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The Effectiveness-Lab

Pitfalls to an effective national civil society business-model – wake-up call for the INGO!

My blog last week ( delved into the vexing subject of an effective national civil society business-model.  Recently, I attended a two day national civil society meeting organized by a leading International non-governmental organization (INGO) in Rwanda.  The theme of the meeting, that brought together CEO’s of national civil society organizations that have a partnership relationship with the INGO, was ‘roadmap to effective civil society’ and a think-piece to inform discourse had been written by the INGO.

Assumptions are never far when discussing international development – I assumed that having worked with the national civil society partners at the meeting for close to 10 years, the INGO and its local peers had addressed the challenge that eludes many i.e. having a working and effective business-model to drive their partnership.  A meeting of this nature should be to review progress and address challenges raised by the business-model, but not to create one.

Well, those in development know that things are never that straight, and the sector is known to ‘paint in the dark’ at times. A few hours into the meeting, and it became apparent that there was no clear business-model for turning national civil society organizations into effective development machines and that it was the aim of the INGO, to use the meeting to start that dialogue.

However, from the start discussion on business-models and effectiveness was riddled with argument, a lack of understanding on what and why ‘effective civil society’ is/was even being discussed (at-least for some), and constant ‘plodding’ by the national civil society organizations on issues deemed non-strategic by the INGO.  In effect, the national civil society organizations preferred discussing transactional (operational) matters like efficiency of cash-transfers from the INGO to them, the procedures/rules regime imposed by the INGO, how the INGO should secure more programming money for them lest they ‘die’.

AEE Rwanda CEO sharing at CSO meeting
AEE Rwanda CEO sharing at CSO meeting

The growing voice from the national civil society organizations to discuss matters ’transactional’ prompted the meeting organizers to remind all that the meeting was oriented around a theme – ‘road map to effective civil society’.  In all fairness to the INGO, the think-piece articulated well the changing context of international development and the emerging confluence of civil society, government, and private sector.  According to the think-piece, national civil society would have to fulfil certain obligations to remain relevant:

• Checking the functioning of the state and if needed, secure freedoms/rights for the citizen
• Acting as the ‘voice-box’ for the citizen and ensure that voice is seamlessly delivered to the state
• Engaging the private sector and secure win-win collaboration that addresses the needs of the citizen

With national civil society organizations asking that the discourse be oriented around operational business, i was left asking myself if they (national organizations) were already adept at being ‘effective civil society machines’, as decreed above.  But as i discovered later, many of the national civil society organizations have significant ground to cover in order to optimally fulfil the above mandate of an effective national civil society organization.  If the latter were true, i have to wonder why national civil society organizations wanted to hold on to the less strategic agenda.  The natural default for an answer is international development sector mantra that depicts national civil society organizations as:

• Lacking critical capacities to think strategically and shift from the less than effective third-sector role to a role of being the ‘confluence’ between sectors
• Representing self-interest and looking first at their survival and those individuals that run them, as opposed to the citizens they are supposed serve
• Not understanding or comfortable with orthodox civil society duties, that at times makes civil society a nemesis of the state

For purposes of this blog i will steer clear of the mantra above and instead, ask questions of stakeholders in the civil society eco-system, specifically the INGO (which i work for by the way) as we know it today i.e. rich-north based, more often well-resourced, well-knitted into the architecture of the rich-north aid machinery, and currently struggling to curve a new niche for itself.

As i sat at the meeting for the two days, i felt that national civil society organizations were ‘more-correct’ and ‘entitled’ in pushing for a lesser vs. the grander ‘effective national civil society’ agenda originally anticipated by the INGO, and i explain why below:

• It was clear that the INGO vision was getting ahead of the practical realities on the ground in Rwanda.  We all know that INGO’s are shaping a ’new vision’ that will help them occupy new space in the global development industry.  INGO’s can no longer be a direct-implementing vehicle of development business but increasingly, a facilitator/convener of the national civil society organization, that will now directly deliver development to the poor.  The latter is these days considered, ‘smart-development’.

However, reminiscent of how the European colonial master handed over power to weak African governments in the 1960’s, INGO’s and the rich-north donor in trail, seem to be repeating the mistake i.e. hurriedly pass on power to a national civil society movement that may not have been fully primed for the role being asked of it.

I therefore think that national civil society organizations are right to push back attempts by the INGO, for a correct and well intentioned, but rushed change of role between the entities.

• The INGO was trying to roof a house for which it had not built a proper foundation – in asking that the INGO considers the basics first at this two day meeting, the national civil society organizations were sending a clear message to the INGO i.e. first things first!.

Again, i think that the national civil society organizations do have a point.  Perhaps its dawning on INGO’s that the natural tendency to ask national civil society organizations to do work on their behalf, under certain procedure diktats, then tick-boxes and celebrate success can no longer work – just like INGO’s invest effort at delivering their core-business via cutting-edge development-models, they will have to do the same with organizational-development (OD) aspects of their national peers.  The latter can no longer be considered a secondary aspect.  The national peers are crying out loud for help in OD and perhaps when they achieve a level of OD that propels them to that new space, they may just about start to ask the right questions, at least in the eyes of the INGO and rich-north donor mantra.

• Any dialogue meant to inform national civil society destiny, should involve them from the start – again, learning from the history of colonies in Africa, the think-piece that shaped discussion at this INGO conference should have been informed by national civil society partners from inception – one could argue that the conference was an opportunity for national civil society to feedback the think-piece, but i suppose, I’m referring to genuine participation and inclusion in change discourse

• When the INGO shared at the meeting, and in a pretty articulate manner, what it is new role is i.e. the convener/facilitator (this as opposed to the now condemned direct-implementer role), the response from the national peers was telling: apparently, some felt pity for the INGO in its new role, others wanted the new role properly defined as it was looked at as simply ’smart-talk’ by the INGO, whilst some welcomed the moving up of the INGO as it would free space for the national peer in what is increasingly a crowded sector.

A lesson for me is that whilst the mighty and power of the global aid industry to which this INGO belongs and mostly answers, can and will continue to define the role of various stakeholders in the global aid eco-system (and to that effect the INGO has been assigned a facilitator/convener role), it has to be a consultative process.  Such discourse and resulting stakeholder role identification, needs to be put in the context of countries – perhaps in Rwanda, a convening/facilitating role needs more reflection and contextualization.

Referring to my earlier point on ‘assumptions and development’ having a twin relationship, even as I challenge INGO/rich-north donor thinking above, I’m aware of the fact that change in the global aid industry will not always wait for the nascent national civil society peers to grow to maturity, before they are expected to fully hold their new power.  It is a delicate balancing act for both INGO’s and their national peers – i.e. to be able to keep the show on the road (by answering to the demand for ever higher quality programs) and at the same time go through this painful but well intentioned change in roles between the two industry stakeholders.

What does this mean for national civil society?  Well, i suppose it can longer be the role of the INGO to solely provide answers to the challenge of making national civil society work effectively.  The local peers have to do some heavy-lifting and I was happy to observe that at the same meeting, national civil society CEO’s also criticized themselves.  The CEO’s raised many weaknesses that they believe need addressing before they become effective at what they do: i.e. weak governance system with founders turning into owners, considering civil society organizations personal business; lack of effective organizational strategy; low capacity of staff; lack of fundraising strategy; weak internal control systems; lack of capacity for advocacy and policy analysis etc.  Unfortunately these aren’t new problems, and it left me wondering what has to be done different this time, to effectively address the problems.

As the two day meeting entered its final stages, it was clear that the two parties, had to get back to the drawing board in order to define a roadmap that will be used to discuss national civil society development and i hope, an effective civil society business-model.

So does it surprise you that from a very firm starting position by the INGO: we want to talk about a ‘roadmap to effective civil society’ the ensuing and good dialogue I must say, ended up: we need to discuss what an ‘effective civil society organization is’ then later, chart a ‘road map to delivering that effective entity’.  Perhaps that is where the INGO should have started.

What I’m in agreement with, in both mind and soul, is that upcoming discourse between the INGO and its national peers on what the profile of an effective national civil society organization is, the roadmap to DEVELOPING such an organization, and how to manage and resource that, will be very interesting.  Perhaps this INGO and its national peers in Rwanda, may just be about to genuinely influence change, in a national civil society/INGO sector known more for its rhetoric than action when it comes to organisational partnership dynamics.

Let us look out for those conversations in my future blogs!


5 responses to “Pitfalls to an effective national civil society business-model – wake-up call for the INGO!”

  1. […] vs. local civil society effective-partnership dialogue that I blogged on towards the end of 2014 . Recalling the debate at the meeting last year, I was eager to see mark-stones laid that would […]


  2. Matt – thanks very much for taking time to read my blog and for you excellent insight into matters civil society!
    Civil-society strategy is as you say, different from civil-society-organisation strategy – one wonders what should (or has) come before the other. INGO’s have started with CSO stuff as it helps connect to where their ‘bread & butter’ come from – i.e. the northern donor aid mechanism. In doing the latter, they have forgotten to look at civil-society holistically (as a sector or industry) and attempts to do so, have either been half-baked or cowardly…. my recent blog on civil society running away from its duty to engage the state, some how talks to the cowardice i reference here. Unfortunately, many INGO’s including CARE, find themselves in a situation where they need to engage along the CSO strategy line in order to immediately tap into donor funds and avoid ‘death’, yet in the long run, it is engaging along civil-society strategy line that will secure the INGo.
    I agree that the CS roles are indeed donor ascribed – and whilst we can read many things into that, it is another indication of the weakness of CSO’s in this part of the world. if they were strong and firmly defined a niche for themselves like the case you share from Myanmar, perhaps things would be different i.e. they would be in charge of the direction they are taking
    I hope we start to see more and more CSO’s focus on constituency-agenda’s and people-people development as opposed to diktats from the aid industry – would be interested in knowing how this is happening in Myanmar esp. when it comes to resourcing ($) their business (model)
    Yes, CARE is committed to supporting CSO led development and having itself play a facilitator role – how is CARE doing that? Tough, but a straight answer is to become a much leaner machine different from the orthodox INGO we have come to know – if i were to realise my vision as leader, any INGO i head should in a few years time, be a ‘McKinsey’ like entity providing high-end development TA – between 15 and 50 staff, very little traditional overhead etc
    I will share the think-piece direct with you once i get to my desk Monday


  3. Dear Gabazira,
    Great blog and great topic – I found you via Duncan Greens’ blog.
    First I have never worked in Africa, and from what I do know there are very significant contextual and social differences from east Asia – where I work. Nevertheless, if your observations were based on a meeting in Cambodia or Indonesia I would be thinking:
    We now realize that we missed the wood for the trees when we started conflating “civil society” with “civil society organization”. Terms like CEO, CSO, business-model, organization development (let alone briefcase  etc. now ring alarm-bells that we are engaging with a few trees in a large wood and need to be very cautious not to assume that a few (or many) CSOs constitutes the civil society. Of course we look for organisations -because they are recognizable, are more likely to fit with our mechanisms and processes, are sue-able, and have often been formed in our own image. But these relationships can only be helpful in shaping an “effective CSO strategy” which is radically distinct from an “effective civil society strategy”. I really like your term “eco-system” and your observation that most of the eco-system wasn’t even in the meeting-room.
    If we found ourselves in a discussion where our local partners were focused on transactional issues we’d think “oh my goodness, this is a complete role-reversal” and second “these relationships must be a legacy of by-gone days.”
    The roles that the think-piece ascribes to civil society are donor-ascribed roles. They would be largely rejected by civil society actors in Myanmar – where I am working now. Much more important for them are their key role in building the nation – not the state, and in carrying out what they call “autonomous civic initiatives” which are essentially people-to-people activities and programmes. These are the two areas where it is almost impossible to attract donor-funds and this is why they see the watch-dogging as a donor agenda.
    If we heard that our partners were expecting their new power to come from the global aid industry we would be certain we were talking with the wrong people. We would looking for discussion of constituency, downward accountability and local legitimacy.
    Is it perhaps that we are simply fortunate that civil society in this part of the world is relatively assertive, passionate and grounded? If this is the case I am sure it didn’t happen because of sympathetic states.
    You write elsewhere that CARE is moving to a civil-society-led (right-term?) programme. I am fascinated to learn how CARE plans to manage the revenue implications of this shift, as presumably they will no longer be the primary contractor with donors? If you were also willing to share the “thought-piece” prepared for your meeting, I would much value the chance to learn from it.

    Best wishes

    Liked by 1 person

  4. […] RSS ← Pitfalls to an effective national civil society business-model – wake-up call for the&n… […]


  5. Interesting talking to someone who was at this meeting & they said: ‘if we continue to be this honest to one another, I’m hopeful that we will start to make progress re.: fulfilling our mandate’


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About Me

Apollo B. Gabazira is an Ugandan OD. junkie fascinated by matters that render organisations/individuals effective or not. He blogs on effective leadership and management. He is a devoted green-farmer and breeds the Ayrshire cow at Nakabugu, Luuka district, Uganda. Apollo is quite effective at what he chooses to do.


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