Incentivizing public funding to national and local CSOs: something not that impossible

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In a recently held seminar on accountability organized by Practical Action on behalf of ELLA, Evidence and Lessons from Latin America, a knowledge brokering and sharing network funded by DFID, I came to know the extents to which the Mexican Government is financially supporting local civic organizations involved in social sector. During the sessions, Miguel Pulido, CEO of Fundar, a leading Mexican think tank, shared his thoughts about pros and cons for a Mexican civil society organization in getting financial aid from the public sector (as a matter of fact, Fundar has a policy of not receiving funds from any governmental entities).

One of the major points highlighted by Miguel was the fact that, in order to exercise the functions of watchdog, especially in a sensitive sector like accountability and transparency, it is paramount not only preaching independent views but also ensure that any potential conflict of interests, for example receiving public grants, is avoided. This is absolutely understandable especially when an organization like Fundar makes accountability and transparency one of its central tenants of action.

Obviously this makes the organization vulnerable to criticisms related to the indispensible support it is receiving from international development agencies.

To be honest this is a pretty hard nut to crack. While understanding the obvious reasons to make sure that a public sector’s watchdog remains totally independent, here I would rather make the case about the importance for civil society organizations around the emerging world (formerly developing world) to establish stronger relationship with the state sector either at central or at local level.

Unfortunately in countries like Nepal, still we are a far cry from ensuring any type of programmatic and clear mechanisms for state agencies to support financially local civic organizations. I am sure that there are few exceptions in the health sector but generally speaking the entire NGO sector is reliant on external funding.

While this is not bad itself, unless we want question the entire existence of the external aid industry and we won’t, at least here, the fact that, thousands grassroots organizations are entirely dependent on external donors, either provided through international non state agencies (INGOs) or directly from external development partners ( bilateral or multilateral), should make us reflect.

The real issue here is that the current system does not help create a genuine collaborative working relationship between state and local non state actors.

Far from saying that no consultations mechanisms exist between the two sectors, the real breakthrough will come when the state agencies, at different level, will have a paradigm shift to understand that locally rooted civil society organizations are the better positioned to deliver essential and key social care service to local population. As far as things are now, this is totally unthinkable.

Not that I am here advocating for a quick departure of international development actors from the country (although there is vast scope to improve their working modalities) but the bottom line is that state, in its all different layers, does not have any incentive to work more closely with national and local NGOs.

Certainly, the time will come for national civil society organizations to fully take over the development sector (some national NGOs are already quite impressive in terms of achievements and impact) but in the meanwhile it will be key to find the political will to re-write the rules of engagement.

More precisely I see the following as potential “game changers”:

1) Make the Social Welfare Council independent also in the reality and in the practice with adequate funding based on a five year strategic plan. M&E should be the core business of the revamped entity. If it will not deliver in this way and I believe it will, let’s shut it down once for all

2) External Development Partners, also taking in consideration the mixed experience of Lgcp , should forge a new collaborative with the Government, possibly through a multi agency vehicle that includes Ministry of Local Development and all other key delivery agencies like Education, Health and Population and Agriculture. The same Poverty Alleviation Fund could be redesigned to be the secretariat of this new entity whose board would be composed by senior representatives of different state agencies and external development partners.

This collaborative would be exclusively aimed at funding pilot projects to be delivered by national and local organizations, creating a new way of doing development: not simply outsourcing but kicking off a development approach based on the concept of subsidiarity and ownership.

Basically this new set up would organize calls for proposal whose achievements will be monitored and evaluated externally and independently by the revamped Social Welfare Council empowered to independently monitor the performances of non state actors organization, either national and international.

3) Setting up new standards and code of conducts to be respected by the national and international non state agencies. Although not a panacea, these self prescribed standards, that should fully incorporate an active interpretation of RTI, could lead to setting up, maybe with external development partners’ support, something similar to a Charity Navigator, whose “vigilance” would be parallel and complementary to a strengthened Social Welfare Council.

I know I wish it could be that simple but it is not. At least external development partners could start having a thought about it.

Position: Co -Founder of ENGAGE,a new social venture for the promotion of volunteerism and service and Ideator of Sharing4Good

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