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Should International Aid to CSOs End After Graduation?

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One of the most frequent criticisms of civil society development work in emerging democracies is, too often, the work is donor driven. To a large extent the criticism is justifiable and applicable to both the internationals that rely on Western donor funding to implement civil society/good governance programs and the indigenous organizations they work with. After twenty years of Western driven support, many countries in transition are reaching levels of economic and political maturity and are being "graduated"; therefore they either no longer qualify for future Western support or their aid packages are reduced significantly by such major donors as USAID, the World Bank, and the EU. Unfortunately, the graduation of a country does not necessarily imply a matured philanthropic sector. Consequently, the sustainability of the civil society sector, and their programs that promote transparency and good governance, are put at risk once the flow of international aid comes to a stop.

One of the most surprising and recent victims of "international donor withdrawal" was South Africa's Institute for Democracy in Africa (Idasa): one of Africa's most prestigious civil society organizations. Idasa had been the international community's go-to CSO for the past three decades. Upon closing Idasa's offices in March 2013, the founders noted in a press release, "Every effort has been made over the last three years to reshape Idasa to adapt to current economic and sociopolitical circumstances, but regrettably it has not proved possible to garner the financial support necessary to continue its work in a sustainable manner or pay its debts."

The development of a strong, active and vibrant civil society sector is a long and demanding process. Most international funded civil society development programs provide local CSOs with basic management and advocacy skills, as well as a vision of what their society should look like, i.e. an active and engaged civic sector with a transparent and accountable government.

Unfortunately, over the years we have learned that this vision appears in view as long as international aid is flowing. Once the international donors leave for other troubled spots, the civil society community shrinks quickly and dramatically, and too often their focus becomes less on how to build an open society and more on how to survive in a post-donor environment. The few remaining local CSOs left in the country are driven largely by a sense of civic responsibility and their pursuit of the so-called "vision of an open society" falls short in an environment which provides little, if any, philanthropic opportunities for their work.

This is not to say that the internationals have not helped develop legislation which provides tax incentives for corporations and individuals who donate to non-profit organizations. However, these tax incentive programs have had modest success. Typically, the culture of corporate giving is at its early stages in most of these emerging democracies. And the few corporations that do give, tend to prefer channeling their support to politically safe charities. They tend to shy away from supporting advocacy/good governance driven organizations which are often perceived as antagonists by the country's leadership, for fear they may place at risk their relationship with the government. Some CSOs have benefited from "percentage laws", which allow taxpayers to select an organization to receive a set percent of their taxes. Unfortunately, the success of these types of programs is limited to CSOs located in Hungary, Latvia, Poland, Slovakia, and Slovenia.

And here lies the dilemma. Is the international community just as responsible for the post-development environment they leave behind as they were for the one that led to their involvement in the first place? One can argue that current civil society development programs provide local CSO with the skills necessary to ensure their longevity well beyond the time when international funds end. But for those of us who have worked in the field, we know one of the challenges is that when funding is ample and only an arm's length way, many of the internationally driven training programs are viewed by local CSOs as a means to the grant. But can we really blame the local CSOs for putting greater emphasis on the getting the quick grant rather than sitting through time-consuming capacity development trainings? Are not most international organizations also driven by a similar attitude when it comes to a choice between a funding opportunity and a civic responsibility?

Most of our civil society and good governance programs can also claim they were instrumental in creating a more accountable government and as such developed an environment that promotes market reform and a system of giving. The seeds of democracy have been sowed and the locals should have enough skills and know-how to develop their country, which includes supporting their civil society sector. This may be fitting for a handful of countries located in Central European. However, civil society sector in most foreign aid graduate countries from the Balkans to Africa are still in need of assistance.

In an email to this writer, Ivor Jenkins, former Director of Idasa, warned, "International donors seem not to understand that all their long invested aid especially those put into development will be gone in a blink of an eye if they do not continue supporting good governance and democracy building projects/organizations in the country they are withdrawing from."

The need to change the future of civil society development is a topic of many international conferences, articles, and papers that have produced, at best, modest results. However, the closure of a strong, well-run, and well-resourced organization such as Idasa, should act as a wakeup call to change to our current civil society development approach.

The economic and political development of the country does not necessarily lead to the development of its philanthropic sector. But what can be done in a time when the need for Western support across the globe far exceeds the availability of funds? For starters future Western supported civil society/good governance projects need to be more inventive. Their proposals for development of the civil society sector needs to go beyond the traditional life of the project and include a strategy on how they will support the sector, both technically and financially, after the country has "graduated" or when Western donors have moved to other troubled spots.