Civil society organizations (CSOs), particularly non-governmental organizations (NGOs), play a prominent role in conflict-affected and fragile states. In the absence of capable or credible public institutions, the development community relies heavily on CSOs to reach the poor. Despite this reliance, there is weak understanding about CSOs and how to engage them more effectively. This report reached the following conclusions based on case studies of three African countries.
Socio-political context affects the ways in which citizens, CSOs and states interact. The three country cases represent different stages on a conflict to peace continuum, with distinct challenges for CSOs. In Angola, extensive donor presence during the conflict has led to a burgeoning yet uncoordinated landscape of CSOs dominated by high capacity international non-governmental organizations (INGOs). Development projects have created a wide range of community-based organizations (CBOs). In areas with less NGO presence, mass party organizations and religious groups are the main organizational structures. Citizens in Guinea Bissau are compensating for a perpetually weak state by creating CBOs in response to specific problems. A number of NGOs, mostly national, support these CBOs on a project-byproject basis, but lack necessary resources and capacity to ensure institutional development and
sustainability. Poor governance has reduced donor investments but has also shifted resources from the state to CSOs. In Togo, a repressive state and drastic donor cutbacks have created a situation where neither government nor civil society are able to provide minimal social services. Lack of oversight has enabled fraudulent NGOs to take advantage of poor communities.
CSOs play different roles in conflict-affected and fragile states than in other countries. When public services have broken down due to conflict or a weak public sector, NGOs, religious groups, and other CSOs become more important providers of basic social services, in contrast to advocacy and governance work. The latter is generally distrusted by governments, who often try to regulate and control these activities. Communities deprived of basic services too may attach lower priority to advocacy and governance efforts. Nevertheless, CSOs do have important governance functions. First, they improve governance from the bottom-up by creating partnerships between CBOs and local governments. Second, CSOs introduce more participatory approaches to community-level decision-making. Third, CSOs can play a stabilizing and mediating role in reducing conflict.
Engagement with CSOs by donors and other development partners has been largely fragmented and short-term, and has not promoted institutional development. Donors heavily influence the dynamics between CSOs, governments, and citizens with the way that they engage with CSOs. Donor preferences for financing CSOs on a project-by-project basis gives these organizations limited opportunities for developing capacity, specialization, strategic planning, and long-term investments in beneficiary communities. This is particularly difficult in the fluid and quickly changing development environment of conflict-affected and fragile states. Competition over scarce resources has led CSOs to become donor-driven with their accountability focused upward to donors rather than downward to citizens. Weak networks do not provide the necessary coordination, cross-fertilization, and internal accountability mechanisms. Weak accountability mechanisms can enable the emergence of fraudulent CSOs, but also of CSOs with exclusionary practices such as differential treatment based on ethnicity, religion or political affiliations. Donors have not provided sufficient funding to support overhead costs of CSOs and CSO networks.
CSO dynamics change in the transition out of conflict. The transition poses new challenges, both in terms of CSO-government relations, and the new skills and capacities that CSOs need to function in a changing environment. First, as conflicts end and public institutions gradually recover, the dynamics between citizens, CSOs, and government institutions change and new sources of friction may emerge.
While CSOs are likely to continue to play a major development role, especially in social service delivery, the redefinition of roles and responsibilities may be subject to tension between CSOs and government, especially where rules are not clear or applied arbitrarily. Second, as countries transition out of conflict and as the state is strengthened, the type of activities carried out by CSOs needs to shift from relief to development. This requires new skills and business models among CSOs, which are difficult to acquire when donor funding is tied to small, discrete projects, and CSOs have few sources for longer-term assistance in capacity building and institutional development. Third, as public institutions gradually resume responsibilities in basic service delivery, opportunities may arise for CSOs to be more active in advocacy and policy influence, but this is an area where CSO experience and capacity is generally limited. In two of the country cases, weak democratic traditions constrain such activities. The paucity of
institutionalized communication between government and CSOs, with reliance on ad-hoc or personal contacts, further exacerbates misunderstandings and suspicions. Legal frameworks in all three countries are unclear and rarely enforced. CSOs are subject to arbitrary restrictions not sanctioned by law. This is particularly true for advocacy organizations.
Some preliminary recommendations emerged from the findings on the three case studies. Although further contextual analysis would be required in each country setting before applying these recommendations, the basic message of the report is for donors to move away from a project-by-project approach to supporting CSOs, toward more sustained engagement focused on institution building among CSOs and networks. This would entail a strategic shift with less ad-hoc project funding and one-off training events, and more systematic cooperation and commitment, including partnering and funding long-term institutional development of CSOs.
The recommendations target a broad specter of development partners including donors, CSOs, and governments. They can be summarized as follows: First, more rigorous and systematic analysis of CSOs could help inform more effective engagement. This is particularly important in post-conflict settings, where there is likely to be little systematic information on CSOs, and their role will likely change as the country moves through the relief-to-development transition. Second, longer-term financial support to CSOs would create better incentives for capacity and institutional development, strategic planning and specialization. As CSOs transition out of the emergency phase, with its less stringent requirements, they need sustained support to meet the more demanding conditions required by donors in the development phase. Third, long-term partnerships between international and national CSOs could ensure transfer of capacities and improve sustainability. Fourth, financial support to networks and umbrella organizations could promote more effective use of resources, cross-learning, and accountability. Fifth, strengthened forums for CSO-government communication may contribute to better coordination and effectiveness, and underpin more systematic government engagement with CSOs in policy formulation, as well as more clear and transparent rules of engagement. Sixth, analysis of CSOs could be a useful precursor to Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper (PRSP) processes. More systematic and contextualized analysis of CSO dynamics and capabilities could assist governments and donors identify additional sources of quantitative and qualitative information on poverty and social conditions (which is often a severe constrain in conflictaffected and LICUS settings), and potential partners in developing and monitoring PRSPs.