Civil society: Examination of evidence

A few words on methodology. This note is mainly built through research of existing literature and documentation from external sources. The related LenCD resource corner[1] constituted the initial font of information and was complemented with available documents from other portals and sources such as the Open Forum on-line library, the WP-EFF Cluster A on ownership and accountability, CDRA, INTRAC, UNESCO, UNDP and others. Existing literature on CSOs is vast and comes from a wide variety of sources. Because of time and resources constraints this note can be viewed as a first attempt to consolidate existing evidence and information on the topic of CSOs and capacity development. It seeks to raise key operational issues that can provide a foundation for CSOs and other development partners – including partner country governments, donors and INGOs– to join effort for further research, consolidation of lessons learnt, and discussion.

Development roles of CSOs. National and local CSOs pay a full range of roles as development actors and change agents (OECD, 2009) – often operating in several of them at the same time as mutually supportive pillars of their strategies:

  1. Complementing the role of the state in delivery of basic services – such as health protection and care, education, water and sanitation[2];
  2. Find and leverage sources of financing and human resources for local development directly as recipients or as funding channel at national and local level;
  3. Supporting and facilitating local development and self-help in local communities in partnership with local authorities and local actors, promoting local community innovations[3];
  4. Influencing policy in support of democratic governance and accountability at various levels – national as well as local[4]. This includes:
    • Raising public awareness of citizens’ rights;
    • Empowering local communities and groups to participate in public policy, through strengthening social mobilization and people’s voice in democratizing local and national development;
    • Facilitate  cooperation and collaboration with local government authorities and other development actors and organizations;
    • Promoting demand- driven accountability and support monitoring of government and development partner policies and practices.

The way CSOs play their development roles is shaped by their nature, the interests and the constituencies they represent, their capacities and the resources at their disposal. It is strongly influenced by the context in which they operate, in particular the degree of co-operation - or clash - with state institutions. For example, in states with authoritarian governments and power struggles between stakeholders with competing interests, CSOs may choose to limit their activity to service delivery or concentrate their efforts at local level where community linkages, even with local government officials, may be solid enough to survive political changes and challenges at the national level.

Within each of these roles, CSOs also play a key function in providing CD support –explicitly, through formally established CD support programmes or components in on-going interventions, and more informally, through development-related CSOs interventions at the local level that implicitly contribute to develop the capacities of targeted communities as well as of CSOs themselves. In relation to the delivery of basic services, CSOs play an important role in identifying and developing local capacities for service delivery. In relation to local community development, CSOs have an important role to play in trying to encourage and strengthen the capacities of local communities to take more responsibility for their own lives - especially in the lack ort absence of State support. When communities respond positively to this call for independence, CSOs have gamely stepped in to play the role of mobilisers, capacity-builders and resource channels (Reeler, 2010). Finally, in terms of policy influence, CSOs are actively engaged in strengthening citizen’s capacities to raise their voices and hold governments accountable.

CSOs for Capacity Development

Finding 1. Evidence shows that CSOs are playing an increasingly important role as CD support providers.

Overall, CSOs see people-centre empowerment as one of their guiding principles – one which refers to “build people’s capacities as democratic actors in their communities or as individuals claiming their rights”[5]. Therefore, it can be argued that most of what CSOs do is related – explicitly or implicitly - to CD. Recognition of CSOs role as CD support providers by other development partners has been growing in the past years. CSOs have been engaged in providing CD support to other CSOs as well as, in certain cases, tolocal and central government and other public institutions. CSOs can:

  • Contribute to strengthen citizens’ capacity to demand good governance and hold authorities accountable;
  • Act as CD support providers at the community level;
  • Contribute to capacity development in key sectors such as education and health.

While many CSOs still concentrate on CD at community level[6] and have a narrow territorial focus, some take a sector focus to facilitate CD, as in the case of the education sector described in Box 3 below of other ”traditional” focus sectors such as health and environment as well as key economic sectors such as the tourism sector.

Box 3: CD at sector level:Cooperation between CSOs and government institutions in the Education Sector

A recent UNESCO study looked at the role and influence of CSOs in relation to capacity development and education. The study observes that although their action remains fragmented compared to the outreach of country-wide educational programmes managed by governments, CSOs arebeginning to orient their CD activities towards government institutions. CSOs have extensive knowledge of and experience in education provision; the study states that public education sector can be therefore used as an entry point for CSOs to facilitate capacity development of government institutions at different levels: from macro-policies through ‘meso’ institutions and organizations (ministry of education and schools) to micro-responses at local-level with decentralized community action. The study notes that CSOs generally support CD both in the informal and formal education systems by training teachers and principals, enhancing the capacities of school inspectors, and strengthening parent-teacher associations and school management committees. The direct impact of CSOs on government capacity development within the education sector may help them scale up: (1) by becoming innovators in education and (2) by taking on capacity development activities (focused directly on government or indirectly through the community or local CSOs). In some countries, the formalisation of non-formal education provided by CSOs has brought them closer to the government, as the boundaries between the educational activities of the government and those of CSOs have gradually become less clear-cut. By targeting local district officials and proposing innovative approaches, CSOs are able to influence government education strategies.

Elaborated from Ulleberg, 2009

In some countries CSOs specialised in providing CD support have emerged and are increasingly used by donors and INGOs. This is the case, for example, of the Community Development Resource Association (CDRA) in South Africa and the Society for Participatory Research in Asia (PRIA) in India (Box 4). Usually, because of their closeness to the local context in which they operate, a good understanding of the local context and dynamics as well as linkages with local actors constitute relevant advantages of CSOs as CD providers.

Box 4: PRIA and Civil Society CD in India


The work of the Society for Participatory Research in Asia (PRIA), and Indian NGO founded in 1952, is a good example of an endogenous NGO dedicated to civil society strengthening and CD. PRIA has been one of the pioneering organizations to promote practices, innovations and discourse on civil society strengthening for teh last 25 years in local, provincial, national and international arena. Its intervention to mobilise and strengthen the capacities of civil society in India date back to the early 80s. PRIA’s vision is a world where informed, empowered citizens are actively engaged as democratic actors.

One of its flagship programmes, popularly known as Training of Trainers on Participatory Training Methodology, proved to be a learning ground for many of today’s civil society leaders. It provided an opportunity to prepare hundreds of social activists who became part of the emerging voluntary sector in Inna and strengthen the capacities of intermediary CSOs to develop strategies and methodologies for supporting the emergence of grassroots community groups around local development issues.

PRIA initiatives promote continues and systematic organizational learning and reflection as the basis upon which new CD occurs. PRIA employs a wide variety of methods to enhance and strengthen capacity at the individual, institutional and sector level, and seeks to play a leadership role in promoting innovative CD approaches and methods.

Elaborated from  PRIA, 2008 as presented on ECD, 2009


Finding 2. Most CSOs have some knowledge about what good CD practice is, but in reality they face significant challenges in providing effective support.

CD theory versus CD practice – different CD providers, same issues. In theory, today we know what works for CD: various studies from official agencies, academics and other practitioners have all highlighted similar principles of good practice. However, evidence also suggests that there is a distressing dissonance between what is known about CD and actual CD practice (James, 2010). This applies to donors as well as other CD providers such as INGO and CSOs. 

Available evidence suggests indeed that CSOs face shortcomings and challenges in performing their role as CD providers that are very similar to those faced by other development partners(James and Hailey, 2007; Ulleberg, 2009). Most CSOs have some knowledge about what good CD practice is, but in reality they do not always adopt appropriate approaches and face challenges in translating theory into practice. The difficulties of CSOs to implement what they know are caused by their lack of resources and skills to provide CD support as well as constraints from the aid context in which they operate (James and Hailey 2007). 

As an illustrative example, a recent evaluation commissioned by CDRA describes the difficulties and challenges faced in the past 15 years in operationalising the concept and principles of CD. In 1995, CDRA developed the basis of its CD approach (CDRA, 1995). In line with the more recent thinking on CD, CDRA theory sees CD as a mix of political, technical, organizational and community concerns; it recognizes that there is no single way to support capacity and that capacity development takes time. The evaluation finings reveal that the difficulties described in the 1995 publication in terms of supporting CD have only got worse given the increasing challenges faced in aid business processes and in promoting effective donors-CSO relationships - with donors that are still tempted to control interventions too tightly and continue to set the agenda for CD. CSO are confronted with the challenge of building their own capacities to engage in simple technical implementation, from one side towards the longer-term objective of promoting capacities, change and community self-help in a sustainableway (Soal, 2010).

Lack of capacity to support capacities. Often, CSOs lack key CD competencies, but still provide CD support to their partners. In such cases, there is a need for them to assess and develop their own capacities in providing CD support and examine the pool of local CD support providers who may assist them. As recognized by CDRA in one if its annual report, in order to assist others to develop their capacities, CSOs – as any other organization engaged in supporting CD –  ought first to take seriously the development of their own capacities through investing time in critical reflection and learning (CRDA 1995).  Furthermore, as in the case when CD support is provided by donors or INGOs, often insufficient time and energy is spent analysing in-depth the capacity needs – as well as in appreciating existing capacities - of beneficiaries. As a result, seemingly effective approaches may be targeting superficial CD needs identified by “scratching the surface” only.

In addition, often CSOs efforts to provide CD support is local, implemented on a small scale and project based. Such fragmentation makes it difficult to assess, identify opportunities for scaling-up and ensure sustainability of successful experiences. Lack of resources and estrangement from the State also contribute to jeopardize the possibility to replicate good practice (Ulleberg, 2009).

Pressured to deliver. While local CD providers – including CSOs - are now increasingly been brought in by INGOs and donors, they are often under pressure to deliver in a short time. As noted in James (2010), INGOs support for local providers of CD support still appears to be more instrumental than strategic as they often tend to contract local providers as one-off consultants, rather than supporting their staff and organization development[7]. Proper research is not always undertaken in advance to know what their added value is, what their principal contribution might be, and where they may need support themselves to enhance their own capacities to provide proper CD support.

Some positive changes are taking place. However, there are signs that CD approaches are evolving, as revealed by the emergence of more complex definitions of CD that lead to the identification of multiple levels of interventions. Donors and INGOs increasingly advocate for investing in the development of local CD expertise (SEO, 2010; OECD, 2009). CSOs approaches to provide CD support are also showing signs of change; CSOs increasingly see CD as a long-term process to be mainstreamed into their programmatic work (James and Hailey 2007).

Finding 3:  There is limited evidence of efforts in measuring CSO impact in CD processes and change as well as in consolidating lessons learnt.

Similarly to the case of CD support provided by donors and other development partners to CSOs, little evidence is available on how the support provided by CSOs has influenced CD and change processes – which also explains the limitations of the evidence reported in this note.  Projects implemented by CSOs are often monitored and evaluated with limited time and resources. The tendency is to focus on the outputs and quantitative data; the medium and long-term effects of complex projects where the human factor plays a significant role – such as CD support projects - are rarely captured.

In general, the complexity of CD processes and the need to measure the effects on multiple stakeholders and the longer-term impact makes it complicated to assess whether the changes triggered by the CD support are sustainable. As in the case of donor agencies and INGOs, few CSOs have the skills or resources to engage in systematic attempts to establish adequate M&E systems with appropriate indicators and methodologies and plan the measurement processes to take place in parallel to the CD intervention.

Capacity Development for CSOs

Finding 4. CSOs ability to reach their full potential in contributing to development has been challenged by capacity constraints. CSO capacity needs include analytical and adaptive capacities, the capacities for effective leadership, strategic planning, management and governance, the capacity to enhance accountability and increase legitimacy as well as the capacity for resource mobilization.

Capacity constraints. CSOs have been playing a relevant role in supporting development processes, and have increasingly shown to possess the capacities and expertise to do so. However, despite their experiences and existing capacities, CSOs also face capacity constraints that jeopardize their ability to perform their role effectively.

Especially within a context in which the aid architecture and development context evolve and their legitimacy and effectiveness are increasingly under scrutiny, limited capacities can constitute a key bottleneck in making their involvement in development processes meaningful[8]. An example of this is offered by the study cited in Box 5 below, which observes how capacity constraints – in terms of civil society’s lack of technical expertise in financial management and budget analysis - were affecting CSO role in promoting accountability in Africa.

Box 5: The role of Civil Society in Promoting Capacity for Social Accountability in Africa

This study reviewed CSO initiatives to enhancesocial accountability capacity and practice in the public budgetary process for 10 Anglophone African countries (Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Malawi, Namibia, South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe). The study found that all initiatives yielded positive results in terms of improved accountability. However, the effectiveness of many initiatives was impaired by civil society’s lack of technical expertise in financial management and budget analysis. In addition, the lack of consistency in how different departments of the same government record financial data has frustrated CSO efforts to assess effectiveness accurately.

McNeil and Mumvuma, 2006.

Struggling to retain existing capacities. CSOs often struggle in retaining existing capacitates. First of all, as much of CSO work is project cycle based, they have difficulties in securing support for long-term CD processes; staff turnover and departures at the end often project cycle also increase the risk of losing the capacity that is built during the course of a project. This is further aggravated by the fact that CSOs are often the entry level for national staff engaged in development work - as soon as they have acquired skills and experience, they often move on to INGOs, donor agencies of international organizations that offer much higher status and salaries. This is perennial problem in all developing countries that affects both CSOs and government institutions.

What capacities? Each type of CSO will have specific capacities to be strengthened. For example, CSO networks often have leadership and management weaknesses that are similar to those of their member organizations, but they might also struggle with issues such as constituency-building, adequate member representation and effective communication with their member. In the case of CBOs, it is organizational capacity that is generally weak. Most CBO members are volunteers that have to cope with constraints such as illiteracy and unemployment and struggle to ensure the subsistence of their families. CD interventions may therefore need to address the capacity needs of the individual members as well as that of the organization in order to retain the membership, stimulate their participation and ensure that membership fees are paid.

Based upon the documentation reviewed in preparing this perspectives note, certain capacities seem to emerge as key priorities for CSOs.

Analytical and Adaptive Capacities.Analytical and adaptive capacities are important for CSOs to understand the context in which they operate, anticipate change and adapt their strategies accordingly (Sorgenfrei and Wrigley, 2005). Box 6 below offers an example of how understanding of the local context has led CSOs to adopt specific strategies in relation to their role in the political arena. Well developed analytical and adaptive capacities can enable CSOs to identify their own comparative advantages instead of diversifying their activities in reaction to funding opportunities in areas where their contribution may not be as effective and appropriate as that of other organizations operating in the context. Such capacities also help CSOs to identify strategic alliances with complementary organizations or institutions.

Box 6: Capacity needs influenced by the political context: India vs. Bangladesh

In a comparative analysis of India versus Bangladesh it emerged that while the political context in India has been motivating CSOs to develop their capacity to operate as politically neutral, in Bangladesh context has instead led to the need for CSOs to be actors in the political arena. In India, where public scrutiny of neutrality is grater, development-oriented CSOs need to demonstrate their political neutrality; part of the legitimacy of a CSO indeed derives from the capability for maintaining balance and keeping an equal distance from political parties of every hue, while engaging in work that is essentially political in nature.

On the contrary, in Bangladesh an element of political dexterity is considered more important than strict neutrality.  CSOs, at least the large ones, are significant players in the overall social fabric. They are among the largest non-farm employers, and they command significant resources. Leaders of the larger CSOs are among the crème de la crème of Bangladeshi society, and their outreach to millions of people means that they have their own mini-constituencies. It is not uncommon for these CSOs to be pushed in a direction where they develop relationships of mutual influence with political bodies. In India, where CSOs command far fewer resources and smaller constituencies relative to the GDP and the population, respectively, relationships of a political nature are less evident.

Elaborated from Banerjee, 2006

Capacity for effective leadership, management and governance. Leadership, governance, and management capacities need to be nurtured as early as possible in the organizational development process. Many CSOs do not survive beyond the first years in their organizational life cycle due to leadership and management crises (James, R. 2006, Buxton, C. and Abraliev, K., 2007).

Capacity to enhance accountability and increase legitimacy. CSOs capacity to develop and use their own accountability systems and mechanisms is important to identify and respond to the multiple and potentially conflicting claims of different stakeholders and constituencies, enhance accountability, and increase legitimacy (Brown and Jagananda 2007).  Better accountability may help CSOs improve their internal decision-making and strategic learning processes and hence contribute to organizational CD.

Capacity for resource mobilization.Many CSOs based struggle to mobilise sufficient resources to survive, let alone operate effectively as development actors (Pratt and Myhtman, 2009). Without a minimal resource base, the energy and efforts of the CSOs will be concentrated around developing coping and survival strategies; meanwhile the risk is that the recipients of financial support will remain dependent on one donor organization, and this may inhibit their development (Brehm et al., 2004). The capacity to mobilise resources is key for CSO autonomy. It can be supported, for example:

  1. Through donor diversification (this involves development of CSO capacity to communicate appropriately with donors, for example through relationship-building, proposal-writing and reporting, as well as demonstration of impact);
  2. By engaging in income-generating activities. CSOs need to ensure that the services or products they propose are in line with their organizational mission and core competencies. Otherwise, this easily leads to dispersed efforts by the CSOs to provide services or sell products that generate little income and prevent them from playing their principal development roles appropriately.

In addition to these core capacities, each of the development roles of CSOs described above have specific capacity requirements, as recognized by CSOs themselves(Box 7).

Box 7: CSOs perspectives on their capacity needs

In order to play their development roles effectively, CSOs recognize that have to develop their capacities in several areas  - to mobilize and organize communities, to engage constituencies with development issues, to protect people whose rights have been violated, to facilitate citizens to deliberate with public administrations, governments and multilateral institutions, and to provide civic education and knowledge gained from development expertise and contact with peoples’ experience and aspirations (Tomlinson and Wanjiru, 2010).  Key capacities for CSOs include:

Capacity needs for policy influencing to promote good governance and accountability:

  • Capacity to  use available evidence for policy influencing;
  • Capacity to understand and assess the context and its dynamics;
  • Improved self-regulation, governance and accountability mechanisms to ensure CSO own transparency and legitimacy.

Capacity needs for service delivery:

  • Technical competencies in relation to the thematic areas and sectors in which they intervene;
  • Relationship building with other development actors and stakeholders in the community, in particular government institutions;
  • Resource-mobilisation capacity;
  • The capacity to facilitate the empowerment of current and potential service recipients to claim and access appropriate services.
  • Capacity to “think outside the box” and propose key innovations for service delivery.

Capacity needs for local development:

  • Capacity for analytical understanding of the system in which they interact at community level -  formal and informal relationships, interests and power imbalances - in order to develop appropriate development strategies;
  • Capacity to forge partnership to support local development;
  • Conflict prevention and resolution, mediation and negotiation;
  • Capacity to provide support to self-help groups as critical change agents a) to develop coping and livelihood strategies for their members, b) to become sustainable and effective groups/organizations c) to become committed to wider solidarity in addition to meeting their own needs.

Capacity needs for capacity development support provision:

  • Capacity  to invest  time in critical reflection and learning for its own capacity development;
  • Access to CD methodologies and best practices; CSO capacity to apply these appropriately;
  • CD strategy development, process design and programme planning;
  • Competencies in the facilitation of CD processes and accompaniment of organizations and institutions.

Fundamentally, many CSOs point out to the capacity for survival and sustainability as a fundamental capacity. This includes the capacities to execute programmes and to keep building the institution by hiring quality staff, deploying systems and hardware and, therefore, finding predictable and sustained sources of funding (Banerjee, 2006). The capacity to build coalitions, alliance and networks across CSOs for experience sharing, joint learning and collective action also constitute a priority for many CSOs.

For detailed discussions on the capacity needs of CSOs see, among others: Court et al, 2006; Tandon and Bandyopadhyay, 2003; Banerjee, 2006; De Vita and Fleming, 2001; Caldwell Johnson, 2005; and World Resources Institute, 2008.

Finding 5. CD support from development partners to CSOs tends to remain too short-term, supply-led and focused on individuals, although some change is occurring towards more demand-led, contextualised and comprehensive CD approaches.

Supporting CD of CSO remains a priority for many donors and other development partners in the North as well as in the South (Box 8). The evidence reviewed however indicates that CD support to CSOs tends to remain heavily skewed towards project funding, supply-led and focused on individuals. For example, training and technical assistance are still the main methods used by INGOs, thus limiting the possibility of addressing some of the more complex dimensions of CD (James, 2010). Some shift is however taking place towards recognizing the importance of contextualised and comprehensive CD approaches, the need to balance short-term goals and long-term CD objectives and the opportunities offered by local CD support providers from civil society itself and other sectors.

Box 8: Strengthening CSOs – A joint South-North Priority?

Donors have provided support to CSOs for several decades, and it remains a priority for many (James and Hailey 2009). OECD data indicate that flows to and through CSOs are estimated to account for approximately 10% of official aid flows (OECD, 2009).  Funding to CSOs is most often channelled through Northern-based CSOs and North-South partnerships, which receive donor financial support to implement projects and programmes targeting Southern CSOs.  Although proportionally bilateral donor ODA for donor country and international NGOs remains much higher than that directly targeted to Southern CSOs (regional or local), the latter has however increased significantly in the past years, almost doubling from 491 million USD in 2007 to 855 million in 2008 (OECD statistics). Donors have begun to question whether their efforts have had any impact in terms of CSOs capacities and now are searching for lessons learnt and good practices in supporting capacities of CSOs.

Even in countries where the relationships between the State and CSOs remain controversial or marked by reciprocal mistrust, the strengthening of CSO capacity and effectiveness can be increasingly a Southern  priority, as witnessed by Southern fora such as the International Forum on Capacity Building of Southern NGOs (  or the Open Forum for CSO Development Effectiveness ( It also is an integral part of the recent African Union/NEPAD Capacity Development Strategic Framework.

From Technical Competency Development to holistic, flexible and “contextualized” CD approaches. Most CD support for CSOs has been short-term, focused on training for technical skills in relation to project implementation. Often, CD for local CSOs has been limited to building capacities to support project implementation – manage funds, provide accountability and manage risks (James, 2010). While there is still an obvious need for technical capacity building of both civil society and state actors, there also is a consensus that more attention and time should be devoted to other organizational and institutional capacities such as the capacity to forge alliances, use evidence and build a case, contribute to the decision and policy-making process, and influence others to make change happen(Sharma, 2009).

A recent evaluation of Belgian NGO partnerships aimed at CD for CSOs, for example, calls for more diversity in CD strategies – beyond training and partner meetings – based upon string context and institutional analysis (SEO, 2010). OECD Advisory Group on Civil Society an Aid Effectiveness also advocate for moving beyond training towards new, flexible and longer-term approaches that are based upon capacity self-assessments conducted by CSOs themselves and aims at catering to the specific needs of different organizations (OECD, 2009). A recent study (Box 9) on CD support for Cambodian NGOs demonstrates that moving beyond traditional training and organizational development interventions into processes that promote learning and its integration into everyday work practices had positive and lasting impact (Pearson, 2011). 

Box 9: An Holistic Learning Approach in Cambodia

The Dutch Inter-church Organization for Development Cooperation (ICCO) and VBNK – a Cambodian capacity building NGO – have worked together over the past 5 years to implement the ICCO Partners Project (IPP). The project has used a learning –based approach to organizational CD in the areas of organizational management, project management and strategic relationships.

The project design was based upon participatory organizational assessments that each supported NGO had to undertake to learn about itself and to provide a foundation for the formulation of supporting interventions. All interventions were therefore tailored, using different methodologies, to the individual organization’s needs and operating realities.

The study highlights that organisations willing to engage with the learning approach found that both individuals and the whole organisation were able to function more effectively, and that this contributed to sustainability and resilience. This reveals to the importance of organisational readiness to embrace learning and change.

Source: Pearson, 2011

Furthermore, there is growing recognition that CD support to CSOs must take into account contextual factors which can have a significant impact on the evolution of these organizations, as well as relationship and power dynamics characterizing the social context in which CSOs operate[9].

Box 10: Long Term CD support in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo

During and investigation on the approaches and methods used to support capacity development of CSOs in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo, local CSOs staff were interviewed and showed some difficulty in identifying examples  of what they would consider successful CD schemes.

One exception was the USAID’sDemNet programme. Originally, the programme was conceived as a vehicle for the systematic delivery of generic technical trainings over an extended period, backed up by relatively small project grants, to a select group of 28 established CSOs. Over time, DemNet evolved towards more long term support; 190 CSOs had ‘graduated’ after having received between two and three years’ assistance. Informants pointed to support for extended period (in-depth, tailored assistance; flexibility and responsiveness) as a success factor for the programme.

(Elaborated from Sterland, 2006)

Donor Funding to CSOs and the role of INGOs. Generally donors have not provided sufficient resources – financial, as well as in terms of time - dedicated to CD; their project delivery requirements have frequently taken the focus away from CD. INGOs – which have often channelled funds from donors to CSOs – tend to replicate donor priorities and prioritize their delivery and accountability obligations, unless they are able to manage the funding in flexible ways which allow them to mainstream CD in their projects. However, the prevalently short-term nature of funding modalities from donors to partner country CSOs through Northern CSOs or INGO have hampered the possibility to engage in longer term relationships which are essential for strengthening capacities. Donors-INGOs-CSOs relationships are often developed around accountability-oriented systems, rather than CD-oriented systems: when there is a conflict between the two, accountability is prioritised above ensuring CD impact (James 2010). 

The pressure to be able to report positively on funded project implementation often brings INGOs to become more controlling and “micro-manage” local CSOs who do not have the adequate reporting capacity (James and Hailey 2007). This appears to counteract efforts at building the capacity of CSOs to empower them and enable them to take ownership of local capacity development processes. Some donors are beginning to review existing forms of support to CSOs, for example through increased use of pooled funds (Giffen and Judge, 2010).

Box 11: INGOs as Intermediaries between Donors and CSOs - Funding Channels or CSO partners?

A recent review of Norwegian CSO support in Tanzania found that local CSOs had very different perspectives on the partnership and power relations between an INGO and national CSOs than did their Northern partners. Local CSOs would often refer to the Norwegian partner NGO as “donor”. Most Tanzanian CSOs did not feel they had sufficient ownership of the development programmes and considered the relationship as fundamentally unequal. Norwegian NGOs were perceived to have enormous influence over agenda-setting, funding distribution, and acceptance of reports. Tanzanian CSOs emphasised that the added value of Norwegian NGOs was their ability to channel funds to local organizations.

Elaborated from NORAD, 2008

A supply-driven market for CD support. Although the growing importance of local CD support providers - including CSOs, the market for CD support seems to remain still relatively more accessible to providers from the North. Some evidence points to the supply driven nature of this market as one important reason for the limited effectiveness of such support. A case study from Zambia and Ecuador reveals that CSOs in both countries have been experiencing difficulty in accessing CD services that meet their organizational needs. The study observes that in these two contexts the decisions related to CD support were made without sufficient country-level knowledge of the supply and demand dynamics for CD services; this has resultedinthe provision of servicesbased on assumed need rather than actual need (USAID, 2006).A research conducted in the marketplace of training services for Ukrainian CSOs concluded that such market remained largely shaped by donor priorities and interests rather than by the real needs on CSOs. It also noted that CSOs were not playing a role in the choice of the service providers (Gurt, 2009).

Lack of Evidence about CD Impact. Despite increasing demand for effective CSO performance, little support has been given to assessthe impact of CD support provision to CSOs.In addition, because of their long-term nature, CD processes are difficult to track, they are not easily attributed to one intervention or event, or to the efforts of a particular organization, so the measurement that is carried out rarely captures their full impact, positive or negative (ODI, 2006). Relevant methodologies for the monitoring, evaluation, and impact assessment of CD interventions currently exist, but have yet to be widely disseminated (Pratt and Myhrman 2009).

Finding 6: To fulfil their roles, CSOs require an enabling environment that includes recognition of their development roles, entry into development policy processes and access to information.

First of all, an enabling environment. To fulfil their roles, CSOs need assistance in developing their own capacities to exercise their rights and responsibilities. However, there is a strong recognition that sustainable CD requires a set of enabling conditions that support CSOs in strengthening and making effective use of their capacities. Such an “enabling environment” is multi-dimensional[10]. It includes a number of conditions having to do with governance in a country, such as:

  • The vitality of democratic decision-making systems and resultant opportunities for alliance building between CSOSs and state institutions (e.g. members of Parliaments) to advance agendas of joint interests;
  • The quality of the legal and judicial systems;
  • Freedom of the press and freedom of expression more generally;
  • Conditions to ensure the protection and promotion of human rights such as the right to peaceful assembly and association, and the right of access to information; and
  • The degree of decentralization and the extent to which there exist opportunities for dialogue and collaboration between CSOs and decentralized government bodies.

Other aspects of the enabling environment more specific to civil society include:

  •  Structures and processes for citizen participation and multi-stakeholder dialogue between and among CSOs, governments, elected representatives, donors and the private sector;
  • CSO-specific policies and legislation;
  • Taxation regulations, including charitable status provision and tax benefits to promote individual and corporate philanthropy; and
  • Regulations and norms to promote CSOs transparency and accountability to their constituencies. 

In countries in which CSOs-government relations remain controversial, such enabling environment is not easy to achieve[11]. Fostering participatory development processes, democratic ownership and a sound enabling environment for CSOs is growingly becoming a key issue for donors, partner countries and CSOs themselves, which are increasingly devoting attention and resources to this topic. Donors often advocate for facilitating the creation of enabling conditions that allow CSO participation in development policy decision making and implementation[12]. For example, Cluster A of the Working Party on Aid Effectiveness[13] – centred on the themes of ownership and accountability – has a special focus on civil society development effectiveness and enabling environment. It seeks to promote common understanding of challenges, good practice and minimum standards regarding an enabling environment and donor models of support for CSO development effectiveness. Linked to this process, the Open Forum for CSO Development Effectiveness[14] also seeks to define and promote the roles and effectiveness of the CSO sector in development, based on a shared framework of principles – including a global agreement on minimum standards for an enabling environment for CSOs[15].

Finding 7: Supporting capacity development of CSOs implies a number of significant risks and distortions and merits careful exploration of safeguards – particularly in fragile situations

CSO–Citizen-State relationshipsoften are not fully understood, as the provision of support to CSOs – including CD support - can create distortions in such relationships. Just the perspective of donor support can fuel the establishment of ad hoc, donor-oriented CSOs with weak roots and legitimacy in the communities they represent. Such CSOs will have difficulty responding to a civil society strengthening agenda and responding to community goals and priorities if the real focus is to achieve externally predetermined aims (Wright-Revolledo, 2007). Furthermore, since CD resources are limited, greater support to CSOs can have the inadvertent effect of diminishing support and resources (financial, as well as human) for state institutions– thus creating clashes over available resources.

Providing CD support to CSOs in least developed countries and post-conflict situations[16].  Often, in least developed countries and post-conflict situations, development partners have difficulty finding a balance between the urgency of providing relief or recovery response and developing the capacity of local actors to seek for sustainable solutions. As an example from Lebanon illustrates (Box 12), the two objectives are however not mutually exclusive[17].

 Box 12: Building capacities through participation – An example from Lebanon

A case study from Lebanon shows that the active participation of local actors in UNDP activities provided an opportunity to build their capacities for planning and decision making. Throughout their post-conflict interactions with UNDP, municipal councils were under strict scrutiny and accountability. Naturally, municipalities had to plan, prioritize, and make decisions about relief assistance in order to fulfil their obligations during the reconstruction process. Presumably they were also able to play a more constructive role in planning for recovery and rehabilitation in their communities as a result.

Elaborated from Hamil and Ali-Ahmad, 2007

CD support to CSOs in fragile situations often concentrates on providing training to strengthen technical skills and the performance of individuals in managing resources and administering tasks within short timeframes, at the expense of longer-term support to organizational capacities, coherence and resilience. Externally-oriented CSOs are often highly dependent on donor support and bring little continuity with existing forums of civil representation and community solidarity (Sterland, 2006). In such situations, it is fundamental “not to push”, to recognize existing capacities and to manage expectation and anticipate limitations of what CSOs can achieve (Hamill and Ali-Ahmad 2007). Box 13 below includes a case study on Bosnia and Herzegovinaand Kosovo that shows how in post-conflict situations uncoordinated and training-focused CD support has been ineffective and has lead to confusion across supported CSOs. A second case study from Cambodia shows how the rapid growth of the NGO community in the country following the end of the civil war was heavily influenced by the availability of external support without proper consideration of existing capacities.

Box 13: CD  in post-conflict situations - the experiences of

1) Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo and 2) Cambodia

Bosnia and Herzegovina (B&H) and Kosovo are developing parallel experiences of internationally determined post-conflict social, political and economic rehabilitation and transition. In both settings, the immediate chaos of a post-conflict environment has evolved towards efforts for long-term institutional strengthening and economic development. As a result, local CSOs capacity building priorities have changed. In Kosovo, many CSOs are reviewing their missions beyond service delivery, as the local authorities are increasingly showing their readiness to provide for the needs of the local communities. In B&H, CSOs need to strengthen their capacity to engage in policy influencing, by gaining theoretical understanding of social and economic development, increasing specialist knowledge within the organization, adopting rights-based approaches, strengthening advocacy and campaigning skills, improving analytical reflection, and developing their social research. Furthermore, in both contexts, CSO performance also depends on the ability of civil society to improve internal cohesion, and engage in cross-sector dialogue, cooperation and coordination.

A case study conducted in the two countries suggests that CD support provided by donors and INGOs has not been fully adequate for the evolving needs and priorities of local NGOs and other CSOs.The study reveals that local actor equate CD with training to build the individual skills deemed necessary for instilling professionalism. The study argues that local CSOs emerged as stimulated by the perspective of easy access to foreign funds. Few local CSOs have looked actively for assistance - many, if not most regard CD as training, which they have become accustomed to receive passively as part of a funding package. In such a supply-rich environment in which INGOs competed with each other to reach and attract local partners, delivery of trainings has been mainly unplanned and uncoordinated, leading to considerable confusion (source: Sterland, 2006).

A forthcoming study on the evolution of Cambodian NGOs also reveals that the rapid growth of the NGO community in Cambodia following the end of the civil war is owed in large part to the availability of external financial and other type  of support. The study states that it is unlikely that they would have grown in the same way or had the same characteristics if there been less money or fewer support partners. Much of the support offered was given without, or before, accurate assessment of relevant capacity. The result frequently was extremely unrealistic expectations on both sides (source: Pearson, 2011b).



[2]For example of evidence on CSO role in service delivery see, among others Lopes and Theisohn, 2003 or Ulleberg, 2009.

[3]For an example of the role played by CSOs in supporting community development, see Roots to resilience – Growing the Wealth of the poor, Ownership-Capacity-Connection – 2008, World Resources Institute

[4]For examples of evidence on CSO role in policy influencing to promote democratic governance and accountability see, among others: McNeil and Mumvuma, 2006; Lopes and Theisohn, 2003; Giffen and Judge, 2010.

[5]Draft International Framework for CSOs Development  Effectiveness, November 2010

[6]The 2008 World Resources Institute report points out to the fundamental role of national and local NGOs and CSOs to act as “intermediary support organizations” that operate in the space between the state and the local level to strengthen the capacities of local communities (Roots to resilience – Growing the Wealth of the poor, Ownership-Capacity-Connection – 2008, World Resources Institute).

[7]The document also observes that in the past 15 years there has been no real increase in INGO support to local CD providers. Rather, there seems to have been a shift from provision of core funding support to INGOs hiring local CD providers on one-off contracts. According to a 2006 survey cited in the document, provision of direct support to local CD providers was the least preferred approach of surveyed INGOs. The study argues that in an effort to justify their role and income to their official government back-donors, INGOs are emphasising their own ability to build local capacity in the South; his in turn may inhibit the development of local capacity development providers (James 2010).

[8]See, for example, Molenaers and Renard (2009).

[9]An extreme example of how the context matters is a report from sub-Saharan Africa, where local CSOs are experiencing growing rates of staff sickness and death, and staff members are increasingly absent caring for sick relatives or attending funerals. In such a dramatic context, it may be more appropriate to have goals of capacity maintenance and organizational survival than unrealistic expectations about rapid capacity development (James and Hailey 2007).

[10]This description of the dimensions of an enabling environment is extracted from OECD (2009). Civil Society and Aid Effectiveness – Findings, Recommendations and Good Practice. Better Aid Series.

[11]The recent report Reflection, Challenges, and Choices: The Cambodian NGO Sector inn 2010 offers an analysis of how the external environment has been influencing – in positive and negative – NGOs performance in the country. The study also looks at implications for the NGO sector of the changing social, political, and economic situation in the country (Bañez-Ockelford J. and Catalla AP Jr., 2010).

[12]For an example of an evaluation of donor and INGO efforts to support a sound enabling environment for CSO participation and empowerment, see Guijt (2005) “Assessing Civil Society Participation as Supported In-Country by Cordaid, Hivos, Novib and Plan Netherlands, 1999-2004”. CFP evaluation series 2003-2006: no 4.


[15]Recently, the first Global Assembly of the Open Forum (Istanbul, Turkey - September 2010) approved the Istanbul Principles of Development Effectiveness, which served as foundation for the Open Forum’s Draft International Framework on CSO Development Effectiveness.

[16]For a detailed discussion on this topic, please refer to the Perspectives Note on Capacity Development in Fragile Situations.

[17] A case study from Afghanistan also shows how donors support to CSOs capacities was critical to maintain essential services – such as health care and the provision of water and sanitation. The study asserts that such an approach helped lay the foundations for eventual post-conflict reconstruction (Lopes and Theisohn, 2003).