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The research programme ‘New roles of CSOs for inclusive development’ investigates the assumptions, solutions and problems underlying the civil society policy framework ‘Dialogue & Dissent’ of the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs.  The  research  groups  are  sharing  their  findings  in  a  series  of  blogs.  This  contribution  is written by Emma Frobisher from  the  Research  Group  ‘Enabling  rules  for  advocacy  in  Kenya’. 

Donor aid funding for civil society development often flows from donors based in the global North to international non-governmental organizations (NGOs), who in turn distribute the funding to civil society organizations (CSOs) in the global South, who ultimately fund community-based organizations (CBOs). This downward flow of funding is called the ‘aid chain’. The institutional design of the aid chain (i.e. how the chain is organized) involves a system of rules, responsibilities and requirements for all the stakeholders involved. This design inevitably has an impact on the ability and scope of the various actors to operate and, essentially, on how development work plays out on the ground. Our research study,‘Enabling rules for advocacy in Kenya’, looks at three CSOs in Kenya who are being funded by the Dutch Government to implement human rights advocacy projects. Specifically, we examine the interaction of the various rules facing each of the actors in the chain, including who is in and who is out, what their roles and obligations are, and how their performance is defined, measured and rewarded.

Figure 1. A simplified representation of the aid chain

Our research in Kenya has illustrated the vast range of results that can occur as a result of donor aid rules. In a context where funding for development advocacy is hard to come by, donors offer financial resources that would otherwise not be available, and this enables local advocacy to take place. One member of a CBO described the funding as a ‘lifesaver’, explaining that it enabled the group to lobby the local government for their rights for the first time. Donors also play a crucial role in sharing their knowledge with CSOs through training and by expanding CSOs’ networks by introducing new contacts, all of which helps strengthen the capacity of activists. Further, donors and Northern CSOs are able to support the work of local activists to help them achieve their goals and offer them protection in instances where they find themselves under threat. The research has also demonstrated that the presence of an international NGO in the aid chain brings added value to advocacy in the global South. For example, NGOs not only support CBOs to perform advocacy themselves, but also run international campaigns to raise awareness overseas, thus helping put pressure on the local situation ‘from the outside’.

However, the institutional design of the aid chain can pose a number of problems for advocacy efforts, because being part of an aid chain inevitably comes with certain rules set by donors, which have implications for the ability of CSOs to conduct advocacy. Firstly, our research has shown the extent to which fixed-term project-based funding can cause serious sustainability issues which result in CSOs lacking long-term focus. It is commonplace for CSOs to have high staff turnover, which jeopardizes their stability. The precarious nature of funding means that CSOs often spend large amounts of time on fundraising, with staff frequently engaged in writing proposals in the hope of winning donor grants. Furthermore, donor expectations in relation to value for money and results-based quantitative outcomes can drive CSOs to implement short-term, easy-to-predict measurable activities, often to the detriment of more strategic, long-term plans that factor in the complexities of local contexts. Donor demands for accountability mean that there is a lot of administrative work involved in projects, which is evident in Kenya where the staff of CSOs dedicate a large portion of their time to writing reports for the donor instead of performing advocacy work. In addition, our findings reveal the paradox of being part of an aid chain, which can sometimes undermine a CSO’s connection with their constituents. In multiple cases, the organizations have drifted towards the priorities of their donors and away from the concerns of their beneficiaries, leading to a feeling from the grassroots that these organizations are puppets of the donors. Hence, it is evident that while the aid chain can enable development advocacy to occur, its institutional design can significantly constrain the ability of CSOs to fulfil their advocacy roles.

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