to tackle poverty, vulnerability, and environmental degradation -- as with the PAG church in Uganda, with around 5,000 congregations across the country.

    Similarly, the self-help group (SHG) movement facilitated by Tearfund’s church partners in Ethiopia has generated an estimated 15,000 local groups since 2002. The quarter-million members (of all faiths), all initially the poorest in their communities, become empowered both economically and socially through their participation in group savings, problem-solving, and learning. They also attain a voice at higher levels through elected multi-group clusters and federations. A 2013 cost-benefit analysis found that the return on investment for the SHG approach was at least 58 to 1 (and 173 to 1 in some cases) through members’ increased income and resilience, e.g. no longer needing to take exploitative loans or sell vital assets in a shock.

    DFID should continue to expand its engagement with a locally responsive 'mixed economy' of CSOs, including non-NGOs. We recognise of course that, given limits to staff time and a strong focus on measurable impact, the idea of engaging with an array of different types of CSOs with different ways of reporting and measuring impact sounds like a big ask. One approach is to fund CSOs which can themselves engage with a wider spectrum of CSOs on the donor’s behalf.

    Tearfund has itself been on the journey from mostly making grants to traditional NGOs to promoting CCM, SHGs, Inspired Individuals (a network of individual visionaries and entrepreneurs) and other non-grant engagement with diverse forms of civil society. Our Country Representatives have many more options now in coming up with locally appropriate and cost-effective poverty reduction strategies. We would be very happy to talk further about lessons learnt so far about how to build this flex in without becoming excessively resource intensive and keeping a common focus on impact and delivery.

  2. Comment by Dr Monika Kruesmann, Think Global posted on

    First of all, what a great opportunity to have a big discussion about things that matter, with people who have lots of ideas, energy and resources. Thanks DFID for opening up the conversation! We’re really looking forward to sharing thoughts and learnings over the next five weeks.

    Just a few notes from us on this first set of questions and comments, to get the ball rolling.
    The key premise here is that strong civil society empowers people in developing countries to take part in, and influence, development actions that affect them. Here at Think Global, do we agree this is broadly correct? Yes we do! We believe strongly in the agency, the right, and the desire of all people everywhere, to shape the world they live in. In developing countries, where many people many have little capacity to actually do that, the role of civil society is vital in building a bridge between decision-makers and decision-receivers. No question about that!
    But yes, working out how best to build and maintain that bridge is hard. I’d like to make two comments in particular about the various issues raised.

    First, what measures can promote civil society for development, and what is that role for CSOs and donors? Well, education has to be at the forefront. Here at Think Global we are committed to supporting people to understand the connections between their own lives and the lives of people in other countries, and finding ways to work together for a just and sustainable world. That means giving people information and the skills to think about that information, and to make decisions on the actions they can take to build a better life. This kind of education can be one of the most powerful tools that CSOs and donors can share with people in developing countries; especially where local education provision is limited.

    The MDGs are an interesting case in point here. They have had some success; but knowledge about them is limited, and perhaps if more people across the world knew and understood them, there may have been more pressure on governments to ensure they were all met. The new Sustainable Development Goals provide a good opportunity to continue the effort, and Think Global is delighted to be working with 'Project Everyone’ to help shape lessons for schools on the SDGs, based on lessons submitted by teachers around the world, and also to create a bank of teaching resources on global issues. When launched, these will be available on Think Global’s Global Dimension Website – for teachers anywhere in the world to use.

    We need more efforts like this, all across the globe. Education about development issues helps to empower people, and donor funds so spent are well spent.
    Second, I was struck by the word choices in the second part of the opening comments. Incentives. That seems to me a word that might sit ill with the larger ambitions of development. Most particularly, it doesn’t speak to a relationship of equals – it seems rather to suggest some element (however well-meaning) of coercion. If I need to be incentivised, it means I’m not inclined off my own bat to do whatever is the task at hand! Is this how we are thinking about our development relationships? What’s the difference between carrots and sticks? And what does that mean for the relationship between donors, CSOs, and people in developing countries?

    Over to you!

  3. Comment by Diane Archer, IIED posted on

    Developing and strengthening civil society can lead to empowerment of people in developing countries. …Thinking about your experience, is this broadly correct, and do you have examples of where this approach has been effective? We’d like to hear why you think this approach was so effective and what made it different from other approaches?

    In the provision of urban services to residents of informal settlements, who are often marginalised, effectively organised community groups can be key to ensuring service delivery. There are numerous examples of the work of organised urban poor groups affiliated to the Asian Coalition for Housing Rights (ACHR, ) and Shack/Slum Dwellers International (SDI, ), which IIED has been supporting and documenting for over a decade. As the world’s urban population continues to grow, developing and strengthening relationships at the urban scale are increasingly important – where citizens can be central to developing solutions and thus forming relationships with other stakeholders. While community savings groups and cooperatives may not always be regarded as traditional partners, their capacity to mobilise action, manage projects, and establish partnerships should be recognised and harnessed – at the level of both the individual settlement and also across cities.

    Savings activities are often the starting point around which communities organise, and very often women play a leading role in these. The savings activities can then catalyse collective action, such as addressing sanitation needs through the building of toilets or drainage, or improving local pathways or community centres (with additional funding and technical support through ACHR or SDI). Many of these improvements are public goods which benefit all those in the community, whether or not they have contributed financially – thus drawing in more participants as they benefit from the improvements. For example, IIED has been supporting and documenting the work of SDI affiliates in Zimbabwe, Zambia, Malawi and Tanzania who have sought to build on this approach, by developing community-led sanitation solutions that serve the urban poor, as part of the DFID-funded SHARE city-wide project ( Networks of community organizations and residents’ associations have led this action research working in partnership with city authorities.

    This collective approach can be used by local community groups to draw the attention of local authorities to gaps in service provision, and hold them to account. For example, the SAJUSSA coastal settlement in Davao, the Philippines, used collective resources (including labour, savings and 750 USD seed funding from ACHR, administered as a loan to be repaid) to rebuild an eroding sea wall – however, their limited resources meant that they couldn’t complete the full stretch. By demonstrating to the local government unit what they had already achieved, the authorities stepped in to complete the remaining stretch of sea wall and pave the adjoining road. This example of co-production was sparked by the collective action of the local community who were already organised through savings activities.

    There are numerous other examples of such co-production which have led to significant contributions from state actors – such as in Cambodia, where organised informal settlers have secured land from the state, often with infrastructure, for housing projects. This land comes with collective title ( The country’s Circular number 3 policy builds on this process and supports community-led upgrading initiatives through a flexible and participatory approach, and prioritises on-site upgrading wherever possible, with relocation within the city as an alternative, or if not, other options such as land sharing.

    A distinct feature of all these initiatives is the collective approach – from collective loans for upgrading housing and infrastructure to collective land title. The collective approach helps to sustain action, build relationships horizontally within and across communities, and vertically with other urban stakeholders such as local and national government. Alternative financial mechanisms such as city level revolving funds have been formed which create direct link between community groups and government actors, enabling scaled up action ( These approaches put local citizens at the core of the process, are by nature participatory (and recognising that communities are not homogenous), and the collective processes ensure that there is accountability to and by local communities.

  4. Comment by Richard Chilvers Oxfam GB posted on

    For the last five years Oxfam’s Within and Without the State programme has been working with civil society to improve governance in fragile states (Afghanistan, OPTI, South Sudan and Yemen and DRCongo). Our specific focus has been supporting civil society groups to engage with the state to secure basic services such as health, WASH and education as well as peacebuilding. This global initiative has enabled Oxfam to pilot a variety of approaches to working with civil society to promote more accountable governance in conflict-affected and fragile contexts. The programme has shown that effective governance work is possible in fragile contexts, and can achieve change. It has demonstrated that working with civil society is an essential entry point; beyond this, empowering civil society actors to engage with power-holders is vital to achieving good governance, accountability, and better outcomes for the communities within which we work.

    The programme has explored:

    • Using the 'social contract' model to enable constructive engagement between citizens and the state
    • Tackling gender inequality
    • Understanding informal power-holders and how to influence them
    • Adapting civil society capacity building techniques from long-term development work
    • Risk management and applied complexity theory when setting strategy

    We have learned a number of valuable lessons. These include:

    • The value of taking our time to develop partnerships (we have found that being deliberately transparent and inclusive in selecting partners has meant that previously competing groups are more likely to cooperate when they understand Oxfam and each other's unique purposes)
    • The value of working with women (for example in Afghanistan, women have been able to gain space to participate in the peace process and gain recognition as community peacebuilders. In South Sudan we have worked with women's groups to demonstrate that the whole community benefits from giving women more say over how domestic income is spent), and the complementary value of working specifically with men on women's rights
    • The critical importance of working with all kinds of civil society groups from unions, to religious groups, to informal youth movements and community based organisations.
    • Conducting detailed and regularly updated power analysis and risk management and having a flexible and responsive approach to programming
    • Working on both the 'supply' and 'demand' sides of governance and the intersections between them. (In South Sudan accountability forums and the government's own Anti-Corruption Commission have created more space for citizens to examine officials' allocation and use of public funds)
    • Engaging with informal power such as some religious leaders in Afghanistan who were initially resistant to women's involvement in settling community disputes, but later became change agents, building on their responsibility for their communities

    Above all, we have learned that supporting a vibrant civil society is key. Real change takes a long time in fragile contexts and demands a recognition that we need to support the voices and agency of ordinary citizens - as individuals or as members of civil society - supporting them to engage and influence those with power to be responsive to their citizens.

    You can read the full report here:

  5. Comment by Joanna Watson, Tearfund posted on

    "Evidence from the OECD suggests that CSOs are facing more restrictive environments, primarily through the reduction in political space. How can donors support a better enabling environment in which civil society can be most effective? What do you think are the measures to help promote space for active civil society, how can this space be best secured, and what roles do, or should, donors and CSOs play to achieve this? Are there opportunities for donors and CSOs to collaborate more to achieve a better enabling environment, and how do you think this should be done?"

    People who are poor, and people who are affected by injustice, are an integral part of civil society, and their voice needs to be heard. Access to decision-making should not be a luxury; it must be easy for everyone, in order to make sure governments (and others) truly understand the needs and issues in their country, so that that they can develop public policies accordingly, and so that poverty is ended.

    Politics should be open and accountable, in order to enable everyone to participate in government decision-making; political processes should be open to influence by civil society and citizens; and civil society space should be open enough to allow for strong and vibrant engagement between citizens and government officials.

    A country will more quickly free itself from reliance on aid if it has a thriving and accountable democracy, with fully transparent government decision-making. The more that DFID can enable people to hold their own governments accountable, the more this will strengthen and deliver good governance.

    At Tearfund, we are deeply concerned by the growing trend towards civil society space being closed down, particularly where this is because governments are imposing and enforcing draconian legislation. As a result of this trend, we are seeing civil society actors losing the freedom to speak out publicly, particularly about issues of government policy, because to do so has been made illegal. The reasons for this are complex and varied, but we believe that DFID has a crucial role to play in helping to reverse this trend.

    Not only can DFID lead by example, through continuing to model a constructive relationship with UK civil society, but DFID can also encourage other governments to join the Open Government Partnership (OGP) as a means of making governments more open, transparent and accountable. Furthermore, DFID should support OGP governments to model best practice in civil society participation in the drafting of their OGP National Action Plans, as the UK sought to do in 2013. This will help to carve the way for greater engagement between governments and civil society in the long term.

    We also want to encourage DFID to promote and support better connections between the national level and the local level within countries that are poor, particularly through engaging with more unusual stakeholders, such as networks of self-help groups, local churches and social change movements. These unusual stakeholders are often most connected to communities and the issues they are facing on the ground, but are sometimes not actively involved in national policy-making. Building the capacity of unusual actors to constructively contribute, and supporting connections between local level initiatives and national actors, will help secure the kind of enabling environment which will empower civil society groups to collaborate and engage.

    Joanna Watson, National & Local Advocacy Lead, Tearfund

    • Replies to Joanna Watson, Tearfund>

      Comment by Katie Turner, VSO posted on

      We would certainly agree that, when done effectively, developing and strengthening civil society can lead to the empowerment of people in developing countries. However, we must first of all ensure that our definition of civil society does not only refer to the more ‘recognised’ NGOs and INGOs but is inclusive of the groups and individuals that fall outside of this category. One of the problems of a ‘catch-all’ phrase is that often when agreements talk about ‘participation with civil society’ it inevitably falls to the participation of the bigger or more formally recognised organisations. VSO’s experience supports Tearfund’s point that, “change is delivered by CSOs which are not NGO-shaped,”. A significant contribution to people’s participation in development, when it comes to reaching the poorest and most marginalised groups, comes from those individuals who are voluntarily giving up their time within their own communities to respond to immediate and long-term needs. By distinguishing volunteers and voluntary groups and movements that are not always captured within this definition it ensures we go beyond the formally recognised civil society actors and capture the voices, experiences, and inclusion of those parts of the informal ‘economy’ that tend to be closest to the poorest and most marginalised groups.

      In order to help promote space for active civil society, donors and formal civil society (i.e. those INGOs partnering with local CSOs and communities who usually have the direct relationship with the donor) have a responsibility to ensure that the space, time and flexibility are given for genuine local level community engagement to take place. When VSO interviewed different local CSOs and volunteer groups about their experiences of working with large donors and INGOs as part of its Valuing Volunteering research many of them said that they felt their views and experiences were not taken into account or that attempts to do so felt tokenistic. Too often civil society organisations at all levels are being pressured to focus on the end outcomes and not the process, whereas it is the process of engaging civil society at all levels to collectively understand the issues and identify potential solutions that is important, before a project or programme is designed, through to evaluation. We also need to move away from the tendency of being pushed towards investing in ‘new’ projects and realise that long-term relationships are not always indicators of dependency. That in order to achieve sustainable change sometimes we do need to be investing time and resources within a particular community over a period of time that is not necessarily defined within project parameters and strict time-frames.

      To pick up on Think Global’s comment, I think we would agree that the word ‘incentives’ is counter to our ambition for a more open and transparent dialogue between the different levels of civil society and between donors and civil society. It is not that one level of civil society should have a comparative ‘advantage’ over another but that there is growing recognition that through collaboration, more focused, sustainable change can be achieved. For example, VSO’s Regional Health and Aids Initiative for Southern Africa simultaneously works with local civil society organisations and volunteers in the community providing support to people with HIV/Aids and their families, and with national and regional civil society bodies responsible for raising concerns around the necessary health structures that need to be in place to support HIV/Aids provision. This has resulted in the development of a new ‘Caregivers Policy for Southern Africa’ which is responsive to the needs expressed by volunteers in the community for improved support to carry out their role but also acknowledges the onus on governments to ensure that undue burden is not being placed on volunteers to deliver services that the government has a responsibility to provide. DFID could support and encourage more multi-layered levels of civil society engagement to achieve greater impact.


  6. Comment by John Bines posted on

    Good twitterchat today. Thought I'd follow up with my views here as well

    So civil society is what it is. In any given context, it is effective. It has evolved and developed to be so.

    Many contexts are resource constrained. Civil society could be even more effective with additional resources.

    In some contexts, civil society is repressed. What can we do. Soapboxes do not work. We could lead by example, but those of us in the UK can hardly profess to be exemplars in this area.

    For me, the real question here is how WE should engage with civil society to make US more effective. For me, the answer is to be led by it.

    Somebody said to me recently that most 'capacity building' of local CSOs is really simply 'compliance building'.

    If you want to see a new model with civil society at the helm, check out


  7. Comment by Liza Stevens, Traidcraft posted on

    Building on themes raised in previous comments around mobilising communities and collective approaches, the evidence of Traidcraft’s work, in particular over the last ten years has found that supporting smallholder producers to form strong, producer-led groups at a local level (eg village) and representative district associations has some extremely valuable and sustainable benefits. It enhances collective identity and voice, leading to increased empowerment and engagement with important other stakeholders, including other supply-chain actors, service providers and local and national Governments. The formation of these “grassroots” CSOs helps to build knowledge, skills, confidence, power and influence, enabling producers to negotiate better terms of trade, require better services from suppliers and more effective and effectively-implemented policies.

    Often this is about supporting the previously invisible to become a visible force. For example, our long-standing work with smallholder tea growers in India has helped tens of thousands of smallholder tea growers who were previously very disparate, dispersed and disempowered to organise into hundreds of local self help groups. These have then formed regional associations and a national level body, the Confederation of Indian Small Tea Grower Associations (CISTA) to represent their needs. This collective voice has given them much greater profile, and they succeeded in getting the Tea Board of Indian to officially recognise them and to implement new policies favouring smallholder growers. In a really exciting recent development CISTA is now starting to network and influence at an international level through participating in international tea fora.

    We had a similar experience in Kenya where, despite their importance as a link between small-scale farmers and poorer consumers, informal milk traders were voiceless in national decision making which favoured large-scale commercial milk production, and frequently harassed. With our local NGO partner organisation, SITE Enterprise Promotion, we helped the traders to form into groups and establish a national Dairy Traders Association (DTA) to represent their interests with policy makers. We also provided training in milk hygiene and handling, and supported the traders to develop a strict code of conduct to improve their reputation. The local authorities now recognise the importance of the informal traders and the draft Dairy Policy supports their rights. All DTA members reported significantly less harassment. The quality of milk and other dairy products greatly improved and, as a result, their sales increased by over 30%.

    In Bangladesh, our smallholder farmer programme has transformed what were insecure, invisible and dispersed rural communities into a visible force. With the help of local CSOs, farmers have been mobilised and organised into self-governed village level groups that ultimately become, in effect, micro-business entities. Capacity building and mentoring of the groups includes training on governance, business and technical skills, and influencing/advocacy skills. Thousands of farming households have significantly increased their incomes through increased productivity, reduced costs, and increased sales. They are now linked to and have formed stronger more confident relationships with important stakeholders, especially public service providers - considerably strengthened relationships with government officials was perceived by participating farmers to be one of the main benefits. An extremely important outcome of this work is that more organised civil society groupings, at whatever level, can enable local government to deliver support that they were committed to, but found hard because of the disparate nature of the clients they were trying to help – a win-win outcome that enhances sustainability.

    All of these projects have generated many powerful stories of change, especially for women who have reported increased confidence and greater decision-making power within their households. There are challenges, though.

    Different skill sets are needed to ensure effective and sustainable producer organisations, for example, entrepreneurial and leadership skills. Not all of us will make good entrepreneurs or good leaders and the same is true for smallholder farmers – for some a more business-oriented mindset is harder to nurture. But if we can find the natural entrepreneurs and leaders within a group of farmers, we can work to develop them in leadership roles within the groups and associations.

    We have found it most effective to work with a variety of local civil society organisations on the ground. Local CSOs (in the more traditional CSO mould) are vital in building the capacity of smaller groupings such as producer associations or farmers groups (who can often be overlooked by funders) to grow and become sustainable, and acting as a bridge between these groupings and other supply chain actors or policy makers. We believe there is a need to partner in the short to mid-term with such local CSOs to achieve our outcomes. However, in order to achieve sustainable impact, the village-level producer groups and their district associations ultimately need to take on the leading role in bringing about change.

    We encourage DFID to recognise, value and support the plurality of roles played by CSOs at international, national and local levels, especially during the initial formation and organisational development phase: as convenors and knowledge managers; as bridges, mobilisers and capacity builders; as service providers and advocates.

    There is also a need to recognise that the development of strong, representative and influential organisations takes time, often longer than the framework offered by a three-year project cycle. It also requires the need for flexibility to modify and adapt project design along the way responding to the changing dynamics within and around the producer organisations.

    Finally, although my comment has focused on effective civil society in the south, as a fair trade organisation that connects producers, supply chain actors, consumers, and campaigners in the south and north, Traidcraft also believes in the importance of supporting the mobilisation of groups in the north – in particular consumers and campaigners - to support change that will have a positive impact on the poor in the south.

  8. Comment by Andrew Clenaghan posted on

    After yesterday’s Twitterchat focusing on effective civil society, below is a collection of comments from my colleagues and I at Practical Action which we hope will enhance the discussion:

    Development occurs in a complex system of economics, politics, power and culture and approaches to strengthening the capacity of civil society need to be put into a context of system transformation, clearly defining the roles of civil society organisations within it. Civil Society, Government and Private Sector need to identify mutual benefits and work together to achieve them
    This means focussing on national sector change processes that better understand how change happens and putting in place incentives and mechanisms to strengthen different civil society actors as part of the change process. For example, civil society actors need support and funding to participate, coordinate and collaborate amongst themselves to provide joint positioning and messaging. NGOs and INGOs can help convene, facilitate and link to global efforts related to these change process, such as the Sustainable Energy for All initiative.

    DFID and other donors’ roles should include working with national governments to make sure civil society spaces aren’t closing down and that legitimate voices, representing citizens and articulating their demand for and their rights to services, are heard and listened to.

    To truly empower civil society at national levels the link to the subnational level is critical; ultimately national actors’ legitimacy needs to be linked to and grounded in citizens’ voices; nurturing long-term civil society needs to move from implementation focused delivery of project activities to advocacy and influencing for change.

    This will require champions or lead facilitators and whilst it may involve civil society organisations initially, it will ultimately require ownership by citizens. A key role is in facilitating civil society’s’ capacity to support the capacity of the marginalised to engage with actors and processes in ways that increase their opportunities.

    By funding core functions of civil society organisation, donors will afford them the space to operate flexibly and innovatively. This space allows for civil society to operate effectively across diverse socio-political spaces; support lesson learning and embrace opportunity to reflect on progress and learn from failure. It can also provide a safe environment to critically evaluate policies and explore what works and what doesn’t in regards to national policy (something that would otherwise be too sensitive to debate at national level).

    In summary, donor support for effective civil society should target transformational, systemic change through mechanisms that are long-term; flexible; responsive; collaborative and iterative.

  9. Comment by Kim Wallis,Trocaire posted on

    Thanks for opportunity to comment – it’s a really good initiative to facilitate a conversation.
    Civil Society – it’s importance
    Trócaire believes that civil society organisations (CSOs) have an important and unique role to play in development effectiveness. In particular, Trócaire gives prominence to civil societies role in ‘bringing the voices of the poor’ to influence government policies, to challenge injustice and to hold governments to account.
    The key roles of civil society actors in this regard are as agents of social transformation (actors with alternative views, policies and actions that promote social and economic justice) and defenders of democratic principles (active players in ‘constructing democracy’ and establishing democratic political and social structures).
    To carry out these roles civil society needs to engage with power and positively transform power relations within the communities we are supporting and between citizens and the state.
    Trócaire’s resource “Democracy in Action, Protecting Civil Society Space” highlights the critical role which civil society has to play at the heart of development.
    Research conducted by Trócaire, working with partners in the European Cidse and ACT networks, identified a range of current challenges for civil society and has highlighted a number of recommendations – among them the importance of stimulating civil society, not just an activity based funding relationship, but one that encourages a vibrant and dynamic civil society.
    In practise, for DFID, this could include, support the formation of loose, issue based coalitions of organisations working in different sectors (from human rights to humanitarian assistance); foster linkages and learning exchanges between national NGOs and grassroots social movements, and international networks to facilitate exchange and support. Civil society is at its healthiest and best placed to affect change when diverse interests and analyses are cohering and where there is solidarity among its parts.
    Civil Society – at local level
    At local level, Trócaire believes that civil societies’ role should focus on participation and empowerment. In practise, this involves community mobilisation, awareness raising and supporting individuals and communities on multifaceted empowerment journeys. This support takes numerous shapes and forms and there is no standard description. Community groups reflect their contexts, the people who form them, and are usually organised around purposes specific to the local situation. As such, community groups are very different entities across all countries. This is how it should be and it is important that groups reflect, and are part of, the community.
    From the perspective of DFID and other donors, it is important the external support facilitates and encourages local groups and that donor processes appreciate the diversity of local civil society and accommodate their often fledgling nature.
    This includes supporting in depth local context analysis, providing flexible and varied funding modalities and encouraging and valuing qualitative results and learning relevant to the context.
    In the attached resource – Community Mobilisation – Trócaire highlights the importance of working with diverse groups and strengthening their capacity to organise and represent their positions.
    Civil Society – national and international
    Civil society at a national level plays a vital role in engaging with government and policy. However, in recent years, government in several countries have moved to reduce space and increase restrictions which limits the capacity of civil society to advocate on behalf of marginalised groups.
    DFID’s policies and strategies should not only support civil society but engage with government in developing contexts to ensure that civil society can operate freely. Funding for Rights Based Approach and organisations working on human rights and democratic governance remains critical. Implementation of guidelines for the protection of Human Rights Defenders should also be prioritised.
    Trócaire as an international NGO sees our role in supporting and facilitating the strengthening of local civil society, providing technical support and enhancing knowledge based on global learning, and contributing to and influencing the global policy agenda.
    In light of a wave of legislative restrictions on international funding for local civil society, DFID should take a coordinated approach to policy dialogue with governments on this issue.

  10. Comment by Lila Buckley, IIED posted on

    Those of us responding here all work to promote effective civil society in various ways, and I believe we take it for granted that ‘developing and strengthening civil society can lead to empowerment of people … [which] leads to better outcomes for the people and societies in developing countries’. The comments so far provide some great specific examples of how this works—e.g. through collaborative processes that empower people, by using gender sensitive and inclusive approaches, and with exploring new tools such as alternative financing mechanisms and innovative governance approaches. If more ‘evidence’ in this regard is needed from all of us, I believe we could fill volumes with case studies and reflections on our inspiring experiences working with civil society!

    The challenge, I think, is in identifying and then acting on a truly meaningful and impactful role for DFID and other donors in supporting effective civil society. In this year, 2015, and looking ahead, we see fundamental changes in the field of development work: our common framework under the MDGs is coming to a close; we are at a crucial crossroads for action on climate change, while the impacts of climate change itself are becoming increasingly real for all of us; and aid and development interventions themselves are being challenged by technological developments and geopolitical shifts that are bringing in new actors and funding models. These changes are disrupting our very conceptualisation of development as well as our ways of working to achieve it.

    'Many CSOs are facing an uncertain and changing future. How can DFID support CSOs to become more resilient, flexible and sustainable?'

    We at IIED have been talking to a range of CSOs in middle and low income countries on a very closely related topic: what role can DFID (and international NGOs) play in supporting management of disruptive change in middle and low income country-based CSOs? We hear a strong sense that yes, the future is uncertain and changes can happen very rapidly. NGO leaders we have spoken to have welcomed the opportunity to engage in frank discussion on this topic.

    Based on my own insights from this process and my experience working in a CSO in China, I would suggest that there are two levels that need to be addressed:

    1) Mechanisms for information sharing: To support ‘effectiveness, capacity and leadership,’ there is continual need for information sharing at a global level, to spread effective tools for development and to build collaborative processes enabling individual communities and organisations to have greater impact than they would alone. There are a lot of examples in the comments so far showing just how important this continues to be. My experience prior to joining IIED was as assistant director for a Chinese NGO in the early years of civil society development in China. We were regularly invited to the DFID offices to engage with DFID partners and stakeholders on thematic discussions on development issues. This process was empowering to us as a new civil society organisation, and it was also inspiring to see DFID so open and actively seeking true learning opportunities from practitioners on the ground. DIFID has a generally good track record of supporting these kinds of efforts and can continue to support: research on effective approaches and tools; and networks and platforms to create shared learning and dialogue. The ‘impacts’ of these kinds of activities can sometimes feel a bit ‘soft’, but there are emerging tools for monitoring and evaluation that can help donors more effectively track the impact of funding spent.

    2) Flexible, long-term funding commitments: To ‘contribute to securing and promoting space for an active civil society and creating open societies where CSOs can operate most effectively and freely’, there is need for deep reflections on current practices within DFID (and other donors) and their impact on creating or hindering an enabling environment for effective civil society. What is needed on the ground is long-term commitments that are goal-oriented but flexible in activities. In this regard, the reflections in comments above on what exactly we mean by ‘CSO’ in all its various forms is important too; an INGOs flexible funding can easily become a national or community-based NGO’s restricted funding. INGOs and bilateral donors can both be seen simply as ‘donors’, without differentiation. Donors need to adopt risk management approaches that recognise the value, in terms of effectiveness, of flexibility passed down the contracting chain. It is hard to overemphasise the importance of flexibility for civil society organisations in developing countries. This is especially true given the increasing uncertainty in today’s world. I believe a focus on civil society organisations implementing projects on the ground can provide deep insights into what needs to be done in any given moment to improve development outcomes. I found this report from SRSP to be a particularly instructive case study on flexible donor support in the context of uncertainty:

    We appreciate this reflective process that DFID is engaging with here, and hope to be able to help DFID and others overcome change-barriers such as persistent siloes in mentality and organisational structure, so that they can more effectively support civil society organisations in an increasingly uncertain world. This requires a transformative rationale for development funding that can be acted on by CEOs from a range of organisations.

  11. Comment by Hans Gutbrod posted on

    One of the key concerns is pretty simple – transparency. DfID is a major donor to think tanks around the world. Yet when we first assessed 150+ think tanks, including many grantees by DfID, less than 10% were fully transparent about who funds them, with what amount, for what purpose.

    It's important that think tanks and research organizations be transparent – also so that they can credibly demand transparency from their own governments. Unfortunately this is an issue even close to home. At this point, the ODI is less transparent than the average US think tank.

    One key measure, to really get things moving in the right direction, would be for DfID to nudge their grantees to be transparent about who funds them. That step is not sufficient, but it's necessary. And DfID could really make a difference, by moving forward in that regard, and setting the right example.

    Hans Gutbrod

  12. Comment by Abeer Alabsi posted on

    First and foremost, in comparison with the government and the private sector, CSOs are better linked to the community and grassroots. CSO play a vital role in providing services, by building civic societies and by voicing the ideas and concerns of poor people to challenge the causes of poverty and discrimination.

    In a fragile context CSOs role can be even more important as they can be a catalyst for better change from the bottom up level when the state is weak and they can access communities considered difficult to reach due to the security situation.

    A CSO that is effective and can represent the community can make a big different in the society. By providing CSOs with some appropriate and understanding technical skills, structures and funds they are able to build on their understanding of the needs and the socio-economic context and to intervene accordingly and make the desired change and develop their society.

    We have found the most effective way to support CSOs is through a strategic and long-term partnership. This must involve an institutional review of their all their organisational capacities together with coaching and mentoring activities to build them. This is in contrast to just using them to implement projects or using only short term training/consultancy.

    In addition to providing flexible long-term support, DFID can play an important role through identifying or facilitating the identification of good practice, helping share good practice and linking CSOs together. DFID should enable and support CSOs to help them listen and respond to their communities. DFID should seek to build an understanding and trusting relationship which complements both DFID’s and CSOs’ strengths.

    Abeer Alabsi
    Country Representative
    Progressio Yemen

  13. Comment by Mousumi Saikia posted on

    Islamic Relief Worldwide recognises that it is important to empower civil society in developing countries in order to empower their citizens to participate and take intentional action in development and also to take up democratic ownership. However, our experience has shown that in order to fully empower southern CSOs it is not just sufficient to provide funding for programming. Southern CSOs often need support to build their institutional capacity to the levels expected by Northern INGOs and donors. It is imperative for any partnership with Southern CSOs to recognise this and it should be guided by the long term aim of enabling Southern CSOs to gain independence and self-sufficiency. Northern INGOs and particularly donors are often reluctant to provide this sort of investment. Some areas of organisational capacity support could be:

    • funding for staff costs or overheads that are not directly related to a programme;
    • institutional support for the development of organisational capacity in a particular area e.g. financial management, MEL, age and disability inclusion, gender mainstreaming or Value for money (VfM);
    • broader development of the partner organisation as a whole, including but not limited to areas such as governance and strategic planning.

    This would entail undertaking an organisational capacity assessment to identify the most urgent capacity needs and planning to prioritise the most urgent capacity needs, and the means to address them.

    Saying that, it is important for donors and INGOs to be strategic, take the context into account and manage this support carefully. Whilst most developing country governments welcome donor support for civil society, but certain countries, as demonstrated by legislation in some developing countries, prevents or set limits on the level of financial support that domestic organisations can receive from international donors (International Centre for Not-for-Profit Law and World Movement for Democracy, 2012). Sharing good practice and guidance for strengthening civil society and promoting enabling environments may play a key role in better equipping INGOs and donors to support civil society.

  14. Comment by Krisztina Tora posted on

    CSOs face a range of challenges, and often have to innovate to remain sustainable. Social entrepreneurship is one such innovation that is generating ever increasing interest among CSOs, as a sustainable approach to poverty alleviation. We reflect here on how social entrepreneurship might be harnessed by DfID to better support CSOs.

    The Global Social Entrepreneurship Network (GSEN) was launched by UnLtd - The Foundation for Social Entrepreneurs - in June 2013 at the Social Impact Investment Summit created under the UK Presidency of the G8. It gathers organisations supporting social entrepreneurs in 50 countries, to improve the reach, quality and sustainability of support for early-stage social entrepreneurs. GSEN brings organisations together to share what works in supporting social entrepreneurs. As a result, GSEN members become more efficient in providing higher quality support to social entrepreneurs and are able to support more of them to start up, grow, become investment ready and create sustainable social impact.

    Indeed, the question of sustainability is key to the work of our members, and GSEN have several working hypotheses which are also of relevance to CSOs. One of these is the need to increase income from revenue-generating activities (in a way that is not detrimental to the core mission of an organisation) to reduce the proportion of philanthropic support. New creative sustainability models need to be designed with and for organisations, tested, piloted and implemented at large scale if they work and create impact. Some great examples can already be found within the GSEN network where members are experimenting with new business models (e.g. replicating their organisation, delivering “low-cost” support models) to overcome resource limitations.
    This hypothesis on sustainability also holds relevance for CSOs who, facing an uncertain and changing future, need support to become more resilient, flexible and sustainable. Empowering CSOs to become less donor-dependent, and more self-sustaining through entrepreneurial activity, is one means of achieving this sustainability.

    For example, one of our members in Vietnam – the Center for Social Initiatives Promotion (CSIP) - works with CSOs to help them become more socially entrepreneurial. This project, funded by Irish Aid, focuses its interventions on promoting the empowerment of women, ethnic minorities and disabled people through supporting selected CSOs to successfully develop or implement social ventures, with the goal of contributing to the CSOs’ financial sustainability, as well as increasing their social impacts.

    In conclusion, we would argue that DfID could raise awareness among CSOs of social entrepreneurship, provide training on entrepreneurial approaches, or make available specific pots of funding for technical assistance for CSOs to develop socially entrepreneurial activities. Clearly, this approach will not be suitable for every CSO, once their goals and context are taken into account. Nonetheless, social entrepreneurship can provide a means of helping CSOs thrive and achieve sustainability when facing an uncertain future, while simultaneously increasing their social impact through innovative ventures.

    Krisztina Tora, GSEN and International Manager, UnLtd

  15. Comment by Suad Abdi posted on

    CSO’s play an important role in promoting social inclusion through their connection with marginalize communities such as women, youth and the disability whose rights have been deprived due to weak government structures. Often times these people are ignored and not included in any aspects of the development programmes and planning.

    In addition, CSO’s has some level of connections on the ground and can easily facilitate to bring together a diverse group of people whose issues are often times very challenging to address such as the sexual reproductive health, rights of women and the minority groups because of strong cultural and religious beliefs.

    CSO generate local knowledge through activities carried out by their respective organizations in the form of research or baseline. Because of their long-term partnership with the communities they serve, it is easy for them to identify issues and priorities of their beneficiaries. This might bring another perspective to development programmes and can affect the way a donor or government envision or plan.

    CSO’s are facilitators for all development programmes by acting as a conduit between the communities and development partners.
    CSO’s always play a complementary role, and often times act as a watchdog to government actions and programmes. Thus, it is important for donors to tap and acknowledge CSO’s initiatives geared towards accountability and transparency initiatives in order to promote inclusiveness and good governance.

    Donors can support the development of effective and relevant civil society by promoting an open discussion and dialogue between the development actors including government, CSO’s and the donors to foster a participatory development approach. Strengthening civil society institutions to broaden their service delivery services and in the transfer knowledge in order to maximize their contribution to development.

    Suad Abdi
    Country Representative
    Founder of Nagaad

  16. Comment by Juliet Milgate, Sightsavers posted on

    Juliet Milgate, Sightsavers

    Civil society faces a multitude of challenges to its ability to speak out for underserved and marginalised people and groups. These range from insecure funding to operating in complex political environments and DFID can play a significant role in ensuring that civil society is able to grow in voice and in effectiveness, by fostering strengthened partnerships between Northern and Southern CSOs through funding decisions and supporting civil society campaigns that are led by partnerships between the North and South; being an advocate for civil society in discussions with governments in lower- and middle-income countries; and doing more to reach out to civil society at the DFID country office level.

    Sightsavers co-chairs Beyond 2015, a global civil society campaign which has around 1,500 members in over 135 countries (from small grassroots CSOs to national level and international CSOs) and has been campaigning since 2010 for a strong and legitimate successor to the Millennium Development Goals. Beyond 2015 has been recognised as an effective and inclusive campaign that has enabled the diverse and rich global civil society conversation to bring the voices of many marginalised and vulnerable groups to the negotiations. Sightsavers is working with national governments to ensure that people with disabilities are included in national planning processes and that our issues are highlighted in national accountability structures. Beyond 2015 has launched the Policy to Action programme which is supporting our members with practical and evidence-based examples of how governments and other actors can start implementing the SDGs. Sightsavers is actively involved in conversations with a number of other civil society organisations about how to build a successor campaign to Beyond 2015.