Daring to invest in national consultants to strengthen civil society


Helen Mealins and Rick James


Pressure is mounting on the international community to ‘localise’, to move funding and leadership to the level where development really happens.

In places where civil society is constantly adapting to new opportunities and threats, access to local consultants to help navigate the context can make a huge difference to the effectiveness and impact of civil society actions.

Do we dare to invest in developing national consultants, based in the global south, so that they can support more sustainable and legitimate civil society organisations?

INTRAC’s world-wide experience shows that there is a chronic shortage of high quality consultants in many countries of the global south. This shortage is a constraint on developing a strong and vibrant local civil society.

And we are not the only ones to observe this. Speaking during a webinar on 14th November, Kathy Reich, Director of the Ford Foundation’s BUILD Programme, said that in some places where the Ford Foundation works the capacity building support that is available locally for civil society is weak.

Here, the Foundation often has to bring in external facilitators. We hear this same story time and again from those working in international development.

Meeting a growing demand for high-quality capacity development support is a central pillar of INTRAC’s strategy.  And now, more than ever, civil society organisations (CSOs) need help to adapt to new challenges and opportunities.

From 14th to 16th November 2017, INTRAC coordinated a webinar and online discussion forum as part of CIVICUS International Civil Society Week (ICSW). The event explored the changes required in relationships between organisations in the global south and international NGOs and funders to build up the viability and sustainability of civil society.

In the face of constant political and social flux, where space for civic action is increasingly squeezed – a situation starkly portrayed by the CIVICUS Monitor –  local organisations need to be more independent and credible to respond to rising inequality and discrimination.

Their legitimacy can be too easily questioned if they appear to be dependent on foreign funding and external influences.

The paradox, however, is that tackling today’s pressing global issues of poverty, conflict, migration, insecurity and climate change requires profound collaboration across public and private sectors, across national and international actors. Systems-wide alterations in attitudes and approaches are necessary.

Local organisations need to get better at saying no and at mobilising financial and political support locally for their actions, as webinar participants from various countries in the global south stressed.

International NGOs need to take a long hard look at their practices, and whether these practices stand up to their rhetorical claims about equal partnership. And funders need to be more flexible and creative in their granting, and look to build up the infrastructure upon which the civil society ecosystem depends.

INTRAC believes that if local and national CSOs are going to be able to deliver real impact then they need room to manoeuvre; they need to be able to navigate the political context, and be able to respond to opportunities for bringing about lasting change.

We know from experience that the effectiveness of CSOs often stands or falls on the quality of core functions such as leadership, governance, accountability, fundraising, strategic planning and relationship management. Very often they need help from outside their organisations to address weaknesses in these core functions.

Going local: how investing in local consultants to service civil society could help
Over the last 18-months, INTRAC has been running a pilot programme called Consultants for Change (C4C), funded by the Nama Foundation, in Lebanon, Occupied Palestinian Territories, Indonesia, Kyrgyzstan, and Tanzania.

It emerged from Nama Foundation’s frustration that it could not find high quality local consultants to provide much-needed capacity development for its grantees – exactly the problem highlighted by the Ford Foundation above.

The programme sought to increase the technical skills of local consultants to provide capacity development for civil society.

More importantly, it focused on the personal characteristics required to inspire trust and enable consultants to be compelling agents of change.

We believe that a local consultant, grounded in the context and culture, has a greater likelihood of inspiring the profound change required to tackle poverty, marginalisation and discrimination.

This is all the more important in challenging political contexts where trust is essential to building bridges between government, the private sector and civil society.

We therefore set out to champion ‘consultants with soul’. For us this means consultants who:

  • Focus on the change that is required, not the contract nor even the client’s satisfaction;
  • Ensure the client genuinely owns and drives the process;
  • Get to the heart of the matter, and engage with the inherently emotional elements of change;
  • Are their own best tool, honing their commitment and character, as well as their competence.

38 participants took part in the pilot programme from the five countries, 60% of them women. As part of the programme, the participants had to ‘give back’ a number of free consultancy days within their countries. In the first year alone they have worked with more than 200 local CSOs, whom they estimate to reach to 880,000 beneficiaries.

The signs are encouraging. Initial findings from an evaluation of the pilot programme attest to the personal and professional development of the participants, as well as their commitment to supporting civil society. This pilot programme has huge potential for adaptation and replication in other contexts.

For example, we are currently developing country-specific approaches for South Sudan and Saudi Arabia. A next step for INTRAC is to create a hub for C4C alumni in order to continue their professional development and maximise their contribution to lasting change within civil society at local, regional and international levels.

Investing in developing national consultants may seem a long way from helping the poorest of the poor, but quality consultants who can inspire change are a vital asset in strengthening civil society.

National consultants who know the context, speak the language, and are on-hand to provide follow through need to be equipped to take a stronger lead in supporting CSOs to adapt in turbulent times.

But to be trusted (and therefore effective) they also need commitment and character. We believe that greater investment in local consultants will encourage more sustainable and legitimate civil society organisations.

Helen Mealins is Chief Executive and Rick James is a Principal Consultant for the International NGO Training and Research Centre (INTRAC).

Comments (2)

Myriam Horngren

Really nice, innovative and inspiring piece, well done! I think one point this piece is missing, is the financial sustainability issue : being a freelance consultant in the North is already a struggle and a fun if hairy trip down financial insecurity. When you have possibly a large number of dependants (direct and indirect family for instance) depending on your work as I have often seen, at least in Western Africa, these paths are for the very few. Unless the whole funding for capacity building model changes at the same time as local talent mining and support takes place. Possibly what you are suggesting, but I think this is a huge block in the path for greater national capacity.

Teresa Crawford

Great to hear about the pilot projects. Couldn't agree more that this is a necessary component of a successful localisation agenda. What you are testing is not so different from what organizations such as PACT, Institute for Sustainable Communities, Counterpart implemented internationally and what groups such as NTEN, Compasspoint, Common Ground consulting developed domestically in the US with support from CS Mott Foundation, Rockefeller Brothers, W. Alton Jones, Microsoft. Local Consultant Academies, setting up local Intermediary Service Organizations (often nonprofits themselves), supporting eRiders or Circuit Riders as roving consultants has proven time and again to be a good investment to build out a local support ecosystem for civil society. The challenge remains the dynamics of the market to sustain this support system. Rarely do CSOs have easy access to the funds they need to hire these high quality consultants nor do they always have the skills to get the most out of the engagements. If they were companies they would be investing their profits or investors money into building up their infrastructure. CSOs rarely have access to the funds they need to invest in their foundational systems. Several solutions exist for this challenge: foundations, INGO funding partners and other donors can prioritize direct funding for these kinds of investments - building stronger organizations who can deliver on their missions (the BUILD model at Ford), they need to provide general operating support that puts the choice of what to invest in back in the hands of the CSOs and CSOs need to develop their own pools of unrestricted funds from training fees or other enterprises. Curious what the sustainability and funding model you think will make this approach successful?

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