Abracadabra: Funding development

Jenny Hyatt

‘Abracadabra … was the incantation used to remind the Kabbalists of the power of their speech. Abra comes from the Aramaic verb bra meaning to create. Ca translated to “as”. Dabra is the first person of the verb daber, “to speak”. In other words, abracadabra literally means “I create as I speak”. Magic!’

William Isaacs, Dialogue and the Art of Thinking Together[1]

We have no magic. However, we are working with donors to engage them in deeper levels of thinking about their practices and those of their peers and to help them create new levels of understanding about how best to support change and development in diverse contexts through dialogue.

The dominant development paradigm

In Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) and the Former Soviet Union (FSU), the dominant development paradigm for many foreign funders has been ‘transition’ led by US democracy assistance thinking, as Tom Carothers has so eloquently described.[2] The Freedom House survey Nations in Transit (2001), for example,  ‘offers a series of signposts that facilitate comparisons of the direction and state of political and economic transition among the states of CEE and the FSU’. The notion of ‘signposts’ suggests a movement marked, in this case, by indicators of democratization, rule of law and economic liberalization. The paradigm thus appears to be based on a set of values about ‘acceptable’ (Western) standards and an understanding of change as a rational-analytic process whereby standards can be achieved incrementally. On the ground, it can be traced from USAID’s Democracy Network Programme to the EU’s acquis communitaire for accession countries.[3]

The transition paradigm takes little account of context, cultural differences, existing value systems or the nature of social relationships. It begins from ‘what should be’ rather than ‘what is and could be’. For example, much donor attention has focused on good governance and cooperation within third sectors. But how do these sit within, say, a Romanian context where Ceaucescu undermined the bases of trust between people (even at the family level, where informing on family members was rewarded) and cultivated a system based on personal connections and spaga (bribes)? In this environment, Western models of good governance and cooperation can be viewed as imposed artificial constructs – ‘what should be’. By contrast, work over time with foreign and indigenous funders to build the Romanian Donors Forum, based on recognition of mutual interests, worked with ‘what is’ and modelled the joint construction of ‘what could be’.

The shortcomings of funding within the transition paradigm are evident at both micro and macro levels. At micro level, we recently heard a group of ‘local’ consultants describe their frustration at taking NGOs through an assessment exercise, based on US indicators of capacity to perform, which led some NGOs to make changes that actually impeded their ability to work. At macro level, extensive work on improving democratic practices has not led to increased trust in formal political systems – as evidenced in growing disaffection from state institutions and processes in many parts of the region.

An alternative development paradigm

There are funders, however, who have worked within a different development paradigm. They were more aware of the need for local vision and ownership; they understood the importance of exposure to other models of thinking while allowing the direction of change to be determined locally; they were prepared to live with greater uncertainty of outcome; they placed emphasis on relationship-building and trust. They were able to see their environments as living, open systems which organizations are ‘part of’ rather than ‘responding to’, and where intervention in any part of the system will affect it all. These funders tend to view change as a journey of mutual discovery.

While this framework often conflicts with pressures to spend, it reaches deeper levels of social relationships and attitudes. In the words of Erich Jantsch, ‘In life, the issue is not control, but dynamic connectedness.’[4] The last decade in CEE/FSU has shown the importance of donors being ‘dynamically connected’, considering and being explicit about their values and their understanding of change and development. Let us look at some further aspects of working within this paradigm and its impact on the ground.

Development through dialogue

‘Dialogue is a conversation with a center, not sides,’ wrote William Isaacs.[5] ‘It is a way of taking the energy of our differences and channelling it toward something that has never been created before. It lifts us out of polarisation and into a greater common sense, and is thereby a means for accessing the intelligence and coordinated power of groups of people.’

Let us look at how many donors have approached the building of civil societies. Much of the focus in the early 1990s was on developing infrastructure without, perhaps, questioning sufficiently its connection to constituency. Hence, the golden age of the resource centre. Over time the emphasis has moved to mobilizing people and resources.

Yet, throughout, has too much attention been paid to supporting organizations per se rather than looking at how they enable the processes, relationships and values that underlie civil society to be developed? Funders are often constrained by their statutes to fund NGOs, but do they engage in sufficient dialogue about what to focus on, how to work, and with whom? Is there scope for broader dissemination of good practice about effective dialogue on development processes in the region? For example, the Allavida/Workshop for Civic Initiatives Foundation programme in Bulgaria, which has worked with groups of local people to help them identify realizable changes they can make in their communities; helped them put together costed plans; and provided small yet realistic sums of money to enable them to realize these.

Development as politics and power

Funders tend to be shy of the words ‘politics’ and ‘power’. Yet how else can we interpret the support to, say, the Citizens Campaign OK 98 in Slovakia and the Zajedno (Together) coalition of Yugoslav NGOs? Can support to FSU countries be viewed outside the context of their geopolitical significance? Can the EU’s and USAID’s programmes for Roma be seen independently of concerns about asylum seekers and security issues?

Funders who recognize their power and are wise to the politics of their funding practices tend to attract respect. Two small examples with larger significance. In Poland, a local partner of a large US training programme wanted to adjust the programme to better meet the needs of trainees. They were told to comply with the plan or face withdrawal of funds. By contrast, in Yugoslavia a US private funder engaged a local foundation to look at different ways of stimulating community processes. The foundation subsequently consulted on these and developed a joint programme in collaboration with another local NGO. Abracadabra!

Development as risk

Funders need some level of safety; they too are accountable. But to what extent can funding be restricted to the familiar? Those funders who have been able to ‘think outside the box’ have seen remarkable results. This came home to the Board of the Balkan Community Initiatives Fund when considering an application for a series of public initiatives around stray dogs in a town in Vojvodina, Serbia. The Board was sceptical. However, listening to the Yugoslav Grants Committee it became clear that stray dogs were a real problem on which people could work together. Through this they will inevitably learn as much about community processes as they would through supporting, say, a local orphanage.

Development as relationship

‘Notice’, wrote Petruska Clarkson, ‘that we are always in a dynamic relationship with the whole and with ourselves – that nothing exists outside of relationship.’[6] The region has seen some remarkably effective partnerships both between funders and between funders and grantees. The Environmental Partnership Romania, the Carpathian Foundation and the King Baudouin Foundation are currently working on stimulating community development through a ‘Living Heritage’ programme. The Institute for Democracy in Eastern Europe’s collaboration with Civic Initiatives in Yugoslavia on the ‘Breaking Barriers Building Bridges’ initiative is an effective partnership between NGOs and foreign funders. Such partnerships are based on mutual interests and resources, joint conception and planning, regular review, flexibility and, above all, trust.

Development during crisis

The region has witnessed considerable trauma in the last period, not least in the break-up of the former Yugoslavia. Conflict and crisis present opportunities for building capacities of local actors and agencies. Lessons could have been learned from Bosnia Herzegovina (where an NGO activist from Sarajevo remarked ‘We have been taught to implement foreigners’ programmes under foreigners’ rule; now we have to learn to listen to the needs of our communities’). Yet it appears they were not.

Lessons could have been learned from Kosovo (where an NGO worker commented, ‘Now we are experiencing the second occupation. We are now told that the work we were doing with rural women during Serb repression is to be refocused and that there are places that we may no longer work’). Yet it appears they were not.

How can we engage local NGOs and community groups as partners during crises and post-conflict and so build capacity to respond to future crises? One example, perhaps, is the Balkan Community Initiatives Fund (BCIF), launched during the NATO bombing of Serbia and Kosovo. This provides small grants to grassroots initiatives geared to building local capacity for action, mutual understanding and tolerance.

Development as legacy

Many of the larger bilateral and multilateral agencies working in the region have tended to focus on creating structures to deliver their funds and programmes rather than building indigenous grantmaking capacity. Their language has been that of ‘intermediary support organization’, ‘roll out’ and ‘close out’. This, at best, raises questions of what they wish to leave behind?

Others have worked in a different way to help build indigenous grantmakers that understand the value of accountability and transparency, foster a culture of giving in their communities, and create frameworks for donor dialogue and cooperation. While the examples are not numerous, they are significant and would include grantmakers like Children of Slovakia Foundation, the VIA Foundation in the Czech Republic, the Stefan Batory Foundation in Poland and the Environmental Partnership Foundations. Perhaps one of the few criticisms that can be levelled at these enlightened foreign donors is their over-optimism about how long it takes to build a domestic culture of giving.

Yet it is not only through their funding that grantmakers build indigenous capacity but also through their own practices – building trusting relationships with grantees; providing long-term and graduated core support; giving funds that match an NGO’s capacity to absorb; getting small amounts of money to genuinely grassroots initiatives. Most funders with these practices have had close contact on the ground and it is they who have most influenced the thinking of the growing cadre of responsible indigenous grantmakers.

Development for perpetuity?

An underlying assumption of much funding in the region has been that once something has been created it should exist in perpetuity. The cryogenic school of funding appears to believe that all NGOs have a right to survival – which is interpreted as preservation through financial sustainability. There are fewer who recognize that it is possible (and sometimes healthy) for NGOs and informal groups to achieve what they set out to do and then close. This would be the case for many of the environmental and youth actions that the region has seen.

Survival, perhaps, needs to be based on Darwinian principles – with those who respond and adapt best to their environment (rather than the ‘fittest’) surviving. If we view NGOs and informal community groups as vehicles for meeting sets of needs and interests (their environment), the question then becomes whether they are addressing them effectively – with finance, at best, a second issue.[7]

Development as responsible departure

The decision to exit a country or field of funding is a difficult one for many funders. Arguments for exit tend to be more related to competing demands elsewhere than to a strong sense of  what ‘the finished job’ (in terms of effective change and development) might look like. In EU accession countries, many have used the cloak of EU funds as a cover for leaving without looking too closely at what this really means for NGOs, the majority of which are not well placed to attract EU funding – particularly those that may act as advocates for the interests of local communities in the lead up to accession. There are notable exceptions to this – Rockefeller Brother Fund’s exit from Central Europe was one.[8]

Development for difference

Funders are naturally concerned to make a difference, but how do they view difference? If they work from a model of prescribed outputs and outcomes, then they tend to teach the art of box-ticking rather than meaningful self-evaluation. Working on an EU-funded programme to develop educational evaluators in Poland, for example, about a quarter of our time went on reporting how all predetermined outputs had been met and explaining any ‘variance’. This is not magic, nor yet intelligent science.

Those who understand development as an emergent process, which is fundamentally about learning, may be more satisfied with indications that they have contributed to changes in thinking. They may also be comfortable with the notion of ‘attribution’ – that it is not they alone that make the difference.

In an era marked by setting standards, ensuring controls and insisting on paper accountability, there is little space for experiment and learning from experience. Perhaps the major difference between those who fund prescribed outputs and those who fund reflective practice is that the latter don’t look for markers of transition, they simply enjoy the journey. Magic!

1 William Isaacs (1999) Dialogue and the Art of Thinking Together Doubleday.

2 Thomas Carothers ‘The End of the Transition Paradigm’, Journal of Democracy, Vol 13, No 1, January 2002. See also Carothers (1999) Aiding Democracy Abroad: The learning curve Carnegie Endowment.

3 The protocol of standards and practices which EU accession countries are required to meet before entry.

4 Erich Jantsch (1980) The Self-Organizing Universe Oxford: Pergamon.

5 See note 1.

6 Petruska Clarkson, ‘Consulting in conditions of uncertainty’ in Neumann et al (eds) (1997) Developing Organizational Consultancy Routledge.

7 Jenny Hyatt (2000) The Quest for Sustainability: A work in search of process The Development School.

8 RBF undertook a significant review of their presence in Central Europe in relation to initiating programmes elsewhere. They left responsibly and ensured that their major partners had time to adjust rather than simply making an exit grant.

Jenny Hyatt is Director of The Development School. She can be contacted at

The Development School is an NGO which promotes the art of effective social development practice through learning programmes, dialogue and research with practitioners, funders and policy makers.
Over the last ten years all of
us who are associated with the Development School have observed donors
at work in various regions of the world, either directly or with their
grantees. We have been fortunate, therefore, to encounter multiple
perspectives on funding practices in the CEE/FSU region. This article
focuses on what we have learned there.

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