Can African philanthropy support post-aid social accountability work?

Published on 20 December 2017

In this blog, Alan Fowler, Honorary Professor Chair in African Philanthropy, Wits Business School, Johannesburg, reflects on the struggle for financial sustainability facing African NGOs and CSOs, partly as a result of uncertain external aid funding, and whether different types of African philanthropy can step into the breach by supporting organisations which work on social accountability. He draws on the presentation he gave at the recent Citizenship and Participation international seminar in Maputo, hosted by the CEP programme.

Most people will acknowledge that it is essential for civil society organisations, which work to enable and support development gains, to be financially sustainable beyond the aid they may currently receive.

However, in Africa, the economic vulnerability of CSOs is the norm.

The rhetoric-reality gap is structural and enduring, leading to concerted demands, for example from Civicus, for significant changes in donor behaviour and to the rules of the game that continue to treat southern CSOs as sub-contractors. This scenario plays out across social service delivery and the less tangible dimensions of development, in this case a project to enhance social accountability in Mozambique, with lessons of wider value. 

Given what history tells us about CSO sustainability as a potential Holy Grail, what does the continent itself have to offer in terms of mobilizing the energy and resources needed to make social accountability an enduring feature of people’s lives?

Where does capacity for social accountability matter?

Within the development community there is a common confusion between CSOs and the population at large.

This “mistaken identity” elevates what the aid system can see and fund from that which lives in the deep fabric of citizens’ lives – the local/community/civic associations (CAs) that are the bedrock for Africa’s social functioning within webs of relational networks living near and far. Community based organisations (CBOs) often offer organisational visibility with roots in CAs, while aided NGOs remain ‘suspended’ within African societies, dependent on uncertainties of the aid chain.

Studies by the transnational Citizenship Development Research Centre at IDS reached an important conclusion about the ability of different types of CSOs to influence democracy and policy:

In our sample, we found a very strong presence of associations, in particular, in these least democratic settings. In turn these associations play very important roles across each of the outcomes studied – constructing citizenship, improving practices of participation, strengthening accountability, and contributing to social cohesion. Contrary to the predominant view, this evidence urges approaches to strengthening democracy and development in such settings which recognise and support the role of associations as key actors in the process. [Extract from Gaventa and Barrett Working Paper on Outcomes of Citizens Engagement

The evidence points towards the microlevel of associational life as a critical, organic and unaided location for capacity that can make gains in social accountability endure or not.

From a sustainability perspective, concentrating on enhancing capacity of CBOs and NGOs as project carriers may be misleading. Such an error can deflect attention from enhancing the types of capacity that have to be mobilized within different CSOs.

What needs to be mobilized?

The sustainability of development gains stand or fall on the civic energy that takes change forward and mobilizing additional resources to do so.

Civic energy arises from motivations to act, that is to exert agency – be it individual and collective – into the world around that can enable or constrain influence. Critical, in a Freirian sense, is the psycho-social predisposition of the people involved to act in an accountability situation, including by not acting.

At issue, then, is the extent to which aided initiatives towards social accountability stimulate the self-driven motivations required for people to continue exerting themselves and their interests towards those in authority.

This is an essential type of capacity that is seldom captured in project assessments as well as calling for ‘predictive’ indicators of motivational change. Examples are: spontaneous replication by non-project communities and non-project-related accountability initiatives. 

An inter-related capacity is towards the mobilization of local resources, which can be relational, financial, material, knowledges, informational, technological, beliefs, people’s time and so on.  Sustaining social accountability as a development outcome makes a call to gain a mix of resourcing capabilities appropriate to the type of CSO

For CAs, the methods and channels are likely to be informal, drawing on trust, on network relationships and other communitarian channels, values and modes of compliance. For CBOs, resourcing reflects CA capabilities allied to the skills required to access support from more formal sources, such as governments, NGOs and local businesses whose reputations are tied to their clients daily realities.  By and large, NGOs concentrate on finding the finance needed to pay staff, with greater or lesser reliance on volunteers. 

Capacity in fund-raising is often strongly reliant on the quality, reputation and network of the leadership, usually the chief executive rather than the board. Typically, this is where the growing landscape of African Philanthropy becomes a potentially important source for domestic resource mobilization, but can it rise to the challenge of social accountability?

Can African philanthropy take up the challenge of resourcing for social accountability?

As the origin of humanity and crucible for the evolution of pro-social behaviours, Africa‘s post-colonial plurality in indigenous philanthropy is coming into view.  Evidence and information of this phenomenon and its diverse practices are very uneven across the continent.

What we see are horizontal and vertical practices (PDF). The former are between Africa’s people, including personal donations, volunteering and Diaspora flow, alongside vertical practices associated with high net worth individuals, corporate social responsibility financing as well as innovations in social investment and grant-making foundations that raise funds from Africa’s middle classes and others. Community foundations, for example, occupy spaces between pure horizontal and vertical.

By and large, available studies point to African philanthropy funding health and education, avoiding politically sensitive initiatives such as social justice.

There are also indications that – with a few visible and notable examples – Africa’s (mega) philanthropists tend to stay below the radar of public attention, preferring to identify those that they wish to fund.

This stance avoids being swamped with proposals. While the jury is out, initial signs are that sustaining social accountability will be hard pressed to rely on the growing field of vertical African philanthropy. Enhancing capacities for horizontal philanthropy and advancing the blending of vertical and horizontal practices seems a more promising avenue to explore. 

Leia este blog em português (PDF).

The views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author/s and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of IDS.


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