How to make Western aid to local CSOs come without a burden

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan meet with local civil society leaders in Kabul on Oct. 20, 2011. What can Western donors do to mitigate the negative impact their funding bring to local CSOs? Photo by: US Embassy in Afghanistan / CC BY-ND

Western donor support to local civil society organizations can be vital, but what happens when it becomes a burden?

As U.S. and other aid agencies look to bolster their support for local partners, more thought should be given to how donors can mitigate the negative impacts that sometimes accompany their funding, according to Susan Markham, senior coordinator for gender equality and women’s empowerment at the U.S. Agency for International Development.

“There’s been such a push with USAID to have more local partners, but I don’t know if we’ve thought as critically about how it impacts them,” she said after a panel discussion on women, peace, and security in Washington, D.C.

Some of those impacts stem from the sheer burden of paperwork and procedures donor-funded organizations have to confront. The agency’s money can often triple the budget of a recipient, Markham explained.

“A small, grassroots organization all of a sudden has to understand how to fill out the reports to get this money from the U.S. government,” she said. That can mean new staffing roles and requirements, which can fundamentally change the way an organization operates.

NGOs that suddenly find themselves working in partnership with global institutions can struggle with their newfound prominence — and they risk losing touch with the grassroots support and organizational structure upon which they were founded.

“They sometimes become ‘the’ organization,” said Markham. “They become elevated.”

USAID, she pointed out is still trying to figure out how to empower local groups without burdening them — and this concern isn’t limited to just the agency or even U.S. development assistance in general.

Sanam Naraghi-Anderlini, executive director and co-founder of the International Civil Society Action Network, emphasized that Western funds — wherever they might originate — are often problematic for NGOs seeking to be independent of their governments.

“We’re seeing in the Middle East that if you’re foreign funded, i.e. Western funded, you’re being squeezed, and you have to go register ... If you’re being funded by Qatar and Saudi, you’re not. So it’s not foreign, it’s certain types of foreign,” she said.

That distinction is born out in surveys of U.S. perception around the world. America’s global image is the most negative in Muslim countries of the Middle East. According to the Pew Research Global Attitudes Project, in Pakistan just 11 percent of the population is favorable to the United States; in Jordan, 14 percent; in Egypt, 16 percent; and 16 percent in Palestine.

Diluting that stigma around Western aid is a particular challenge at a time when the Obama administration has identified the expansion of civil society freedom as a key development priority. The need for support — and the ongoing challenge of delivering it in ways that help, not hinder — the recipient organization or CSO has given rise to some creative solutions.

“You need other ways of getting money,” said Naraghi-Anderlini. “One of the things that we’ve been talking about for a while … is actually setting up an independent women’s peace fund.”

The idea, she explained, is to provide a source of money for women’s peace activism that isn’t associated with Western bureaucracy.

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About the author

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    Jeff Tyson

    Jeff is a global development reporter for Devex. Based in Washington, DC, he covers multilateral affairs, U.S. aid and international development trends. He has worked with human rights organizations in both Senegal and the United States, and prior to joining Devex worked as a production assistant at National Public Radio. He holds a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University and a bachelor’s degree in international relations and French from the University of Rochester.