Civil society: Executive summary


Within the framework of the Accra Agenda for Action (AAA, art 13.b), CSOs and other non-state actors (NSAs) have an active role to play to support country development; they should therefore as well be part of country capacity development (CD) processes – both as recipients as well as providers of CD support. While acknowledging that other NSAs (e.g. political parties, local authorities, research institutes, media and the private sector) have also crucial roles to play, this note focuses on development-oriented CSOs in partner countries. It looks at two key capacity questions:

  • CSOs for Capacity Development: What are the strengths and opportunities CSOs offer to support national and local CD processes? What are the challenges and shortcomings they face?
  • Capacity Development for CSOs: How have CSOs been supported to develop and strengthen their capacities to effectively play their development roles to their full potential?

Partner country CSOs have a full range of roles as development actors and change agents, which include – but are not limited to - the delivery of basic services, support to local development, policy influencing in support of participatory and democratic governance and the promotion of demand-driven accountability mechanisms. 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.

It is important to acknowledge the complexity and diversity of CSOs and take it into account to manage expectations on what they can achieve – including in terms of strengthening the capacities of other organizations.

Regarding CSOs for Capacity Development, reviewed evidence seems to suggest that:

  • Finding 1: CSOs are playing an increasingly important role as CD support providers – at the local as well as national level.
  • Finding 2: Despite most CSOs have some knowledge about what good CD practice is, in reality they face significant challenges in translating CD principles into good practice – which are very similar to the challenges faced by other development partners such as donors and INGOs and include the need to develop internal capacities as well as the pressure to deliver tangible results in a short time – which goes against the long-term nature of CD processes.
  • Finding 3: 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.

In terms of 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 goes beyond technical skills at include -  among others - analytical and adaptive capacities, capacities for strategic planning, management and governance, the capacity for resource mobilization or the capacity to enhance accountability and increase legitimacy.
  • Finding 5. CD support from development partners to CSOs tends to remain too short-term and supply-led - although some change is occurring towards more demand-led, contextualised and comprehensive CD approaches.
  • 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.
  • Finding 7: Supporting CD of CSOs implies a number of significant risks and distortions and merits careful exploration of safeguards – particularly in fragile situations where the risk of doing harm is greater.

The note discusses the implications that follow from the evidence described, focusing on dilemmas and operational challenges for CSOs engaged in CD as well as for donor agencies, international NGOs (INGOs) and state institutions in partner countries that can influence CSOs CD processes. It highlights the need to join learning and joint efforts to overcome such challenges and define the right incentives to stimulate behavioural changes.  It concludes with a set of possible messages to be taken up tothe Fourth High Level Forum (HLF4) in Busan and beyond – which can be summarized as follows:

General Messages

  • Partner country ownership of CD processes goes beyond the State.
  • Engaging with CSOs - and more broadly with NSAs - might bring dilemmas because of their diversity and complexity – which must be understood and considered, as well as the dynamics of their relationship with state institutions.
  • CSOs and other NSAs involved in CD can engage actively with donors, partner country governments and other development partners in the on-going, joint South-North effort to consolidate lessons learnt and identify CD good practices – on the road to Busan and after.

Messages in Relation to CSOs for Capacity Development

  • There is a need for donors, northern CSOs and INGOs along with other international CD support providers to assess their role in CD support in relation to strengthen CSO ownership in developing countries. A shift is needed towards a transparent market for CD, open and accessible to local CD providers including southern CSOs.
  • Enhancing the evidence base on CD modalities and support by CSOs is a critical step to improve learning on what works and what does not work.

Messages in Relation to Capacity Development for CSOs

  • Partner country governments and donors have a key role in setting up a conductive enabling environment that facilitates and values CSOs engagement in development processes.
  • Effective support to capacity development requires a contextualised, coordinated, long-term, demand-driven and comprehensive approach which goes beyond training for individual skills to provide support to key organizational capacities. In least developed countries and post-conflict situations, donors, northern CSOs and INGOs must move carefully and do not push for the creation of “donor-oriented” CSOs as this might worsen rather than enhance the state-citizen-CSO relationships
  • All actors in donor and partner countries should join effort to seek for and promote innovative and flexible support mechanisms for CD of CSOs.

This note constitutes a starting point to fuel discussion on CSOs and CD - it does not provide all answers, but rather leaves space for further research on relevant topics such as effective relationships and interactions across all relevant actors as well as at the incentives and levers that could induce different practice. A joint effort is needed that bring together the voices and perspectives of CSOs and other development partners in the South and in the North on good practice in fostering CD across state and non-state actors.