This blog was written by Sarah Peck, a PhD student in the Geography department. Her PhD Topic is ‘Doing development: the everyday lives and labours of civil society activists in the Eastern Caribbean’.

This week is Global Money Week, an annual global celebration aimed at children and young people to help them learn more about money and how to earn, save and spend it responsibly. Money is also an important, and often contested, feature of the international development landscape. This blog explores the Department for International Development’s (DFID) Civil Society Partnership Review (CSPR), which outlines changes to the way that aid money is going to be channeled through civil society organizations (CSOs) and considers what this might mean for their work in international development.

CSOs play a significant role in international development, having risen to prominence in the 1980s and 1990s. They are seen as flexible, innovative, cost-effective and importantly are thought to be closer to and more representative of marginalized groups. There has been substantial debate about the role of CSOs, and NGOs in particular, in development, with critics accusing them of becoming depoliticized, co-opted and professionalised in a way that divorces them from their grassroots constituents (for recent discussion see: Banks & Hulme 2012; a response to their paper by Oxfam’s Duncan Green; and Banks, Hulme & Edwards 2015). Despite all of these debates, CSOs remain an integral part of the global development industry, with the Accra Agenda for Action in 2008 stressing the need to strengthen engagement with CSOs.

In November 2016, UK’s Department for International Development published its Civil Society Partnership Review. The review analyses DFID’s relationship with CSOs. CSOs are a valuable resource for DFID, with £1.4bn or 25% of their bilateral aid budget going to CSOs in 2014/15. Beginning in July 2015, the CSPR is the culmination of months of data collection and analyses, including five twitter consultations with CSOs working in development and a series of discussions with over 100 organisations. The purpose of the review was to look at the way that DFID engages with and funds CSOs in delivering development interventions, and to consider how this can be made more effective in the future.

DFID’s CSPR recognizes the crucial role that CSOs play in development, alongside the diverse and changing nature of the civil society sector. The review also comments on how DFID perceives civil society, incorporating both the service providing nature of the sector, and the more political side linked to freedom of association and expression. This blog considers three ideas that come out of DFID’s review: transparency, partnerships and the role of CSOs in a post-Brexit Britain, and what this might mean Civil Society Organisations working in International Development.

Transparency & accountability

Financial survival remains a significant concern for many civil society organisations around the world, particularly in the context of changing development priorities, austerity measures and shifts in public perceptions of aid spending. One of the purposes of the review is to revise how DFID funds its civil society partners. Acknowledging the challenges CSOs can have obtaining financial resources the CSPR outlines changes to DFID’s funding streams, in particular to encourage small and medium sized CSOs to be able to compete for funding, which will be done through the continuation of the UK Aid Direct funding stream.

The CSPR outlines four new funding structures, UK Aid Match, in which private donations are matched to charity appeals from the aid budget; UK Aid Direct, which is the main fund for small and medium sized CSOs; UK Aid Connect, which will support coalitions and UK Aid Volunteers, directed as volunteering programmes. Applications for the first round of UK Aid Match (£30million) and UK Aid Direct (£40million) closed at the end of January 2017. All of these funding opportunities are accompanied by heavy and repeat emphasis on transparency and accountability. This includes being transparent to donors about the way that money is used, and also encouraging CSOs to provide accountability mechanisms so that people on the ground can see where money ends up. Practically these ideals are met by DFID only providing central funding to CSOs who meet the full International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI) standard on all their funding and through encouraging greater use of beneficiary feedback within CSO programme design.


Whilst this emphasis on transparency and accountability has a tendency to place DFID in a procurement role relative to CSOs, the CSPR also accentuates the need for increasing levels of partnership working. This is framed within the increasingly complex development landscape, where ‘no single organization has all the answers’ (CSPR 2016:8). The review highlights the positive innovative benefits partnerships can bring, especially between public, private and civil society sectors, with fewer acknowledgements of the complex power relations that may exist through these partnerships, and how the need to work collaboratively may shape the civil society sector. Financially these partnerships are encouraged through the UK Aid Connect funding stream, which has been developed to support consortia of development organizations, with the proposals for the first phase of UK Aid Connect due to open in March 2017.

Post-Brexit Britain

Beneath these themes the CSPR also presents a story about the UK’s International Development industry in the post-Brexit landscape. The CSPR ascribes a new nationalism to the UK’s development industry, and through its relationship with CSOs. As Priti Patel, the Secretary of State for International Development, comments in her foreword to the Review (2016:6) ‘This review marks the beginning of my efforts to work in partnership alongside UK CSOs…as together we build a post-Brexit Britain that is generous, outward-looking and fully engaged on the world stage’. Here aid money is mobilized as part of the UK government’s commitment to creating a vision of a state that exists outside of the European Union.

Along side their role in building this benevolent global post-Brexit Britain, the CSPR places CSOs at the centre of establishing Britain’s leadership and soft power around the world. In partnering with CSOs, DFID is not only looking to develop the effectiveness of their own work, but also to build Britain’s global brand. Working with CSOs is seen as a way that the UK can remain relevant and connected at a global scale.

What does the review mean for CSOs working in International Development?

But what does this review mean for British CSOs working in International Development? DFID uses the review to acknowledge the role of CSOs in development, and recognizes the important part they play. There seems to be potential for a diversity of CSOs to work with DFID and recognition that funding sources often exclude smaller organizations. This potentially contrasts with greater emphasis on solutions to increase transparency and accountability, which may be difficult for all organizations to adhere to. There is a desire to engage with a greater diversity of civil society organizations, in the North and South, but few details of how these engagements will be facilitated, with the exception of in-country CSO engagement with DFID country offices. There is also acknowledgement that CSOs are now adapting the way they work, and a push for them to develop partnerships outside of their sector, for example with the private sector. Less is known about the amount of money that will be available for working in coalitions through the UK Aid Connect funding stream. There are also questions about how these consortia of diverse development actors will work together, how they can be effective and the impact working in coalitions will have on the transactions costs of development interventions.

The desire for CSOs to build post-Brexit Britain’s soft power is evident, but this is contrasted with little mention of the changing civil society landscape in the UK. Civil society organisations are expected to represent a post-Brexit Britain on the world stage through their development work. This has the potential to present opportunities for CSOs to be involved in building this (new) ‘generous global Britain’, but it will be important to think about what impact these expectations could have on the work that CSOs do, in particular their work in building freedom of expression and association both at home and overseas.

The CSPR, alongside DFID’s multi and bilateral development reviews, gives us a snapshot into how development activities and finances are currently being positioned, and the possibilities and challenges this presents for civil society organizations working in the International Development arena.


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