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How we fail to support real civil society

THE debate over what civil society constitutes and which segment of civil society deserves donor support has been marred with disagreement.

There is one school of thought largely represented by traditional donor agencies putting accountability as a key criterion. Rightly so, for most donors, other than a convincing project proposal aligned to the donor’s thematic priority area, robust governance structures, organisational and financial systems are fundamental pre-conditions for a local civil society organisation to deserve financial support.
They are equally important to us at Zambia Governance Foundation (ZGF) if money is at stake. The larger the grant amount handed over to the recipient organisation, the more controls are necessary, to ensure ZGF safeguards donor money received to re-distribute to civil society organisations.
Understandably, donors need assurance that funds are in safe hands. This has led to a number of undesirable developments, one being the artificial emergence of organisations driven by witty individuals who see a civil society organisation as nothing more than an employment opportunity. Another one is the fact that emerging organisations founded by a committed group of citizens who came together to push for change but with no or limited governance structures are sometimes forced to hastily set up governance structures and systems, which are not grown at the organisation’s own pace. Also an entire machinery is set up to meet the need of the donor rather than the needs of the socially and economically excluded.
This is what is referred to as the professionalisation of civil society organisations. Yet we often feel disillusioned if employees of the same organisations seem to be more concerned about job security and the benefits such jobs come with than wanting to be part of an exciting mission or societal change.
We then tend to bemoan the lack of enthusiasm or intrinsic motivation we see amongst their employees. Emerging smaller civil society organisations working in a more informal and flexible manner usually fall through the cracks, as they fail to meet donor agencies’ stringent funding criteria. Yet often we find the individuals of these organisations are often more motivated and committed to a social cause than the ones working in well-established CSOs.
These are the kind of individuals whose organisations we would like to support, being moved by their unspoilt behaviour, authenticity and the fact that they do not demand for sitting, transport or other allowances for activities that ultimately benefit them. We have been trying to change this way of working with CSOs by insisting that a shift in thinking is necessary, but we have often been met by a brick wall. The arguments against supporting informal civil society or citizen groups are many, the main one being the transaction cost argument (working with smaller, particularly remote organisations is extremely staff time-intensive), and the other one being the time factor (how long will it take for tangible change to take place).
I stand by my belief that we must find better ways of working with informal civil society. The level of enthusiasm seen amongst ZGF staff when smaller organisations score successes is much greater than a beautifully written annual report of a well-established CSO. Let’s be the change we want to see in civil society.
The author is Zambian Governance Foundation CEO.