The Two Main Challenges Facing African Civil Society Organizations



The U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit concluded last week and the delegations have returned home, but conversation about U.S. engagement with Africa still continues in DC. Two weeks ago, on the eve of the summit, CIPE and Freedom House initiated a dialogue on advancing political and economic freedom in Africa and on Wednesday, CIPE and the Society for International Development-Washington, DC Chapter concluded summit events with a discussion on African civil society and its sustainability by bringing together civil society practitioners. The discussion revolved around possible solutions to two main issues civil society is facing in the developing world: a dependency on donor funding and draconian laws restricting civil society.

The panelists included: Lars Benson, Senior Program Officer for Africa at CIPE, Jeremy Meadows, Senior Democracy Specialist for Bureau for Africa at USAID, and Natalie Ross, Program Officer for the Aga Khan Foundation, USA. The discussion was moderated by Richard O’Sullivan, co-chair for the SID-Washington Civil Society Workgroup.

Donor Dependency

Civil society often struggles with a dependency on donor funding which hinders sustainability, distracts from their missions, and encourages a short-term strategy of chasing funds. As organizations face a global decline in donor funding, the issues of dependency and unsustainability only grow in importance.

USAID’s most recent CSO Sustainability Index for Sub-Saharan Africa found that “difficult economic environments due to the global financial crisis impacted CSO resource availability in almost all of the countries” included in the index. In an effort to ensure financial stability, organizations have a tendency to focus their energy and attention on finding more funding rather than focusing on implementing their mission. Lars Benson advised that CSOs need to “avoid mission creep and resist seeking pots of gold.”

But in an era of shrinking donor budgets, how do we ensure civil society becomes more independent and self-sustaining and safeguard CSOs to guarantee their existence once donors draw back or leave? New models of blended finance can help ensure institutional independence such as dues, fee-for-service activities, donor and private sector grants, endowments, and cost-risk-sharing partnerships. Natalie Ross suggested moving away from a model of organizations being sustained by grant money for grant-specific activities and instead shifting to a model of investing to create local trust funds that will sustain organizations.

Benson spoke of the importance of seed-funding organizations to make them self-sustaining, rather than funding them only for specific activities and projects. He used the example of Voice of Addis, a former CIPE partner in Ethiopia that raises awareness via radio programs about issues affecting the business community in Ethiopia. After CIPE provided seed funding for the organization, Voice of Addis is now self-sustaining through advertising revenue and private sponsorship.

Benson also shared an example of a CIPE partner in Thailand, the Institute of Directors, who created an anti-corruption code of conduct known as the Collective Action Against Corruption Declaration. They persuaded member companies to sign the declaration and pledge to take tangible steps to reduce corruption – and these companies were kept accountable in their pledge.

The Institute subsequently provided fee-based training programs to member companies on anti-corruption and ethics. They also developed and implemented an audit process on compliance programs for their member companies and charged for the service. This cooperation formed a mutually beneficial relationship for both the private sector companies and the Institute of Directors. Private sector companies could prove that they were committed to anti-corruption and therefore more easily attract international investment, and the Institute of Directors developed a new revenue stream while advancing their mission.

“Compliance can be a competitive advantage for business and a way to partner with NGOs,” Benson said. Jeremy Meadows noted that the restriction of foreign funding is an opportunity for local civil society organizations to move towards self-sustainability, but it also reduces access to potential seed funding.

Meanwhile, Ross stressed the need for local, community philanthropy. Local civil society focuses too much on external funding, she said, and Western donors should encourage local organizations to look for local support. This requires ensuring that a local culture of philanthropy exists, however – something that donors should consider and work to encourage.

Donor dependency not only hampers the financial sustainability of organizations but also diverts resources to fulfilling donor requirements. Benson observed: “We need a cadre of civil society leaders – not people who can manage grants.”

Natalie Ross stressed that there is a need to build the assets and capacity of CSOs. “Sustainability isn’t just funding. We also need to build institutional capacity.” Benson highlighted two training opportunities which seek to build institutional capacity: CIPE’s course on non-profit management, Developing Sustainable Civil Society Organizations, which trains managers to prepare their organizations for long-term viability and financial security, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Institute of Organization Management, which CIPE helps international partners emulate in their home countries.

Hostile Legal Environment

The second major challenge civil society in the developing world faces is a growing backlash of draconian laws against civil society organizations, as host governments increasingly view CSOs as foreign-funded agents of opposition and seek to thwart their influence. As USAID’s CSO Sustainability Index for Sub-Saharan Africa reports, “In many of the countries…CSOs – particularly those engaged in advocacy or human rights work – face significant and often vague restrictions on their operations.”

Benson observed that we’re seeing a shrinking of civil society space as many CSOs are seen by governments as opponents instead of partners. Meadows supported this observation by saying that CSOs need to “shift from confrontation to collaboration.” They shouldn’t go to the government with problems and complaints, he stressed, but rather come with solutions.

Ross added that civil society organizations need to have systematic relationships with the government to have success when working with the government on laws. Meadows noted that there’s a relationship between civil society, the public sector, and the private sector as they all play a role in society. Benson added: “The sectors aren’t independent silos. Each sector has its own function but are working on the same problems.”

The important – sometimes overlooked – role of civil society is noted by Don Eberly in The Rise of Global Civil Society: “The health of a republic is dependent on the vitality of civil society and the voluntary actions of the people. Perhaps no other system of government on earth has made a greater effort to balance the powers of the state with those of the market economy and of civil society. This balance of interests and sectors can be represented as a three-legged stool: one leg represents the market, another the state, and the third is the social sector, consisting of families, neighborhoods, places of worship, professional guilds, and civic associations. Each leg of this stool must be firmly in place in order for a stable, well-ordered society to function.” For this reason, there can and should be a symbiotic relationship between civil society, government, and the private sector.

As the political and economic landscapes continue to shift, donors and civil society will need to actively work towards creative solutions to guarantee that this third leg of the stool remains “firmly in place.” We need to ensure local organizations remain strong, operating under financially and institutionally sustainable models and within legal environments that enable them to flourish.

For further resources on the strength and viability of civil society, panelists suggested the following: The International Center for Not-for-Profit Law, the CIVICUS Enabling Environment Index, the CIVICUS Civil Society Index, and the Johns Hopkins University Center for Civil Society Studies.

Ryan Musser is a Program Assistant for Africa at CIPE.