How donors can help civil society become more effective

In this post, written with DFID in mind, but also relevant to other donors, I argue that donor support for civil society has two distinct, but related strategic components: support to civil society in providing services which help meet the donor’s goals; and support to the emergence of a permissive environment for sustained civil society action. Both are important, and can be mutually sustaining – though not automatically. All of a given donor’s sectoral and geographically-defined strategies can and should integrate both components, while recognising they are not the same. Finally I examine four funding instruments in terms of their appropriateness.


DFID is reviewing its approach to civil society, seeking ways to ensure its approaches are optimal in supporting civil society operate effectively. I work for International Alert, a UK-based peacebuilding organisation, and long-term DFID partner and grantee, and offer these thoughts from that perspective. This note responds to questions and issues raised in DFID’s consultation headlines, but without following DFID’s precise format. Because we feel DFID already knows plenty about what works well, and less well, from current practice and from its current and past support for civil society, this is intentionally written as a conceptual piece, rather than an argument for more funds for Alert’s work. To avoid making it too long, I have avoided including lots of practical examples.

What is ‘effective civil society’?

Many years ago when working for another NGO, colleagues and I defined what we meant by ‘effective civil society’. Paraphrasing our response:

‘Civil society is when two or more people come together to promote or resist change, on their behalf or on behalf of others. This can be a temporary or permanent, informal or formal arrangement. What makes it ‘civil’ is that they act without violence and with respect for others, and that they are non-governmental, not limited to a family, and not-for-profit. They are ‘effective’ when they succeed in either resisting or promoting change – i.e. in shaping the future, in small ways or large.’

Since then, I have kept this in mind as a useful, practical definition of effective civil society. It seems to recognise the more arcane definitions emanating from academe, while remaining simple and practical enough for the strategic and operational purposes of a donor or international NGO (INGO).

It covers a wide range of ‘organisations’, from a local poetry society, a women’s savings group, a farmers’ club, the Mother’s Union, chambers of commerce, trades unions, development and human rights NGOs, a group of friends clubbing together to raise funds for a good cause or clean up rubbish from their local streets, a mosque or temple or church, the Anglo-Syrian Society, the Chartered Institute of Civil Engineers, INGOs, to a myriad others. All these and many others being good examples of the non-business/non-family/non-governmental mechanisms for advancement (aka progress, aka development) and resilience in and between societies.

What’s also critical to note is that an ‘effective’ (often known as ‘vibrant’) civil society is fundamental to any society’s capability to provide for its members’ needs and meet their aspirations, guide and hold its political and economic leaders and power-holders to account, and to embody the complex web of interactions between and among people and peoples, and between people and the state, which is such an essential feature of resilience in the face of political, environmental, social or economic shocks. Civil society can counter-balance other nodes of power and agency within the political economy; represent diverse interests, voices and aspirations between and across different levels; provide certain services; act as a safety valve; and identify, argue for and put into practice non-violent (civil) solutions to problems. Any organisation interested in promoting development, peacebuilding or humanitarian response anywhere, therefore needs to know how it will complement and exploit civil society’s capability, and reinforce it, alongside other capabilities in business, politics and government.

Civil society in humanitarian, development and peacebuilding strategy

‘Effective civil society’ appears in humanitarian, development and peacebuilding strategies in two different, but complementary ways:

  1. As a goal, as in ‘a more effective civil society, able to represent diverse interests peacefully and influence government’s policies and society’s discourse on issues of importance for peace, development, etc.’
  2. And secondly, civil society is a useful channel for humanitarian, development and peacebuilding actions and projects, not all of which can or should be done by governments, families or businesses: i.e. to promote ‘good’ changes, and resist ‘bad’ changes. This is a particularly important channel in cases where agencies lack confidence in government’s capacity or intentions, or where – as in many parts of Syria today – government services are simply unavailable. But in every society, there are places, people and issues which government simply can’t – or shouldn’t try to – reach.

Sometimes, these strategies overlap almost completely: for example, a civil society organisation (CSO) which promotes women’s equality may be a vehicle for development and peacebuilding actions; and a society in which women can and do organise freely and legitimately is likely to be a more ‘effective’ society than one in which they can or do not.

But this overlap is neither automatic nor complete. For example, if civil society channels are used to implement peacebuilding or development activities (strategy 2), especially if they are funded by ‘western’ governments or interests, this may lead to a backlash by those in power, and result in a closing down of civil society space (i.e. a negative result for strategy 1). Indeed, this is one of the reasons for the current phenomenon of ‘shrinking civil society space’ that is being reported in far too many countries these days.

In any case, creating an environment open to diverse civil society activities and free association (strategy 1) might be as much about improving education levels and incomes, as about promoting freedom of association as such.

So DFID – or any other external agent of change – should aim to summarise its relationship to civil society in developing and fragile state contexts, in terms of both strategies, recognising the overlap as well as the distinction between them. Broadly, therefore, it should aim to identify, for a given context:

  1. How to support progress towards a society in which people are allowed and encouraged to organise freely and legitimately, and collaborate effectively as civil society; and
  2. How to support and strengthen the capacity of CSOs to promote humanitarian actions and progress towards development and peace, seen more broadly, i.e. taking into account economic, welfare, justice, security and political aspects of progress.

It is worth noting that in most contexts where the first of these is most relevant, DFID will be under pressure from those in positions of power not to push too hard – or not push at all. Certainly, strategy has to be developed specifically for each specific context.

Generically, however, one can identify in broad brush strokes that DFID’s support for civil society in any given context is likely to address both of these aims, by:

  1. Developing – and/or supporting the development by others – of context-specific theories of societal change, mapping pathways towards a situation of increased freedom and openness for collaborative civil society actions.
  2. Building the results of this analysis into all its programming in those contexts. In many respects, seen from the outside, DFID’s country (or regional, or sub-national) programme may not look much like a ‘civil society support’ programme. It might, say, be made up of education, infrastructure, peacebuilding and private sector development strands.
  • The education component might inter alia focus on how to create the platform for a more informed and sceptical public (surely an essential of effective civil society), through curriculum development and teacher training. It might also provide for greater involvement of communities and parents in school oversight, as a way to increase civil society involvement in government programmes, thus creating new habits of citizen–state engagement.
  • An infrastructure development programme might engage civil society in discussions about the choice of which infrastructure to build, or how to go about it. Or – given the DFID country strategy focus on reinforcing the long-term effectiveness of civil society – it might determine that focusing on improved internet connectivity rather than road-building is a more appropriate investment for improving the kind of open communication civil society evolution needs.
  • A peacebuilding programme component might encourage dialogue between ‘divided’ peoples about a more collaborative use of common (or disputed) resources, and then support their plans with capital and training.
  • A private sector development component might emphasise support to chambers of commerce, professional associations, or sectoral business lobby groups (all these are civil society organisations, though not always seen as such).

And DFID’s overarching strategic sectoral choices in a particular context might themselves be determined by the opportunity to promote civic activism, rather than by their apparent priority as basic needs. For example, water and sanitation programming might be dropped in favour of education programming, on the basis that (in the context in question) education is likely to yield greater benefits for civic freedom.

3. By supporting national and local civil society organisations to fulfil a variety of useful functions and services not necessarily connected to ‘more effective civil society’, ‘freedom’, or ‘openness’.

  • In repressive societies, especially with a strong suspicion of outside interference, these programmes might have to focus on traditional service delivery sectors – water, health, savings and credit, humanitarian action, etc. – as this is less controversial.
  • Often it makes good sense to spread the net more widely, and identify some of Edmund Burke’s “small platoons” – the societal and community-based organisations – which provide so many of the critical and often unnoticed functions in any society.
  • And in other places, it is possible to focus on more politically awkward functions: anti-corruption and transparency scrutiny; advocacy for human rights; etc.
  • It seems likely that technology will continue to play an important role in service delivery and ultimately also in facilitating openness and collaboration, so support for technology innovation will be critical.

The good news is that supporting any civil society mechanism can have outcomes which go beyond service delivery, and motivate those involved to take further steps to mobilise for or against change. Even those focused solely on simple service delivery can become politicised out of frustration. They may, for example, be motivated to advocate for a more effective policy environment for the service they are delivering (e.g. changes to the healthcare regime, better management oversight of schools, or better market and inputs infrastructure for agriculture), or being inspired to advocate against corruption when they see how it undermines the value of the services they are providing. And thus, by supporting the delivery of services through local CSO channels, DFID can inspire and mobilise CSO leaders and staff to become activists; and allow them and others in their environment to become used to civil society activism which mobilises for change without unduly threatening the short-term interests of those in power.

4. By programming more explicitly in support of greater freedoms and more effective civil society. This includes supporting changes to legislation or regulation, to improve the openness of society; providing training and other forms of support to help civil society to mobilise on the very issue of shrinking civil society space. In this, DFID and other external actors need to take care they do not overstep their role. Civil society space needs to be won by civil society, and not ‘granted’ by external donors using their financial influence over the government to argue on civil society’s behalf. Civil space which is ‘granted’ can all-too-easily be taken back when it becomes inconvenient to those in power; whereas civil society space which is ‘won’ is less susceptible to this as it is embedded/enwebbed within resilient society.

5. By supporting civil society functioning internationally. One would also expect to see DFID pay attention to the cross-border and international aspects of civil society. For example, business groups linked to commerce, and diaspora groups, can both be a vehicle for improved international relations between societies, and a critical vehicle for the exchange and adoption of ideologies and norms of freedom and collaboration.

6. By integrating civil society into its sectoral strategies. DFID has sectoral expertise across a wide range of issues: humanitarian action, women and girls, gender, private sector, climate change, reproductive health, education, etc. Each of these should also establish at a generic level how DFID’s sectoral interventions, including its policy influence, interact with and contribute to the two civil society strategies.

These are merely generic headings. What’s important is that DFID’s strategic intentions explicitly reflect both the difference and complementarity between support to/through civil society, and the creation of a sustainable enabling environment in which civil society can thrive. All the above approaches need to include a healthy dose of ‘accompaniment’, so that the programmes in question:

  1. Remain flexible enough to include civil society entities (perhaps the smaller ones, perhaps the temporary ones, perhaps the less formal ones, perhaps the less easily visible ones, perhaps not the ‘usual suspects’ – and certainly not confined to the classic CSO or NGO model) as and when they become visible, or become more relevant as the situation evolves or the DFID programme becomes better informed, or when new ideas about programming emerge.
  2. Include opportunities for civil society entities to access advice and/or capacity-building (through training, peer-to-peer visits, study visits, and other means).
  3. Remain flexible enough to be able to resource unplanned opportunities which emerge: for example to support a health service delivery implementing agency to add an advocacy component as the need and desire for policy change emerges.
  4. Include relevant measures in their monitoring and evaluation plans, of whether and how they advance the possibility and actuality of civic activism; and monitor the emergence of lessons learned and innovative approaches which can be disseminated and fed into decision-making by DFID and its many collaborators.

Funding instruments

Because of the need for ‘accompaniment’, DFID has a choice to make. It can provide this itself, which means scaling up its own staff numbers, but this seems unlikely in the current or likely UK political climate. So project-by-project funding through and to CSOs, and to the important but even less visible forms of effective civil society cooperation, seems less and less like an option for DFID.

Or, it can fund civil society through pooled funding models with other donors in specific countries. These have the merit of providing clear, agreed guidelines and goals, which can be designed around sectoral goals and/or protecting civil society space, and by pooling donor funds they can achieve economies of scale in terms of their ‘accompaniment’ role. These have, however, tended to be problematic: they are often beset by rigidity (because all the donors have to agree, staff have limited room for manoeuvre), and by tortuously slow decision-making cycles, and tend to favour the ‘usual suspects’ – those NGOs which have the capacity to deal directly with such organs and their proposal/reporting approaches, which are coloured by ‘western’, often ‘anglo-saxon’ cultural biases.

A third model is to fund CSOs through contracts to development implementation companies in the private sector. This contracts out the transaction costs, including accompaniment, but this model has the same pros and cons as the ‘pooled funding’ model above. Contracting companies tend to focus their due diligence assessment of grantees on tick-box organisational criteria (e.g. how does the board of trustees function?), not on whether the potential grantees can innovate, are agile, and can operate effectively within civil society or have relevant political influence. Nevertheless, this model can be effective if the envisaged civil society role is merely ‘implementation’ of an agreed, timebound plan.

A fourth model is the strategic funding model, in which a strategic grant is made to international organisations (singly or in consortia), in support of a broadly defined set of goals but without budget line item accountability. This can focus mainly on support to civil society as a channel for services and actions, and/or on protecting and opening up civil society space. The advantage is that the primary grantee can respond to opportunities as they occur, and provide the accompaniment services referred to earlier, while reporting back against pre-agreed indicators and objectives. Because the primary grantee is a public values-based NGO, rather than a profit-oriented company, and because the grant combines clear goals and M&E with openness and flexibility, this encourages responsible adaptation rather than rigidity. Ideally, in this model, the grantee has a relationship with the technical department of DFID most concerned with the focus of the grant. (In our case, mainly security and peacebuilding.) Arguably, this model is most appropriate for multi-country programming in support of a broad set of goals, needing substantial accompaniment and a flexible, context-responsive programming approach. Programming on peacebuilding and good governance in particular come to mind. Alert’s current strategic grant from DFID has allowed us to develop an approach to working on the vexed and difficult issue of helping people in fragile contexts reduce the harm done by organised crime – something of importance to many donors, in which we would have had difficulty investing, without some flexible funding. But strategic funding can be relevant across any sector, as this kind of model allows the intermediary NGO to invest in learning and the dissemination of learning to others in its sphere of influence, and this will be of particular importance during the coming decade, during which a great deal of innovation caused by the combination of technology, transitional societies, and unmet expectations and needs.


As a leader in international development, representing a nation well-known for its own civil society traditions, DFID should certainly continue to support civil society’s engagement, in all of its many layers and networks, and to support the emergence of permissive environments for dynamic and sustained civil society actions. It should integrate these two goals into all of its geographic and sectoral strategies and approaches, making this explicit across the board. And it should tailor its funding instruments to what they are designed to achieve, rather than tailoring what it wishes to achieve, to the funding instruments it prefers.