The EC and Non-State Actors: outsourcing, CBO envelopes or investing in local capacities

The European Commission operates a program that supports initiatives of  Non-State-Actor and Local Authorities. The program has three goals  related to a) development actions in partner countries implemented by NSA’s and LA’s,  b) awareness  and education for development in EU member states and acceding countries, and c) activities that foster coöperation between CSO networks and local authorities in EU and acceding countries among themselves and with Community Institutions.

Halfway its implementation, external experts have reviewed the program. In a report of 70+ pages,  they assess progress and make recommendations focusing on the set-up and management of the program.  The review addresses no less than 11 horizontal issues an 10 issues related to specific goals of the program.  The commission has published an issues paper for the consultation. If you wish to read and comment follow this link to the EC site.

The expert report is not really very readable report to be honest.  A summary would hardly do it justice because of its rich detail. The consultants observe several positive features of the program and claim the program funds  a “nucleus of high quality projects.  They also find that the program is “particularly well placed to promote innovation and decentralized development approaches” although it not become exactly clear why. They judge that stakeholder involvement  needs to increase and that monitoring and follow-up need improvement.  They point to the lack of human and financial resources as  a critical weakness. To address human resources constraints, the consultants recommend the outsourcing certain tasks to cut the workload of EC-staff, particularly at Delegations.

The EC NSA – LA program is very much about capacity building, in particularly capacities  “ to facilitate .. [NSA and LA]… involvement in the policy-making process and to enhance capacity to deliver basic services”.  Mind you, nor at the organizational, nor at the institutional level these are the same capacities, nor are they necessarily compatible.  Government may allow, even enable NSA’s to deliver services (whether under institutional arrangements of competition or patronage),  but rarely they covet strong NSA’s to actually influence their policies.

In classifying the “status of NSA’s and LA’s” and the degree of capacity building required,  the experts actually include – among others – the variable “understanding of EC rules and procedures”.  Very honest.  Indeed, the standard approach used by the program – grants are awarded  based on a public call for projects – has a distinct bias towards applicants that a well-versed in EC procedures.  There is also a bias towards low-risk operations because EC financial procedures require the award recipient to unilaterally absorb almost all (financial) risks of any venture. The observation of the expert review that the program does not reach grassroots level CBO’s will not surprise anyone who has ever submitted a proposal for an EC call.

But does this mean that we should actually invest in the CBO capacities to understand EC procedures? And , should the EC actually aim to directly reach those organizations?

Earlier in 2009, the EC’s own  Court of Auditors wrote its own  – very readable – report  on the Commission’s Management of NSA involvement in EC Development Cooperation. To read it, follow this link. The Court of Auditors actually observes that the outcome of calls for proposals tended to favor the best resourced organization (paragraph  80) and notes that “as regards capacity development, teams have concentrated on training in project management and not on enhancing NSA’s skills in policy analysis, advocacy work watchdog functions …..promoting networking etc. thus underemphasizing the policy dialogue role” (paragraph 83 – my emphasis).

Both reports also address the issue of time frames.  While the expert review recommends to fund capacity development projects beyond 3 years, the Court of Auditors observes project durations ranging from 6 months to 2 years.  Serious capacity development takes time, both sources emphasize.

Very encouraging , the Court recommends that “alternatives to the current procedures should be explored both to allow a more strategic approach (…) and to better reach grassroots organizations (such as the use of cascading grants)”. In their response the Commission acknowledges this need.

Maybe we should not pretend the EC should directly reach grassroots CBO’s.  And I certainly do not think we should lighten the workload of delegations by outsourcing lock stock and barrel  the EC’s complicated call procedures.  First we erred creating parallel government structures, are we now going to create parallel NSA structures?  Why invest in local NSA capacities to be good recipients of EC grants?  Should not EC grants actually protect and foster local capacities that really matter.

If you want to invest in development initiatives of Non State Actors, it would be better to invest in the capacities of local funds (and programs) that have shown they are able to actually reach out to grassroots organizations.  When they need our help, help them to get better at it. We could support them  with 5 year program funding, and help them not only to become effective channels,  but also challenge them to be accountable to their beneficiaries – promote some downward accountability. And maybe in middle-income countries,  we can even support them to promote local philanthropy.

Southern CSO’s should not be groomed to be just another channel to deliver northern aid when there is an opportunity to really invest in vibrant (southern) civil society.