Book Review: Reimagining Civil Society Collaborations in Development: Starting from the South

April 26, 2023

     By Duncan Green     

‘Localization’ of aid, when you think about it, is actually quite an outsider’s word. It suggests taking the assets currently held in the North (money, knowledge, power) and somehow transferring them to the South. The value of this book, edited By Margit van WesselTiina KontinenJustice Nyigmah Bawole is captured in the subtitle. It discards that idea and asks how CSOs in the South collaborate, both with each other and with funders (both local and international) and what can be learned. In the jargon, it focusses on the existing ‘agency’ of local and national organizations – I’m increasingly drawn to these kinds of ‘asset-based’ rather than ‘deficit-based’ approaches.

The book is pretty long (340 pages), and stuffed full with both conceptual discussions and case studies of southern CSOs around the world. It’s also (huzzah!) Open Access, which means you can read it for free and I can cut and paste some of the good bits.

The book asks three big questions: ‘How to reimagine who can do what in CSO collaborations when we start from the perspectives of Southern CSOs and acknowledge their agency. Who matters and how, attempting to distance ourselves from the North–South binary. What new collaborations would look like if ‘starting from the South’ were more prevalent.’

This could all be very woffly, but a series of great case studies really nails down the answers.

A study from Kenya (by Selma Zijlstra and Marja Spierenburg) explores the difficult dance between a local CSO (the Malindi Rights Forum), its international NGO funders, and the community of farmers displaced by the salt industry that both are trying to help. Here’s a flavour of its nuanced, insightful findings, including on the different kinds of legitimacy the CSO enjoyed:

‘How did MRF’s integration into the aid system impact their legitimacy in the eyes of their constituents? MRF still enjoyed considerable legitimacy. It was mainly the normative and pragmatic legitimacy that was engrained among MRF members, as people shared their main goal of getting the land back, as well as shorter-term goals such as getting education on land rights or fighting for short-term results such as land titling. The new emphasis on women’s rights was embraced and also attracted more women to the movement. MRF also showed representational legitimacy, as they were seen as a genuine spokesperson for the people.

The legal strategies that had been enhanced by funding were a new source of MRF’s legitimacy, as the organization brought expertise. Even though community members sometimes recalled with nostalgia the collective spirit and different tactics they had used in the past, people preferred to use ‘the law instead of the panga’ because of police repression but also because they had come to understand their rights, which enabled them to fight back with something more forceful than before.

However, the shift in strategies demanded a different skill set: a good command of English, knowledge of the law, and the ability to use computers to write letters. Hence, most strategic actions were carried out by MRF instead of by the farmer group leaders. Because legal advocacy relies less on active MRF member participation, compared with the earlier, more collective strategies, the loss of collective spirit necessary for the ‘embodied’ defence of land rights reinforced processes of demobilization.

Furthermore, MRF’s cognitive legitimacy (constituents seeing MRF as ‘one of us’) was impacted, as community members started to look at the office differently when the volunteers from the early days were replaced by professional staff members.

Pragmatic legitimacy is about being able to satisfy the needs of the community. Many community members indicated that MRF had helped with stopping some of the salt companies’ expansions. However, the organization’s funding also created high expectations. People anticipated they would get their land back quickly; when this proved to be a long and protracted struggle, people started to lose trust in MRF. One senior MRF member indicated that people could not understand why their problems were not solved when the office was receiving millions of Kenyan shillings. The influx of money also created other expectations, such as school bursaries and assistance with hospital visits.

Perhaps the biggest challenge for MRF revolved around their representational legitimacy. Both MRF members and MRF staff recalled how, in the past, community members chipped in with their own resources. Now, people instead expected the office to have sufficient resources and felt that their former sacrifices were no longer required. Without contributing in this way, though, the MRF staff felt that people had also lost ownership of the struggle.

Another unintentional consequence of funding was the culture of reimbursement, which impacted collective action and inclusion. This practice served to compensate people for their time when they could have been engaged in income-generating activities, considering the high levels of poverty in the area. However, it also created ‘monetization of mobilization’; people came to expect allowances in return for their participation in civic education.

Although it is fair to say that many people still came to meetings without demanding to receive a payment, the institutionalized practice of reimbursements drained the budget, causing MRF to have to drastically scale down its meetings. Big public meetings became a thing of the past. Meetings were mainly held in rented meeting halls instead of under trees in the villages. The same people showed up to most of these meetings. Although these were highly committed volunteers who often chipped in with their own money to cover transport, the consequence was that MRF became more of a closed network. Many people were not aware that meetings were held, and some indicated ‘it is only for the selected few’. As the MRF coordinator summarized, ‘Funding has helped the programme, but it has killed the spirit’.

That’s just one great case study – there are dozens more, covering topics such as the power-shifting impact of raising money locally in Pakistan (by Themrise Khan, co-author of the recent book on White Savourism), and whether the intricate ties of trust and reciprocity that exist in Ghanaian communities (by Esi Eduafowa Sey and Justice Nyigmah Bawole) can survive formalization into institutional fundraising by local CSOs. That last chapter reveals a fascinating contrast between:

‘Vibrant giving in socio-cultural support systems and apathy in the more formal, professionalized settings of donor and NGO development projects. The case suggests that this apathy may not be due to an erosion of the spirit of voluntarism and self-help in local communities and that it is not a contradictory or paradoxical phenomenon. Instead, it is reflective of the centrality of trust to the gifting practices of local communities.’

In terms of the ‘so-whats?’ for outsiders the basic message is that we should be asking ‘How Can We Help?’ and be led by listening hard to the responses to that question from their partners. Is it money? Technical support? International networking? Something we haven’t even thought of? And that may include questioning the word ‘partners’ – ‘the book aims to counteract the bias of seeing Southern CSOs mainly as ‘partners’, viewing them instead as organizations and groups in their own right, embedded in the social and political contexts from which they emerged and in which they navigate.’ Bravo.

April 26, 2023
Duncan Green