Albert ArhinBy guest blogger Albert A Arhin.

Civil society has been pivotal in driving political change as well as development in many countries. But the world is rapidly changing. Once-poor countries such as the MINTs (Mexico, Indonesia, Nigeria, Turkey) are increasingly seen as emerging economic giants. In those as well as many other countries, a new middle class is growing. However, social and economic inequality is also growing in many rich and poor countries alike.

Aid architecture is also changing. As a PhD candidate at the University of Cambridge, I have conducted an exploratory study examining the views of NGOs in my home country of Ghana on the changing aid landscape and the resulting challenges, opportunities, and implications for civil society sustainability in a rapidly changing development context.

The study, conducted with Prof. Emma Mawdsley, found a perceptible feeling among Ghanaian NGOs that their sustainability remains threatened in the long term. Funding support from the traditional donors is usually dwindling, many other (traditional donors) are retreating, while ‘new’ philanthropic and corporate donors from the rising powers (as well as from wealthier countries) are often sidelining NGOs. There is also an imbalance between funding for service delivery versus funding for advocacy activities.

Recently, I participated in a panel discussion about these issues at the 14th EADI General Conferencein Bonn, Germany. The panel was convened by INTRAC Executive Director Michael Hammer and entitled Civil Society Sustainability in a Polycentric World: New Roles, Challenges and Responsibilities.

In my part of the discussion, I spoke about some of the ways NGOs are responding to these challenges, including by setting up commercial wings, building new alliances and networks, and trying to build up their credibility and policy-influencing skills.

David Lewis, a professor of development studies at the London School of Economics, put forward that one possible route for civil society organisations to become sustainable, both financially and in terms of continuing to be a source of new ideas, is for the third sector to become knowledge brokers as well as activists by forging new forms of partnerships and linkages between NGOs and researchers.

Heike Spielmans, director of VENRO, the German international development NGO network, argued that a shift from development cooperation towards international cooperation as a new paradigm holds much promise for the sustainability efforts of civil society organisations. She called for new ways of thinking and understanding development as key to this move.

Michael Hammer tied the major themes of the panel together using perspectives from two INTRAC projects: Civil Society at a Crossroads and the Civil Society Support Programme in Ethiopia. His key message was that civil society organisations are at a crossroads and require new investments, tools, and capacity to engage with the change in circumstances, as well as to engage effectively with government actors.

Michael also argued it takes quite a long time, often going beyond budget and project cycles, to build the capacity of civil society organisations. He said there is always a tension between capacity building and the drive to spend funds as part of short-term projects.

During the lively discussion that followed the presentations, a number of key questions were raised. These included:

  • What does sustainability mean? Is it just about sustaining organisations or the outcomes of interventions? How best can the tensions between the sustainability of organisations and the sustainability of the outcomes/projects of change be resolved?
  • Are typical NGOs the main drivers of change, or more the angry young people facing daily marginalisation and lack of opportunity? What can the former do for the latter? Can we learn from history and look at cycles of civil society organisation development in the past?
  • How do donor dynamics and policies influence the sustainability and roles of national NGOs in particular? How and to what extent does donor support challenge the independence of civil society at local levels?
  • How does the discussion on civil society’s sustainability capture the diversity of groups other than NGOs?
  • What roles can the emerging middle class play in sustaining the efforts of civil society?

These questions could serve as opportunities for further investigations and research to better understand the dynamics of civil society sustainability.

The takeaway from the discussion is that the context – in terms of countries, policy landscapes, funding support, leadership, capacity – will always be decisive in how influential civil society organisations are and how they operate. However, despite the conceptual and practical ‘turbulence’ of the changes in the world economy and aid dynamics, civil society will always remain fundamental to social progress.


Guest blogger Albert A Arhin is a PhD candidate and Gates Scholar at the Department of Geography, University of Cambridge. His research focuses on REDD+ policy processes in Ghana with a particular focus on the role played by different actors and the diverse pathways for (not) achieving transformational change in the forestry sector.