The international development community should support local civil society organizations.

It’s hard to think of a less controversial statement. Civil society represents the voice of the people, and by supporting civil society organizations, it seems like the development community helps ensure that voice is heard.

But what if our development funding actually undermines the very civil society we seek to support?

We assume that, with the provision of funds and capacity building, we help enable civil society organizations (CSOs) hold national governments and international institutions accountable for the rights and needs of otherwise marginalized constituencies.

The scale of funding for local civil society groups is significant. In 2011, the last year for which comprehensive statistics are available, Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), donors provided more than $1.3 billion in direct funding for CSOs in developing countries. Much of that money was allocated to the “governance and civil society sub-sector.” This number is only increasing. According to a 2013 OECD report: “Current research indicates a growing interest in providing more direct support to CSOs in developing countries.”

However, international support for local organizations often has a heliotropic effect, re-orienting these groups away from their own constituencies and toward the donor community. Funding is, after all, like a drug. The greater percentage of an organization’s budget that derives from international donors, the more attention that organization will pay to those donors.

Over time, this becomes the donor resource curse—as CSOs gain funding from outside, they have less need to develop or maintain a strong base of support within their own societies. As a 2012 study of Norwegian foreign assistance suggests, “easy access to funding easily creates artificial and illegitimate organizations.”

Sometimes it seems that the development community’s capacity building and funding has created a generation of civil society leaders adept at speaking our language—or at least mirroring our language. According to a recent report by David Booth, the director of the Overseas Development Institute’s Africa Power and Politics Programme: “At local levels, the reserves of volunteerism and dutiful community service that used to exist have given way to an almost universal hunger for ways to access different forms of ‘development rent’ … [often] civic groups that get funding from development assistance end up with no members.”

Furthermore, international funding helps inflate civil society salaries—to the point where the most talented and capable people often choose to work for NGOs instead of national governments. And while we aren’t advocating for volunteerism, it is important to recognize the extent to which funding can distort local salaries.

Capacity building is not an end in and of itself. Too often, we define success in terms of capacity building workshops held or the number of CSO members trained. Instead, we should focus on whether funding is allowing an organization to better represent and grow its domestic (or international) constituency.

At the same time, we should be ready to invest in the difficult, long-term process of speaking directly to groups that already have a large constituency of popular support but often disagree with us on important issues. This includes, for example, religious or customary organisations. These groups have the least need to learn our language or kowtow to our beliefs; they do not require our funding. We need to learn to make common cause where we can, while reserving the right to disagree when necessary.

We also need to be aware of our limitations. First, we are often ignorant of the political alignments between civil society and state elites who, as is the case in the West, are sometimes essentially one and the same. The romanticized vision of civil society acting as an autonomous and non-partisan counter-balance to the state is rarely reflected in reality. This vision, almost by definition, is impossible to create from the outside.

Second, we must accept that foreign funding often leaves local organizations open to the charge of representing Western interests. In its 2012-2013 Global Trends report, the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law speaks of the “significant trend, observed in all major regions of the world, towards the increased imposition by governments of restrictions on NGOs’ funding sources, particularly when such sources are foreign-derived … ” If we support CSOs to engage in what is fundamentally a political role, we should not be surprised when repressive governments, which are often the targets of their advocacy, react in the ways in which they do. In other words, we cannot escape politics.

Third, and on a related point, we need to be open about the fact that some of the groups we fund lack a popular basis of support in society. Sometimes, as is the case of LGBT groups in Uganda, we support CSOs because of our own moral convictions. This does not make our funding or the groups we support illegitimate. It is the right thing to do. But it is foreign interference. (Foreign interference is not, of course, limited to Western donors—it’s also apparent in support for anti-homosexual social movements from Western churches or the many forms of Western backing for dictatorships that limit the very space civil society needs to flourish.)

Fourth, we need to understand that our engagement is worth much less than we assume. As James Ferguson explained in his book The Anti-Politics Machine, “Indeed, the only answer to the question, ‘What should they do?’ is: ‘They are doing it!’” We shouldn’t assume that civil society actors need our help to be effective; they already understand the context and know what needs to be done.

In a globally connected world, civil society actors import ideas and norms, and then shape them according to the local context, significantly blurring the simplistic distinction between foreign and indigenous, fabricated and authentic, or illegitimate and legitimate. But at the end of the day, all politics are local. We are not arguing that civil society must be isolated to remain pure, but that civil society must represent a domestic constituency to be relevant.

Finally, we need to accept that our simplified views of civil society are fundamentally patronizing. We need to recognize the distorting effects of our support while being honest about our limitations. Until we accept civil society as it is, not as we wish it to be, our funding will be for naught.

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