Philanthropy can help lead the way in shifting international humanitarian and development funding to local and national organizations. African civil society organizations will be an important part of this shift.
African CSOs have long been calling for this change and have valuable perspectives that can help shape this process as private, bilateral, and multilateral funders chart their paths to localizing their giving.
For the most part, the localization discourse is dominated by money – what percentage should be allocated and to whom. Yes, money matters and real concerns must be worked out, such as how smaller groups can satisfy the compliance required by some aid agencies. But the answer is not to funnel funds through large in-country organizations that already have the necessary back-end operations. Nor is it to scale organizations – creating new African ‘unicorns’ that resemble international NGOs – so they can absorb millions of dollars each year.
Rather, localization should centre on scaling impact. Many organizations stay small and focused so they can better serve their communities. Localization must meet African CSOs where they are. Our data from CSO surveys across the continent show that many effective groups operate with a small staff and a modest annual budget, relying on volunteers to do much of the work.
But we also know that the collective impact of small organizations can be big. The challenge is how best to aggregate their efforts so that their contributions gain visibility and momentum. Through partnerships, groups are able to continue their work, remaining true to their missions while contributing to a bigger unified vision such as reducing gender-based violence or improving educational outcomes. For example, philanthropic support has enabled the Regional Education Learning Initiative (RELI), a network of nearly 80 groups (reaching some 98,000 teachers and 3 million students), to learn from each other and to engage policymakers and parents to improve instruction and inclusive learning in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda.
However, in the African CSO sector, the spaces and incentives for collaborations and partnerships are few. Organizations often do not know about each other, even when tackling similar issues in the same locality. Yet their strong desire to connect with each other and form alliances is something we hear consistently in our extensive interactions with African CSOs. A weak CSO ecosystem results in fragmentation and lost opportunities to achieve bigger impact.
Infrastructure equals impact
In parts of the world where the philanthropic sector is well established, civil society is bolstered by infrastructure that supports philanthropic and nonprofit organizations. In the United States, for example, Candid offers services that, among other things, help CSOs to learn and build capacity, connect to funding, and help donors to improve their grantmaking. It is one of several organizations that collect data on the sector and its impact, which enables groups to advocate for supportive policies. Also a part of the ecosystem are services offered by banks, auditing companies and recruitment agencies, among others, that specialize in the nonprofit sector. In Africa, this is just beginning to take shape, and localization can help it take root and grow.
A critical piece of infrastructure is data and knowledge about the African CSO sector. Without it, the impact of the sector remains limited and invisible. We need basic data on who’s out there, where groups are located, what they do, who they serve and who funds them. In what ways do they – and the sector as a whole – contribute to their communities and countries? In mid-2023, EPIC-Africa will launch an online African CSO platform with a database of thousands of African CSOs at its core. It will produce data-based actionable insights on the sector and enable CSOs to find and connect with each other and with funders. The platform vision is to strengthen, transform and reposition the role of African CSOs in the broader development and philanthropy ecosystem.
As we learn more about the sector, new vistas open up. We can understand where an organization’s particular strengths lie, and how best to support organizations – individually and collectively. Data can reveal where there are opportunities for partnerships or if an organization is ready to sustainably scale its operations and impact. Greater knowledge will lead to the development of services and tools based on evidence and grounded in local reality, content that is often lacking in many capacity-strengthening approaches. At a time of shrinking civic space in many countries, data and knowledge of the sector can help CSOs articulate their impact and make the case for better policies.
EPIC-Africa’s effort is one part of the solution. A healthy ecosystem needs many actors working on different aspects. Thus we welcome complementary efforts being advanced by, among others, the African Philanthropy Forum, Adeso, and the East African Philanthropy Network, with its new data portal. Meanwhile, TrustAfrica and WINGS have brought together dozens of philanthropies, nonprofits and academic institutions to strengthen philanthropic infrastructure organizations in West Africa. Momentum is building, and we invite others to join us in creating and supporting this ecosystem.
Effective infrastructure is central to effective localization. Ensuring the success of this shift in resources has the potential to make good on something African CSOs have long been voicing: money must follow good ideas that are grounded in Africans’ lived reality and local contexts. And our funding relationships must be grounded in dignity, equity and trust.
Rose Maruru is the founder of the Dakar-based EPIC-Africa, which seeks to enhance philanthropic impact by filling critical data and capacity gaps in the philanthropic market infrastructure in Africa.