Opinion: Taking back control? UK reviews support to CSOs

U.K. Secretary of State for International Development Priti Patel visits Lokore dispensary in Kenya to see the U.K. support on health and nutrition as well as interact with health workers and beneficiaries. Photo by: Joy Odero / DfID / CC BY-NC

On Nov. 4, the U.K. Department for International Development finally published its Civil Society Partnership Review, which sets out parameters and goals for the department’s cooperation with NGOs.

In her introduction to the review, Secretary of State for International Development Priti Patel speaks warmly about these organizations as crucial “partners and allies.” She concludes that “civil society is facing unprecedented pressure, from violent attacks to attempts to close down the space for democratic dialogue and debate. The U.K. government, as part of its commitment to freedom of thought, association and expression, will stand alongside civil society against these encroachments.”

The NGO sector is still working to piece together exactly what Patel’s leadership will mean for their work and their sector. This review is a critical piece of the puzzle. Although there is some good news, the overall response may be quite lukewarm.

The review formally ends flexible, strategic support to the U.K. and international civil society sector. Each and all of the channels available to charities to access U.K. funding at country or global level in the future will now be restricted or project-style funding. Therefore, all global U.K. funding of civil society will involve government officials (or government-appointed fund managers) making an assessment and approving or not approving specific activities and expenditure proposed by the civil society organization in question. It’s hard not to be a little anxious about that.

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Patel’s introduction defending shrinking civic space would have been studied closely across the U.K. sector, perhaps nowhere more so than at Oxfam, angrily denounced by Patel in a Daily Telegraph article in June 2014 as “now nothing more than a mouthpiece for left wing propaganda”, based on a single tweet and poster they had run on U.K. poverty. Patel went on in the same article to call on the government to “review the taxpayer grants given to this organization [Oxfam].”

What greater illustration of the topsy-turvy world of U.K. politics over the past few years than the fact that now such a review has finally been published, and that it has landed with an introduction from Patel as DfID’s new secretary of state.

Is it any clearer today post-publication what Patel herself really thinks about DfID’s U.K.-based international NGO partners? Her introduction is long and warm enough, but interestingly she made no reference to this major DfID strategic review on her personal social media feed. Instead, on the day of publication, she tweeted a series of photos from a day in her constituency in Witham. It seemed an obvious and therefore an odd omission, from a politician who is known to be savvy and enthusiastic social media operator.

A Google search of what Patel has said in her career to date about the U.K.’s INGO community does turn up a lot of results, but the overwhelming majority of them come from her strident criticisms from Parliament’s backbenches in 2013 and 2014, supplied at intervals to publications the Daily Telegraph and to the Daily Mail.

These are probably the two publications that have done most to undermine public trust in charities over the same period. Some of the criticism of the sector was fair and deserved, but much of it was not. Charities always felt the real target was the U.K. INGO sector’s status as the most enthusiastic and influential supporters and public advocates for the 0.7 percent of GDP aid spending commitment so derided (at least then) by Patel and by others on the right wing of the Conservative Party as well as the U.K. press.

The review itself, almost 18 months in the making, reads as a bit of a disappointment, a “damp squib” in fact. The conclusions and proposals are clear enough and had been widely anticipated. Collectively, however, they read like the sort of output that DfID’s able and experienced civil society team could have readily produced at the end of two day away-day, a week or two after Justine Greening’s formal announcement of the review in July 2015. Inevitably, expectations had been raised higher by the 18 month length of the process, and I am not sure from that perspective whether they have been met.

The end of flexible funding

Gone, as expected, is strategic support to the U.K. international NGO community in the form of any source of flexible or core support to such organizations. In the future, U.K. government funding to NGOs will continue to be allocated mostly at country or project level, in humanitarian emergencies such as the Syria crisis or in fragile states such as South Sudan. This is actually where the bulk of DfID’s direct funding of civil society has always been spent, a welcome, logical but often under-reported fact.

The review, as expected confirmed the long-held view of this government, which in reality dates from Andrew Mitchell’s first days as secretary of state in 2010, that U.K. taxpayer money should not be granted to NGOs in the form of core organizational support. This old system, operationalized via funding agreements known as Program Partnership Agreements (or PPAs), basically left the decision to NGOs themselves to determine exactly where to allocate U.K. government financial support in order to have most value and impact.

In her review, Priti Patel says that future U.K. government funding will come via a more “open, competitive and outcome-focused model,” implying that the PPAs were none of these things. In fact, the calls for PPAs were hugely competitive, constructed around and increasingly reported against explicit strategic outcomes. All the proposals and progress reports of all successful PPA grantees are and have been easily available on the DfID website, going back many years.

Had Priti Patel (or Justine Greening or Andrew Mitchell before her) wanted to, it would have been easy enough to evolve the PPA into something more impactful, more strategic, more accountable and certainly more contemporary, while retaining the advantages of strategic or flexible funding. In particular, it’s fair to acknowledge that the PPA community was insufficiently diverse and insufficiently international, with arguably too many U.K.-based NGOs whose best and most relevant days lay behind them.

New opportunities

DfID’s commitment in the review to enter much more direct relationships with national civil society organizations and support innovative and collaborative partnerships between civil society and the private sector are both exciting and welcome.

Two of the windows that will remain open to NGOs for global calls will be existing but henceforth better-resourced mechanisms, U.K. Aid Match and U.K. Aid Direct.

U.K. Aid Match, through which the government commits to meeting donations made by members of the public, has been an attractive and successful scheme, but there are risks in resourcing it further with money saved by DfID’s ending strategic support to charities. By its nature, U.K. Aid Match favors larger and financially stronger organizations that are best placed to mount large appeals and raise large sums from the public.

Agencies proposing ideas to DfID will also inevitably need to focus as much on what will capture the U.K. public’s imagination as to what they hope to achieve and how. Appeals and issues that do best with the U.K. public are often but certainly not always the appeals for which funds are most needed. It is worth remembering that U.K. Aid Match developed and was managed out of DfID’s communication department, not out of the civil society department or any other program team.

DfID will have to work hard to ensure that their announcement of a turbocharged U.K. Aid Match does not structurally favor the largest charities at the expense of smaller ones and that funds are not drawn away from forgotten emergencies, issues, and indeed organizations, where previous strategic support allowed charities to focus and allocate resources without having captured the imagination of people in the U.K.

The announcement that funds will be doubled for U.K. Aid Direct, which supports small and medium-sized civil society organizations, is to be welcomed as a recognition of the increasingly valuable contribution these groups have to make in the countries where they operate — both in their own right but also as compared to international organisations that cannot and should not be taken as representing a domestic constituency.

The review also announced a new and interesting call, U.K. Aid Connect, looking to support more collaborative work between civil society and “new” development actors such as the private sector. There is also a renewed commitment to the U.K. Aid Volunteers scheme, which will presumably do what it says on the tin. These all sound like good things.

A challenging environment

Overall, the new calls collectively seem to represent a considerable drop from the current levels of civil society funding. Increases announced so far appear to be far less than the total of the current PPAs, which end in December.

It is hard to escape the conclusion, however, that the strongest reasons behind the end of flexible funding to U.K. INGOs actually lie elsewhere and are not even referred to in this Civil Society Review. Is it not just that the current government perceives — and wishes to reinforce with their funding decisions — their strong view that the greatest value of the U.K.’s charities to the U.K. government is their partnership and capacity in service delivery? By contrast, the same politicians are usually uninterested and often downright hostile to policy and especially public advocacy work undertaken by charities.

Mitchell in particular was said to have become deeply agitated from the onset of his DfID brief that the flexible nature of PPA funding meant that U.K. government funding could theoretically have been allocated by NGOs to staff or activities analyzing, attempting to influence or at times publicly criticizing DfID policies.

Earlier this year, the U.K. government attempted to introduce national legislation across the country preventing charities from lobbying government officials using taxpayer’s funds. Many of the arguments given by a new generation of government ministers to justify this legislation in February 2016 directly recall what Mitchell disliked so strongly about the PPAs in 2010, and of course much in-between. Who can forget the now infamous 2014 warning to U.K. charities that they “stick to their knitting,” words from Brooks Newmark, the then minister for civil society (go figure!). At its essence, the review heralds a future  unquestionably part shaped by this recurrent view held at the top echelons of the current Governing party in the U.K as to what role NGOs should and should not be supported to play. Is this reasonable for a Government department? Yes, absolutely.  But is this exciting or empowering? I think not.

For Priti Patel herself, so keen to highlight the soft power of the U.K.’s potential global leadership in the international development sphere, hopefully the publication of the review might come to mark a turning point in what has clearly been a mutually unsettled relationship with the NGO community.

If charity begins at home, so does the civic space in which it needs to flourish. If the U.K. is to encourage other governments to tolerate scrutiny and challenge from civil society organizations, DfID’s new secretary of state must show that she can first lead by example.

Now would be a great time to hold an open and honest meeting with a group of charity leaders, share her opinions and past concerns but also create a safe space to invite feedback on her review, and perhaps to be asked and answer questions about how to move forward more collaboratively and with more mutual trust. In particular, and in view of her past comments, she should reassure civil society partners that they should feel fully confident in their ability to analyse and comment on DfID’s own future evolution into new territory under Patel without fear of consequences on their applications for current or future funding for other areas of their work.

Toby Porter worked in the U.K. and Indian development and humanitarian NGO sector between 1993 and September 2016. He writes here in a personal capacity.

For more U.K. news, views and analysis visit the Future of DfID series page, follow @devex on Twitter and tweet using the hashtag #FutureofDfID.

About the author

  • Oped tobyporter ed

    Toby Porter

    Toby Porter worked in the U.K. and Indian development and humanitarian NGO sector between 1993 and September 2016. He writes here in a personal capacity.