By Emmanuel Kumi

This is an extended version of a piece originally published in the August 2020 issue of the INTRAC newsletter. Subscribe today to receive new issues in your inbox.

Currently, many INGOs are being forced to consider ending their relationships with partners. This is partly due to the impact of COVID-19, which has placed a major funding strain on many INGOs. In my work with civil society, sustainability is a key focus. I am particularly interested in the smallest CSOs such as community-based organisations (CBOs), which are considered to have the ‘closest relationship’ with the communities and intended beneficiaries they serve. Seeing local organisations like these find ways to support themselves in ensuring their sustainability is what motivates me. Because of this, I consider INGOs ending their partnerships to be a good thing – particularly over the long term.

Today, many small CSOs are dependent upon the financial support of international organisations. This produces a tendency for them to take their survival, and development, for granted. Without predictable external funding, Southern CSOs have to find new and alternative income sources such as domestic sources. These could include corporate philanthropy, volunteering, faith-based giving and government funding. My research has found that a reliance on external support has caused Southern CSOs to neglect this search. My research on CSOs’ resource mobilisation over the years in Western and Eastern Africa has shown that a reliance on external support has caused Southern CSOs to neglect their search for alternative resources.  In Ghana, the vast majority of organisations are reliant on external, rather than local income. This can lead them to operate as if their development is not their own responsibility, but that of external donors. This is not in their long-term interest, or that of the communities they serve.

The dependence on external sources of income also has implications for civic space. Many CSOs that are dependent on external donor funding have been accused of furthering the interests of their donors due to their resource dependency which makes them accountable to donors rather than intended beneficiaries and communities they claim to serve. For this reason, some governments have, under the guise of promoting the accountability and transparency of CSOs, introduced restrictive policies that seek curtail their access to external donor funding.

For instance, in Ethiopia, foreign-funded CSOs are accused of serving the interest of donors and at the same undermining national sovereignty. The imposition of restrictive laws therefore undermines the local legitimacy of CSOs through negative public perception, distrust and suspicion especially for foreign funded CSOs. This negatively affects the ability to mobilise grassroots support for their activities, hence eroding their public legitimacy which is a critical resource for opening up civic space.

It is clear that if INGOs break off funding relationships in an unplanned way, it damages the sustainability of their partners. Their survival is sometimes put at risk. For this reason, consideration of sustainability is critical to good exit planning. With it, Southern CSOs can become better able to mobilise resources domestically.

Already, COVID-19, the related economic crisis and the prospect of funder exits is a major disruption for CSOs. Yet the potential for a positive long-term transformation is real.

Emmanuel Kumi

Domestic resource mobilisation helps to make CSOs genuinely independent. It enables them to make their own decisions, and to take responsibility for their own development. If CSOs draw resources, at least in part, from communities they serve, it will help them to be more responsive to local needs. No longer will an external INGO set the agenda, only because they provide the resources. However, the extent to which local resources are available varies by context; but while these sources such as volunteers, corporate and faith-based giving as well as giving by high-net worth individuals are smaller, they do exist. Often, it is precisely because of the dependence on funding from INGOs that local CSOs tend to think that local sources are not present. Over the long term, these resources can be of great significance for the sustainability of CSOs facing the exit of INGOs. All of this ties in to the #shiftthepower movement – CSOs should be in a position to make their own decisions. Securing their own domestic sources of income is crucial to ensure this.

At the same time, we must recognise the capacity needed to secure local sources of support. As part of exit processes, INGOs should help their partners to look at local philanthropy. Many local groups are also working on social enterprise, but do not necessarily have the skills to do this effectively. Where possible, INGOs should offer training to their partners in these areas, in order to help them adapt to the new environment. For instance, Change the Game Academy/Wilde Ganzen Foundation in partnership with the West Africa Civil Society Institute (WACSI) have been training Ghanaian CSOs in domestic resource mobilisation. Therefore, a combination of the right skills with local knowledge can help to produce more sustainable organisations. This is not just about financial resources, but also has to do with relationship building and ultimately improved collaboration.

Already, COVID-19, the related economic crisis and the prospect of funder exits is a major disruption for CSOs. Yet the potential for a positive long-term transformation is real. The current crisis is the kind of disruption that can trigger organisations to think in a different way. It is inevitable that some of them will not survive, if they become deprived of resources. But if supported to adapt, those that remain can emerge stronger and better able to achieve their mission than before.

Three ways that INGOs can minimise risk their local partners during exit

1) INGOs should leave behind a good legal framework. INGOs should make a clear aim to strengthen sustainability of their local partners. This is made difficult by short-term funding arrangements, and so some INGOs also will fail to think this through.

2) INGOs should help local CSOs to look out for sources of local resources and philanthropy – they should help CSOs to build their capacity to undertake this search.

3) INGOs should provide support to local CSOs in their adaptations. For example, lots of local groups are working on social enterprise but are do not necessarily have the skills to do this effectively. They should be helped to adapt to a new environment. This is something that we are not seeing at present.

Emmanuel Kumi is an experienced researcher and development practitioner with over 10 years working experience in the field of civil society financing and resource mobilisation. He is based at the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology, Ghana. He contributed to the new report “Collaborating for Effective Social Activism in Ghana” published by WACSI.

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