Watch: Building back better through civil society

Building back better though civil society. Via YouTube.

SAN FRANCISCO — Hamzat Lawal, co-founder of Connected Development, is focused on fighting corruption in Nigeria and across Africa. His Follow the Money initiative, which uses data to hold the government accountable, has been tracking COVID-19 spending in the months since the pandemic hit.

In a recent Devex digital event, Lawal called on donors not just to increase their funding of civil society organizations, but also to provide more flexible support.

“You submit a proposal and then you have a workplan and then you have activities,” he said of what donors traditionally require of nonprofits. “For us right now, with COVID-19, we can’t even tell what will happen tomorrow.”

While donors have increasingly expressed interest in supporting grassroots organizations, only 2% of official development assistance goes directly to civil society organizations in low-and middle-income countries. As these groups emerge as critical partners in the COVID-19 response, it is critical that donors scale up their support, panelists told Devex. They outlined ways donors can go beyond supporting civil society organizations by giving them a seat at the table so they can represent the most vulnerable, translate ideas into policy, and hold power to account.

Cornelieke Keizer, senior policy officer on the Women’s Rights & Gender Equity Taskforce at the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs, outlined ways bilateral donors can move from a managerial to a transformational approach.

“Let go of technical processes,” she said. “Trust local ownership and contextual approaches to shift power and create lasting change.”

Keizer acknowledged that this is not always easy or even possible for bilateral donors, because they are accountable to taxpayers, tend to operate on short funding cycles based on the political context, and are bound to program funding.

She mentioned Leading from the South, a feminist philanthropic fund supported by the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs, as one potential model for donors interested in increasing support for civil society organizations.

The pandemic is more than a public health crisis, as the crisis spans ecological, political, and economic systems, said Chung-Wha Hong, executive director of Grassroots International, which supports grassroots movements globally.

“Movements are making visionary demands and trying to push through not just pieces of policy changes, but new systems, a new world,” she said.

Hong notes that only 1% of total U.S. philanthropic dollars go toward advocacy and organizing in low- and middle-income countries

“What does that say about our sector?” she said.

Over the past several years, the William & Flora Hewlett Foundation has increased the amount of money it grants to civil society organizations headquartered in Africa from 10% to 20% of its $100 million annual budget, said Dana Hovig, program director of global development and population at the foundation.

He emphasized the importance of making funding more flexible, applauding efforts by other donors to follow these best practices during COVID-19, and saying he hopes to see these practices continue rather than a return to restrictive funding.

Hovig called on civil society organizations to hold not just governments, but also funders, to account. He explained how the Hewlett Foundation has been giving through regranting intermediary organizations, which offer funders in the U.S. the opportunity to make tax-deductible donations that can then be disbursed in smaller amounts to a wider range of global organizations. His team depends on feedback from nonprofits to know whether or not this strategy is working, he said.

Watch the full event here.

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