‘Funding local’ has been a bit of a buzz word the last few years as the global development and humanitarian communities work towards being more inclusive and implement ‘locally-led’ programmes. One of the issues that needs urgent clarity if the debate around what ‘inclusive’ means in practice is to be settled is to understand the role of civil society, particularly local NGOs and community-based groups, and what responsibility the international community has towards ensuring that they can effectively play that role.
Recently there has been discussion – initiated by civil society – about the need for funding to go directly to NGOs, rather than be channeled first through proxies such as international organizations and larger international NGOs. There have been discussions around why it doesn’t happen, such as in CIVICUS’ ‘State of Civil Society Report’ and follow-up op-ed . In fairness, I would have to say that the reasons that donors appear to give for why they don’t fund local civil society are weak at best, including lack of capacity to fill in donor forms and spend money effectively; lack of donor administrative capacity to manage small grants, and the need to channel money through a few, trusted partners in order to manage risk and comply with internal rules. In my opinion, if you want to talk inclusive and locally-led, you lead by example rather than giving weak excuses about challenges that are easily overcome. For example, create a department or section that deals solely with grants to local NGOs and community-based groups. Have modified handbooks that accomodate the limitations of local civil society groups. Design simpler forms for that express purpose. By having a section or department (or individual based in an embassy) dealing with local civil society grants you have more or less overcome a) administrative challenges, b) accomodated local capacity gaps and c) have policies and procedures in place for risk management specific to civil society grants.
However, while it is easy to see why much of the discussion gets hung up on these issues, I don’t believe this is the root of the problem. We need to focus on what type of funding donors are giving and what they want. So much of what is funded in humanitarian and development programming – indeed, the vast majority – goes towards government service delivery. And this makes sense as human development is very much centered on the type and quality of services that people receive. This is the responsibility of government. Civil society cannot really play a role in institutional service delivery unless it’s through public-private partnerships with local governments, and that is not what we’re discussing here.
Local civil society has a key role to play when it comes to building community resilience to climate change and conflict, in ensuring the transparency and accountability of both government and the private sector, and working together with government and communities to advocate for and raise awareness of important social issues such as public health, early childhood education, domestic violence and environmental protection, lobbying for new policies and regulations, among many, many others.
Sometimes the problem really boils down to the fact that we view civil society and local government as competitors, not as essential partners. The international community doesn’t design funding strategies from the point of view of government-civil society mutually reinforcing partnerships. To overcome the animosity, it is passed time that this become a necessary practice.
For example, in response to the op-ed by CIVICUS Secretary General Dhananjayan Sriskandarajah (above), Jennifer Lentfer from Idex, International Development Exchange, dicusses just how important the role of civil society is in complementing and reinforcing to role of (local) government:
‘Effective local organisations are embedded in the communities they serve because of their proximity, both physically and socially, to local people. They are locally rooted institutions that have vital expertise in the interpersonal and caring relationships in people’s everyday lives. When a storm hits, violence breaks out, or a case of abuse in a family is discovered, local groups snap into action to make sure people are safe and cared for. As the first responders in a community, grassroots organisations are best situated to get help to those who need it most.’
For effective, sustainable development that results in equitable, peaceful and resilient communities, the international community needs to adjust their funding strategies from ‘either-or’ to ‘mutually-reinforcing partnership.’ Neither government nor civil society can achieve sustainable development on their own, and in order for donors funds to be effective, efficient and result in sustainable impact, funding both actors – funding partnerships – is almost the only option. There is too much at stake with near out-of-control crises in the form of conflict and climate change bearing down on us to be sitting around dicussing why we can’t do something when there is really no reason why we shouldn’t.