George McLaughlin

29 September, 2015

Civil Society Partnership Review: reshaping our work with CSOs

DFID CSPR civil society partnership review

It’s been a busy summer! Since our Secretary of State, Justine Greening, launched the DFID Civil Society Partnership Review in July we’ve been listening to the views of civil society organisations: those we fund; those we don’t; those we talk with regularly; and even some we hadn’t heard of before. The Review will establish how DFID can have a more effective, strategic relationship with civil society and will define our future objectives, approaches and instruments for our partnership with civil society. Engagement so far has focused on our five lines of enquiry. I am grateful to the International Civil Society Centre for providing this opportunity to share with you some of the emerging themes from our discussions over the summer with civil society. I also want to acknowledge the fantastic work Bond have done in supporting engagement in the review.

The Review’s outcome won’t be business as usual. We want to build on what we do well together, but we also want to incentivise real, sustainable transformational change in the development sector. The Review is not yet finished, so it would be premature to fully predict the outcome, however, what we do know is how we work with civil society in the future will change. And it needs to change to respond to the issues the International Civil Society Centre and others have been highlighting for some time. There are a range of significant landscape changes, including: global patterns of poverty and growth; agreement of the SDGs; changing patterns of representation and organisation; opportunities brought by technology; shifts in patterns of financing; and a wider diversity of actors engaging in the sector.

Compartmentalising CSOs into ‘northern’ or ‘southern’, ‘international’ or ‘national’ is unhelpful. If an implementing partner can help the UK meet its development objectives, has the leadership and capability to deliver transformational change and has genuine legitimacy, what does the badge or label we allocate it matter? However, selecting the right partners, particularly ones we have not worked with before, carries risk. So, we are considering some challenging questions. How should we assess, manage and mitigate these risks? How do we assess and calibrate leadership, capability and legitimacy? How do we build better partnerships between new and emerging actors to genuinely shift power and influence? How is the adoption of new ICSO business models, including the expansion of ICSO federal approaches, contributing to this and is it happening quickly enough?

If we really want transformational change we need to refocus, to shift from short term project thinking and siloed partnerships. We are considering how to shift focus to the outcomes we want to achieve, embrace systems thinking, and incentivise and facilitate collaborative approaches between organisations to deliver this. With the agreement of the SDGs we have a unique opportunity to do this. A key consideration now is how can we develop more strategic partnerships that deliver genuine transformational change and deliver the SDGs – and is the sector up for this?

We’re talking about refocussing our civil society partnerships to better deliver for UK taxpayers and for people in developing countries. And it’s not all about money. We’re keen to ensure our engagement on policy is more focussed, strategic and efficient. For this reason, we’re keen to take the positive experiences of effective co-working between DFID and CSOs, for example on the SDGs through the Bond Beyond 2015 UK coalition, and look at how we can reframe our partnerships and funding around thematic issues.

The Review will conclude at the end of November, when we’ll set out our overall approach to working with civil society, how we will engage and what new funding instruments we will put in place. Engagement on the themes emerging from discussions on the lines of enquiry will continue during October. I’m keen to hear your views, ideas and advice.

Feel free to leave a comment on this post below.
Twitter: @DFID_inclusive 

  1. vernhughes29 September, 2015

    Civil society is not an instrument for the achievement of government objectives, or the objectives of any other external entity. Civil society exists for its own sake, for the benefits to be gained by individuals, families and groups in associating with each other, voluntarily, without compulsion or coercion.

    One of the principal threats to civil society today comes from widespread acceptance of this instrumentalist approach for the achievement of external goals, be they development goals, or domestic government service delivery, or ‘training’ in democratic citizenship. Voluntary association for mutual benefit and service to others preceded democracy, and persists in varying degrees when democracy is ‘suspended’. Civil society does not exist to ‘train’ people for democracy. It exists for its own sake.

    In development, the relationship between donors and civil society has become highly problematic. Reform of this relationship is long overdue, and the DFID review is welcome. What is clear, though, is that transformational change in the aid system cannot be generated by the industry itself, but can only come from individuals and organizations who are without vested interests in “business as usual” or the stalemate it generates. INGOs are too conflicted to lead a reform agenda, or propose a new framework to donors. We need a new framework that is generated by, and accountable to, civil society rather than the aid and development industry.

    DFID could do the following. It could allocate funds solely to civil society organisations that are authentic creatures of civil society, with a civil society culture. Authentic CSOs might be defined as those that meet three criteria:

    a. are independent entities with an independent history (not created by governments or INGOs or aid contractors);
    b. have civil society-based governance; and
    c. are not donor-driven in their mission or management.

    This is a broad enough framework to allow for considerable diversity in CSOs, but it is sharp enough to enable an urgent debate to take place about reform. There are a vast number of nominal CSOs that currently receive aid donations who should not, in this framework, continue doing so.

    1. Rhianon Bader29 September, 2015

      Hi Vern,
      Thanks for joining the discussion. Your perspective on CSOs and three criteria are definitely thought-provoking.

      I’m curious if you believe there any INGOs out there that you think could also be considered “Authentic CSOs”, and thus examples of the framework you would like to see?

      Rhianon Bader
      Communications Coordinator / Disrupt&Innovate

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