Managed grants: A more cost-effective option for local empowerment?

    Chipiliro Musowa, a nurse working for U.K. aid-supported nongovernmental organization Banja La Mtsogolo talks to a village community about the benefits of family planning in Malawi. Department for International Development-supported programs such as the Kalondolo program in Malawi show "promising results," according to a report by the Independent Commission for Aid Impact. Photo by: Lindsay Mgbor / DfID / CC BY-NC-ND

    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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    About the author

    • Jenny Lei Ravelo

      Jenny Lei Ravelo is a Devex Senior Reporter based in Manila. She covers global health, with a particular focus on the World Health Organization, and other development and humanitarian aid trends in Asia Pacific. Prior to Devex, she wrote for ABS-CBN, one of the largest broadcasting networks in the Philippines, and was a copy editor for various international scientific journals. She received her journalism degree from the University of Santo Tomas.