Competitive grant making has been a go-to approach for many donors as a way to promote fair distribution of resources, and inspire innovation among aid organizations. But a recent report by the U.K.’s aid watchdog argues direct grant making may be a better and more cost-effective option when it comes to promoting empowerment locally.
The report explored the Department for International Development’s support toward community engagement and government accountability via support to CSO advocacy in Malawi and Ghana. In it, the Independent Commission for Aid Impact said DfID-supported programs such as the Kalondolo program in Malawi — whose focus is more on improving public service delivery rather than lobbying for change in government policies or budgetary reforms — are showing “promising results” and “is more likely to deliver practical benefits in the short-run.” But there’s been “little evidence” showing improvements in government accountability resulting from the donor agency’s support for the advocacy work of CSOs.
“We observed a few examples of successful CSO campaigns on specific issues. We also saw examples of service-oriented CSOs being pushed into advocacy, even where this was clearly not their strength. We sawlittle evidence that these programmes were likely to contribute to ‘transformative social and political change’ over the short or medium term,” ICAI argued, although it stops short of recommending that DfID stop its support for CSO advocacy.
The report added: “While it is not certain that donor support for CSOs can prevent this happening, building civil society capacity to campaign for reforms and alert the public to emerging problems may still be a worthy use of the development budget. The objectives, however, need to be clearer, more realistic and more specific to each country context.”
DfID’s lack of clearer and more realistic set of objectives are issues that the watchdog raised in previous reports.
DfID employs a range of funding options to CSOs that include both for advocacy and delivery of goods and services. In Ghana, it has both competitive and managed grants. But the donor has yet to introduce the same set up in Malawi.
ICAI recommends for DfID to focus its support on social accountability programs — or those that address inefficiencies or problems in the delivery of public services and development programs — as this is an area that government agencies show interest and can therefore facilitate more engagement and improved performance. DfID should also focus on a “limited number of the most promising candidates” instead of pushing more “CSOs into advocacy roles.”
“Both programmes [STAR-Ghana and Tilitonse] should consider allowing established, high-capacity organisations with strong risk management systems and track records of successful project implementation to graduate to core funding, in order to consolidate and scale up their approaches,” although ICAI also recommended that DfID make use of external audits to know whether its chosen grant-making approaches are working and properly implemented.
Devex reached out to several Malawian NGOs for comment, but they have not yet responded as of this writing.
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