Rethinking the Resourcing of Civil Society

Nov 1, 2017 by David Jacobstein Comments (0)
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David Jacobstein is a Democracy Specialist with the Bureau for Democracy, Conflict, and Humanitarian Assistance's Center of Excellence on Democracy, Human Rights and Governance (DCHA/DRG).

I've been involved in support and strengthening of civil society for my entire development career, and throughout that time, the thorniest challenge has been how to try to enhance the sustainability of our partners in country. Local civil society organization (CSO)  leaders are generally experts in a technical area and doing good work, eager to get on with it. In my experience, their Northern donors (both USAID and implementing partners managing subgrants), usually select and fund them for what they can accomplish, and try to tack on resource mobilization as an extra dimension of a project, especially when the project reaches its last year or two of funding. It has always been a challenge in terms of attention - both ours and theirs. Plus, realistically, the prospects for local sources of funding to replace donor project funding are limited in most cases. As a practitioner, I applied myself to this challenge where I could - through fundraising training, use of cost-share requirements, supporting institutional development of partners, and the like. Though it rarely worked well, it helped a little, and I considered it just a part of the terrain.

Over the last couple of years, I've been exposed to some interesting streams of thought such as systems thinking (reflected in our Local Systems Framework as well as the Program Cycle), and lots of learning around evolutions in the field of capacity development (synthesized in the USAID ADS Additional Help on Local Capacity Development), as well as multi-donor conversations on the topic of community philanthropy (through Global Alliance on Community Philanthropy). These discourses have really challenged my prior way of thinking. I now believe that we can achieve much better outcomes in how we support local civil society to resource and sustain themselves, through a greater clarity in thinking through what that means, and through some related adjustments in how we partner. And much better ways of partnering help us to meet the new ADS 201 principle of local ownership and sustainability—after all, little says that work is locally owned as strongly as local resources being made available to sustain their efforts.

Attached to this post are a set of tips for how to improve the way we partner with civil society. What's useful is that this doesn't require a different project purpose or activity concept - it's not about doing something different instead of your planned partnerships with CSOs to achieve USAID objectives, it's just about being a better partner along the way. I've also put forth a comparison of two ways of using the same set of tools—one as we typically see in our programming, and one as it could be to better align with what we know helps build the sustainability of civil society. Do you have similar ideas? I'd love to learn about any examples of tools, adjustments, or approaches you have witnessed or used that reflect the ideas in the two attachments—post in the comments!

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