Friday, May 17, 2013

Grant Vouchers: New Foundations for Civil Society?

This blog has been posted by Silas Everett (

The American colonies complained that there should be “no taxation without representation”.  But what happens when the reverse is at play?  In the poorer parts of the world dependent on foreign aid donor funding goes to government and to non-governmental organizations (NGOs) who seek to address the development issues of the day.  For NGOs, who unlike government, do not contest elections or try to raise support from local funding sources. Instead, NGOs often operate solely with funds originating externally from democratically governed, well-to-do countries.   In other words, NGOs in developing countries play a civic role in carrying forward the interests of the people, providing “representation without taxation”.  

Who’s complaining? 

On the lips of donor, government, and NGO representatives from the Balkans and Caucasus, to Southeast Asia, I have heard the following phrases from time to time used to describe civil society:  

·         “Donor-driven”: NGOs have been accused of being or at the behest of foreign or other political influence – this is especially true where when push comes to shove CSOs engaged in advocacy efforts are unable to articulate or demonstrate who they are representing at the grassroots level, thus undermining their political capital to influence the desired policy change.

·         “Weak participation”:  This phrase finds itself in the challenge statements of many of a civil society project proposal, but when seeking to increase participation, there is a tendency for NGOs to rely on project money to incentivize public participation rather than the other way around.  As a result, donor dependency sets in and the perennial development challenge of “sustainability” rears its head only to be met with another project proposal.

·         “Lack of legitimacy”: Poor people in developing countries often view both civil society and government from a distance.  Neither is particularly trusted when it comes to address the concerns of the poor.  In contrast, where poor people give contributions to say their clan, local forest or water user group, village church, mosque or temple, they not only feel better served but better represented. 

Over the years, albeit seldom, I have seen some experimentation with different approaches to civil society engagement that try to address some of these common concerns. In Mongolia, I was involved with Training, Advocacy and Networking (TAN) program for two years trying to stimulate rural civil society.  The program was implemented by Mercy Corps and funded by USAID for five years and supported 64 small community development projects with grant funding  ranging from $1,000 to $10,000 in areas such as education and health services, environmental protection and awareness, employment promotion and income generation, water and garbage management, local transportation, and social services addressing alcoholism and domestic violence.

The project started with a Citizen-based Grant-Voucher Program where selected bagh (or hamlet level) households received training and vouchers to identify, prioritize, monitor, and address community needs.  The program had four basic steps. First, gathering - following an information campaign about the vouchers, baghs were selected on the basis of demonstrated commitment to increasing public participation and the amount of funds the baghs pledge based on bagh member response. Second, taking inventory - households of selected baghs were given a voucher representing a monetary value. Bagh constituents in a guided series of bagh council meetings then pooled resources and prioritized community needs with facilitation support from local trainers guided by TAN. Third, engaging - local civil society organizations, having attended the previous bagh meetings, presented proposals to the bagh constituency that addressed the constituency’s needs. A civil society organization or consortium of such organizations was then selected for leading the implementation of the project. Fourth, monitoring - the project was monitored by the bagh constituency using a community scorecard methodology.

The voucher component of the program had promising, but mixed results.  While more citizens participated in community development as a result of the voucher system, the issues the community participants identified were often broad and general, such as poverty, unemployment, alcoholism.  These issues were often beyond NGOs’ capacities and resources to resolve, especially in the relatively short time frame of the project.  While community participation was high during the needs assessment stage, at the project selection stage, there was difficulty in building consensus around a narrower, more concrete set of actionable priorities.  The tendency was to jump to one or two “fundable” priorities and as a result the community participation rate declined.  Instead of NGOs, some issues, such as those requiring advocacy or collaboration with public service agencies, could have been better dealt with by community members themselves if they had had the opportunity for further capacity development. 

Overall, the grant vouchers echoed much of what we know about community development:  greater community ownership was observed where community members retained authority and responsibility throughout the project. How this type of grassroots civic engagement scales up to national level has yet been untested to my knowledge. The numerous examples of non-donor funded grassroots civil society organizations that have reached national prominence may find that in the end such forms of civil society development need to foremost take their own course.  

So coming back to the original question - is the kind of aid architecture we find today really the best the development community can offer?  In some sectors it may be, particularly those requiring deeper technical, scientific, medical or legal expertise at an organizational level. However, the apparent benefits and novelty of alternative mechanisms like grant vouchers suggest more experimentation is required across  sectors of civil society engagement in international development, particularly at the grassroots.  Frankly, with much self-criticism, the current status quo and acceptance of the form of representation supported by the international development community deserves more grumblings of discontent, not aimed at civil society, but at the orthodoxy of the top-down funding mechanism itself.   In the end the big challenge may have less to do with finding the right modality of channeling funds to civil society, but rather finding the muster and leverage to convince central and sub-national authorities and NGOs to recognize, support and work with indigenous, community based groups, many of whom exist outside of the formal state structure and may be out of step with international norms themselves.