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Starting from the South – Why we Need to Rethink Civil Society Collaborations and Funding Structures

Megatrends spotlight 24, 19.04.2023

Collaborations between civil society organisations in the development sector are often driven by priorities set in donor countries. In this Spotlight, Megatrends Afrika talked to Margit van Wessel, Wageningen University, about ways to make civil society collaborations more equal.

Funding for civil society organisations (CSOs) originating from donor countries for the most part does not reach local organisations directly, but is channelled through international CSOs. Agenda setting, programming and management in such funding schemes is often done without sufficient local participation. This can prevent CSOs from implementing projects that are fit for context and politically relevant. Margit van Wessel has just co-edited a book titled ‘Reimagining Civil Society Collaborations in Development. Starting from the South’ proposing some practical avenues for tackling this mismatch.

Megatrends Afrika: What are some of the major problems that donor-funded CSOs face?

Margit van Wessel: First of all, let me stress that support from international donors and international non-governmental organisations (INGOs) is very much appreciated by lots of CSOs in Africa and beyond. It creates many possibilities for them, and they often do see a lot of added value in the collaboration. But there are also some important challenges: for local CSOs, one is that the topics and agendas to work on are often defined by their international partners. Sometimes that leaves little space for Southern CSOs to follow their own mission. They are juggling different demands, trying to maintain legitimacy amongst local populations, the donor and the state.

And then, the kinds of projects, approaches and objectives are at least partly directed by what the donor prescribes, as well as the timelines. However, for CSOs, timelines often need to be adaptive and flexible. Sometimes there’s little space for that. Another problem is the level of professionalisation that is often required to be able to work with international donors. You need to have a developed financial management, the ability to write proposals, to do financial reporting and to report on results. That requires a lot of technical expertise from organisations. Local staff working with these organisations tend to then get replaced by professionals that are trained in the big cities.

MA: This is surprising, in a way. In the past years there have been a number of initiatives that raised these and similar issues. Discussions around making aid more adaptive, but also movements such as #ShiftThePower pointed towards problems resulting from top-down programming in philanthropy, not to mention the Grand Bargain in humanitarian aid. “Localisation” and “adaptation” are deeply entrenched in the donor jargon. Why have things still not changed on the ground?

MvW: You are right, there are lots of initiatives, but what we see is that the Grand Bargain, for example, has seldom translated into shifting financial resources to local actors, at least so far. #ShiftThePower is a movement that tries to change power relations by drawing more on local funding. But local funding is a minor part of the funding used by organisations in the Global South. Adaptive management has not yet been institutionalised in development cooperation.

So, indeed as you suggest, the change on the ground has yet to happen. There are various reasons for that. First of all, donors continue to work with predefined programmes that are set up to funnel large amounts of money through INGOs. These are still using that position to maintain their own roles. They are often not encouraged or incentivised much to transform their practices and may not see much space for that, given donor demands. CSOs in the Global South in turn often see no other way than to stick with what is coming their way. So it’s a systemic problem.

Change requires a much more systematic approach. What we need are attractive, viable, workable modes of operating. There seems to be some momentum on this. There is the RINGO project, for example. Many civil society actors are coming together in RINGO to develop new ways of working for INGOs. Some donors are also considering changing the way funds are distributed. There are initiatives to pool funds so that they are more directly accessible, as well as initiatives for trust-based funding. There is also our book that proposes new ways of working from new starting points, ‘Starting from the South’. However, a lot more needs to be done.

What is important here is the question of risks. Some argue that donor requirements are only in place because of risks and their management. I think we need to reconsider what the risks actually are: getting real about how these risks do or do not emerge and how they can be addressed. And I do not see the question of how the risks can be addressed coming up much yet. Looking beyond risk, we should look at opportunities that are there but not much considered. Sometimes the risk question is also an excuse to keep things as they are. Transformation is hard. So incentivising transformation models and looking more deeply into what is holding organisations back, I think those are things we could do.

MA: In your edited volume you and your contributors introduced some practical ways to address these issues. What are some lessons learned? What can donors do to reform their funding schemes?

MvW: Donors must lead the change. INGOs maintain their practices with reference to donor requirements. In the Netherlands, the government started to place hard requirements on INGOs to be more inclusive and provide more Southern leadership. And as we have seen, that is when they started taking it much more seriously. They were incentivised.

It would be really good for donors to adjust the requirements of what they consider a good programme. If you look at requirements nowadays, they are very Northern-centred. They do not go into the questions that Southern leadership would require. What they could do, for example, is asking questions such as, how well is the programme application rooted in the local contexts of the programme countries? Is it based on understanding the opportunities and challenges within that context, and does it reflect the agendas of Southern-based civil society organisations and their constituencies? How legitimate are the CSOs that are funded by the programme? How does the INGO support their agendas and their legitimacy? What is the added-value that INGOs or consortia apply to the work of Southern CSOs? How well is it linking up with existing networks?

MA: Was there a particular finding that took you by surprise?

MvW: One of the things that was unexpected – for me at least – was the degree to which CSOs desire recognition: for their existing capabilities, for the agendas they are committed to, for their approaches rooted in local understanding and local history and the ways forward that they see.

We are talking a lot about what you would call sharing power or shifting power. As if power is some kind of zero-sum game where those who have power in the Global North give up some of their own to actors in the Global South. But the CSOs speaking in the book say they are the original leaders; the leadership lies with them already – it is just not being recognised.

MA: To what extent are the experiences of organisations and individuals specific to certain regions? Are there any specific outcomes with regard to Africa?

MvW: Our book chapters are very much contextually grounded. We have a chapter focusing on what African feminism can look like and how that shapes African CSOs’ understandings of their role in society. We also look at the diaspora. Different leaders from the African diaspora come in to show their role in the development sector of their countries of origin. So, this gives a view on how we can move out of the North-South dyad in civil society collaborations and have a better eye for the way CSOs also work with partners in other contexts, including the diaspora.

We also see new questions emerge. For example, there is a discussion of African social movements and how they work with NGOs. Then, the role of African philanthropy and how that philanthropy is grounded in culturally specific understandings of giving. So, this rootedness in African contexts as starting points for development collaboration, I think, is the main message.

MA: In Germany, civil society collaborations just received a more prominent mention in the BMZ’s new Africa Strategy. At the same time, feminist development cooperation is high on the agenda. Having worked with feminist organisations yourself, what is your take on feminist development policy? Not all CSOs might be in favour of such an approach and might discount it as patronising. Could localisation potentially clash with such an agenda?

MvW: This is a good and important question. I think that patronisation could happen with any topic. That is not specific to the feminist agenda. A feminist foreign policy or a feminist development policy can be very patronising in, for example, defining what feminism is. What I think is important is that you really engage with the diversity of feminisms and not impose your version of feminism on actors elsewhere in the world.

In this discussion one of the questions that tends to come up is whether the whole idea of feminism is alien to other contexts in the world. But if you go and speak with women’s groups across the world, you will find that they have very clear understandings of their position as women, what it means to be a woman and what should be addressed and changed on that front. They are very able to speak up for themselves and define how to take the matter forward.

Women’s rights are being trampled by justifications from a wide range of ideologies in different contexts. I do not think we should fall into the trap of cultural relativism and accept the oppression of women because of the cultural ideology in a country. Women are oppressed in many places with all kinds of excuses and ideological legitimations. But if you speak to the women themselves, many of them would like to see important elements of that addressed. Culture is not some kind of nationally unifying entity that we should keep our hands off because we are from abroad. But at the same time, do accept that it must be locally led.

This interview was conducted on March 3rd by Megatrends Afrika researcher Lena Gutheil, s a research associate with the German Institute of Development and Sustainability (IDOS). Lena  works on urban governance, citizen participation and civil society organising. She contributed a chapter on how CSOs practice organisational autonomy at the community level to the above-mentioned edited volume.