When Donors and CSOs Meet: Accountability as a Lever for Change

By July 1, 2021 NMedia

Elisa Lopez and Bao Tran Le, Secretariat, Global Standard for CSO Accountability

June 28, 2021

In 2019, a CIVICUS report revealed that only 6% of funding for civil society from OECD DAC countries goes directly to Southern-based CSOs. The statistics reflect the huge power imbalance and structural inequality within the civil society sector. As the COVID-19 pandemic accelerates the conversation around power shift, many are currently acknowledging how the current top-down structure affects CSOs’ resourcing options, diversity (or lack thereof), impact and resilience. In this sense, donors too are looking for alternative ways to work and build equitable relationships between themselves and their CSO partners.

With the premise that dynamic accountability, when embedded in organisational culture and enabled by the actors within the sector, can support to systemically shift on how powers are played – the Global Standard for CSO Accountability partnership in the past month has been convening dialogue sessions where donors and CSOs can come together to discuss the role of accountability in transforming the donor-grantee relationship. More specifically, the conversations centred on how we can support each other to further ensure that accountability is not a tick-box exercise, but instead using it as a process through which we co-design, allowing each actor to play their role efficiently and shift the power towards the people they serve.

Through the two sessions so far, Powershift in Practice and Support Mechanisms for Civil Society Resilience, we would like share the following key takeaways:

1. It is important to recognise that donors and CSOs work towards the same goals. As we proceed with our efforts in changing the current structure that shapes the sector, it is pertinent to share and exchange our experiences, understanding how our actions influence each other, and ultimately how the sector works. While it may be easy to consider donors as a sector of their own , it is important to emphasise that both donors and CSOs work towards the same goals. It is in our solidarity and collaboration as horizontal and accountable partners that we will be able to perform in a more effective way to bring people at the core of our work.

2. CSOs have the capacity and knowledge relevant to their context, and donors must facilitate the environment to put it into practice. Over the years, the assumptions and negative perceptions regarding local  CSOs’ capacity has been rightfully disproved. By donors readjusting their language and ways of working to fit with the diversity of capacities, they can further facilitate the implementation of locally owned knowledge-based solutions. Thus, CSOs and donors should shape actions and strategy together, giving agency to communities of what success looks like.

3. As a sector, we need to be transferring resources to restore power. Currently, there is an imbalance of power within the civil society sector; many Southern-based CSOs lack the appropriate resourcing/spaces to be able to directly and collaboratively build initiatives with their communities despite having the knowledge and expertise. Here, it is important to note that resources go beyond funding, and it includes less tangible forms like expertise, knowledge, who tells the story or sets the rules, and more.

4. Donors see the need to be investing through the modality of equal partnership. Through long term, multi-year investments that target core functions of CSOs, donors can establish more equal and horizontal partnerships, centering around trust. More importantly, localised, long-term, people-oriented, flexible and agile grants will be more adequate to respond to people’s needs, support the sustainability, diversity and proliferation of civil society in the countries that donors invest in, strengthening civic voices and democratic rule. Also, in starting the chain as equal partners, there is a likelihood that the same positive pattern would be replicated downstream, enabling for CSOs to establish equal partnership with their communities and stakeholders.

5. CSOs need heavy due-diligence to be leveled. Of course donors need to find out if their CSOs partners hold the same values and have the right processes in place, however currently the heavy due diligence process is eliminating many capable CSOs from entering into partnership with donors, hampering diversity in civil society .

Dynamic accountability mechanisms like the Global Standard can be a key instrument that is used to benchmark the accountability of CSOs. As a global reference standard that is built through local and grassroots consultation, the Global Standard enables donors to gauge the way an organisation works through a framework that is adapted to the local context and co-created with local organisations. Around the world, CSOs and networks are adapting and contextualising the Global Standard to be suitable for their localities, maintaining a high set of standards and values while being appropriate to CSOs and their communities’ needs.

6. The discussion highlighted the need for donors to step away from tied aid, enabling for CSOs to choose partners who are local, that aligns to their values, and who are acquainted and experienced in their context to direct strategy and programming, providing legitimacy to the actions carried out and moving away from foreign interest. Untying aid also supports CSOs to get better value for money when it comes to procurement, transferring more resources toward benefiting communities.

7.  Donors could do more to enable the environment for CSOs to self-define their own civic space. Civic space must be naturally and organically realised. In order for that to happen, donors should take a role in enabling but not directing the types of programmes that CSOs run. Through facilitating the environment CSOs to put in place dynamic accountability mechanisms, donors can establish trustful relationships, knowing that CSOs’ values and actions will align with both the communities’ and their own.

Another key step in supporting the diversification and resilience of a civic space is enabling CSOs to self-regulate. As civil society requires independence (but not without collaboration) from governments and other power holders in order to play their role effectively within democracy, investing in CSOs capacity to self-regulate and benchmark in a way that ensures integrity without interference to raise people’s voices and needs.

8. Embracing positive Narratives enabling the environment for CSOs to exercise a different kind of accountability that focuses on meaningful relationships and putting people at the core of decision making processes, CSOs can reach their full potential and the value of the sector will be recognized by engaging more with all stakeholders meeting them where they are at.

The Global Standard as a reference framework can enable a common language for donors and CSOs to meet each other on a common ground. As dynamic accountability becomes embedded in organisational processes, donors can become more trustful of CSOs’ actions. Additionally, in embedding dynamic accountability into CSOs’ work, organisations become more community owned as they actively seek for the participation and involvement of their constituents in decision making processes.

The Global Standard as a reference framework has informed many CSO-led national and regional codes of conduct or self-regulation mechanisms; such as in the Pacific, Albania, North Macedonia, Ethiopia, among others. Furthermore, in the Open Government Partnership or  in the European Commission, the Global Standard has already been recognised as a resource benchmark for CSOs’ accountability practices in the draft Guidelines for EU Support to Civil Society in Enlargement Region, 2021-2027.

Through our conversations, we got to learn a lot more about the perspectives of donors, highlighting how we can further collaborate to shift the donor-grantee relationship towards one that can actively support CSOs and civil society. In imagining a future, we need to consider how our actions, and processes can get us there. The Global Standard Partnership will be holding more Donor-CSO Dialogues in the future, and we look forward to exploring more on how we can expand our mutual understanding and collaboration for a more accountable civil society sector

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