Civil society resourcing: “Revolutions do not occur because of good project proposals”


Ine Van Severen


It’s undeniable: the space for civil society organisations (CSOs) and philanthropy is shrinking. According to new research by CIVICUS Monitor, an online platform that tracks trends in the conditions for civil society in countries around the world, 3.2 billion people live in countries where citizens’ freedoms of association, assembly or expression are restricted.

As part of this, civil society groups and CSOs are increasingly being prevented from receiving funding from foreign donors.At the same time, as CIVICUS’ 2015 State of Civil Society report has shown, the traditional sources of funds of CSOs have come under renewed challenges, with CSOs and groups working on social justice, human rights and good governance feeling the brunt of these challenges as the rhetoric of foreign interference and exceptionalism is peddled by leaders with undemocratic tendencies.

This has sparked a search for alternative resources for CSOs, such as local philanthropy. These challenges formed the backdrop on the discussion on the rethinking of resourcing of civil society by several panellists.

Small, informal and southern-based groups and CSOs have always faced a struggle to secure resources. As CIVICUS’ Secretary-General, Danny Sriskandarajah, pointed out, only one per cent of Official Development Assistance (ODA) goes directly to global south CSOs, while the power stays in the hands of a small number of actors, based in the global north.

The same applies in the humanitarian sector. Notably, despite shifts in the global economic landscape, philanthropy for social justice and human rights in the global south remains an area of unfulfilled potential. Alternately, according to one of the speakers, Degan Ali, Executive Director of African Development Solutions (Adeso), only 0.2 per cent of the US$25 billion annually spent on humanitarian aid goes to local organisations, and there is often no provision for overhead support.

What this suggests is there is a need to rethink the resourcing of civil society, in a way that empowers organisations, and grows them, instead of the current ‘projectisation of civil society’, in which CSOs focus on delivering donor-funded projects to obtain resources which in turn creates power imbalances between donors in the global north and project implementers in the global south.

The overreliance on project funding does not build institutions in a sustainable way, and does not lead to local ownership, as donor priorities often do not coincide with local needs. Accountability is focused towards donors instead of towards the people the CSO serves. CSOs dedicate substantial time to developing logframes, writing project proposals and reports, and measuring impact in narrow terms. An overreliance on financial resources through delivering projects leads ultimately to CSOs making compromises on their mission and vision.

One participant put it bluntly: “in the past, revolutions did not happen because revolutionaries were writing project proposals.” Revolutions, such as the Tunisian Jasmin revolution or the struggle to end apartheid in South Africa, did not occur because activists approached donors with project proposals. Rethinking civil society resources requires a more holistic approach, and one that is not focused solely on financial resources.

As was pointed out by Ambassador James Joseph, the USA’s Ambassador to South Africa, there are other types of capital that can be relied upon, such as social capital and intellectual capital. Civic activism can be strengthened through the sharing of knowledge, and the use of platforms and networks.

Community philanthropy provides us with an interesting alternative model, as it is locally rooted in the community, and close to the people it serves, making them better suited to identify the needs of the community. It creates a sense of co-responsibility and empowerment in the process: mobilising resources is also about engagement.

If we are to #ShiftThePower, as the Global Summit called for, all actors will need to rethink the current paradigm in order to achieve sustainable social change. This will require donors to be bold and break with their current practices, and civil society to broaden their resource base in creative ways, including by growing their local constituencies and engaging new and emerging philanthropic initiatives.

Ine Van Severen is the policy and research officer at CIVICUS.

Tagged in: Global Summit on Community Philanthropy

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