Evelijne Bruning Ruerd Ruben en Lau Schulpen

2 juli 2019


This article claims that the current aid architecture favours clientilism, dependency and short-term projects. The authors Evelijne Bruning (The Hunger Project) Ruerd Ruben (Wageningen University & Research) and Lau Schulpen (Radboud University Nijmegen) are suggesting four possible ways to overcome this in order to shift power closer to the ground.

Vice Versa recently took the laudable initiative to organize a public debate on the changing relationships between Northern and Southern civil society organizations (NGOs) and the opportunities for shifting the power in the financial donor-receiver relationships towards Southern ownership.

While this discussion is certainly not new, the topic remains highly relevant. There are several relevant recent studies by CIDIN/Radboud University, an IOB review of direct funding of local NGOs by Dutch embassies, and a series of recommendations for funders from the Global Fund for Community Foundations (references outlined below this article). These studies all asked attention for the highly unequal power relationships  between public donors and civil society organizations in the North as well as in the South, and the impact of the funding architecture of this framework on the dependency between Northern and Southern civil society organizations and between them and the communities they seek to support.

To put it mildly, the debate which Vice Versa organised was certainly lively, but not yet conclusive. Attention was asked for the dominant role of Northern organizations in the agenda-setting for development cooperation, the unequal level playing field created by public donors, the limited autonomy for civic organizations at both sides and interesting experiments of the Dutch and Swedish governments with different type of funding relationships. Far less attention was given to the more fundamental issues created by the aid architecture that favours clientilism, dependency and short-term projects.

Therefore, we would like to ask attention in this debate for 4 critical issues, in order to shift power closer to the ground.

  1. Donors remain highly ambivalent in the importance attached to civic cooperation

Assuming that it indicates the importance attached to NGOs, the actual changes in donor funding for  NGOs is worrying. Whereas all (bilateral) donors spend part of their aid funds via NGOs, the extent to which they do differs substantially. A recent study looking into NGO funding by six DAC donors (Verbrugge & Huyse 2018: 18), for instance, showed NGO funding to have stagnated or decreased as a percentage of total ODA spending. The Netherlands is a clear example of a downward trend with NGO funding through centrally administered funding schemes having ‘declined by more than 50%’ since 2010 (Schulpen 2016: 13).

Importance, however, lies also in the extent to which such funds are spent on activities programmed by NGO themselves. Acknowledging NGOs as actors in their own right (as donors did at the Accra conference in 2011) suggests a preference for such ‘aid to’ funding. Unfortunately, reality is not in line with this. The large majority of NGO funding falls under the category of ‘aid through’ and thus concerns ‘earmarked funds that are channelled through CSOs to implement donor-initiated projects’ (Verbrugge & Huyse 2018: 17). Over the last decade, this category has become even more important. Calculations for 23 donors based on DAC data show ‘aid to’ funding to have decreased from 34% in 2008 to 28% in 2017.

Changes in government funding relate not only to amounts or activities, but also to changes in the funding system – or the way funding is made available. Central here is a move towards more managerialist approaches by donors with an emphasis on result-based management and competition through tendering (Verbrugge & Huyse 2018). Research shows that changes in government funding (both in terms of amount and funding system) are central in understanding the triggers for organisational, strategic and financial changes within the Dutch NGO community (Schulpen et al. 2018).

Interestingly, the latter study confirmed that all Dutch NGOs have changed and thus that ‘the idea that NGOs are reluctant, or unable, to change and adapt to changing circumstances is obsolete’ (ibid: 2). In comparison to financial and strategic changes, those in the organisational field are more moderate. Sure, in terms of staff a majority of Dutch NGOs have changed (e.g. in terms of an increase in staff) and they certainly ‘give more prominence to measuring and demonstrating results’ as well as to ‘risk assessment in daily operations’, but only a minority has set up ‘closer cooperation with other CSOs’. In contrast, most Dutch NGOs indicate to have intensified ‘reporting requirements from Southern partners’ – a clear sign of the importance of showing results in the aid chain but also of the power imbalance between North and South (ibid: 20-23).


  1. The key role of Southern NGOs for addressing political-economy constraints that hinder development both in the North and South should be acknowledged

There is growing evidence that supports the vision of community‑led development (CLD): a locally‑rooted but globally‑connected system, or architecture, that leads to sustainable change. CLD is a planning and development approach that is based on a set of core principles that (at a minimum) set vision and priorities by the people who live in that geographic community, put local voices in the lead, build on local strengths (rather than focus on problems), collaborate across sectors, is intentional and adaptable, and works to achieve systemic change rather than short-term projects. In short, community-led development means working together to create and achieve locally owned visions and goals (more about this on

However, as long as the prevailing norms within the existing aid system continue to emphasize concrete outputs and tangible indicators as evidence of success rather than more qualitative outcomes (such as increases in confidence, dignity etc.) or an ecosystem lens, there are few incentives for behaviours – or for the design of externally‑funded development projects – to change. Funders and policy makers interested in supporting community‑led approaches that shift power closer to the ground can find specific recommendations both in terms of their grantmaking and non‑grantmaking activities in a recent report by Hodgson et al. (2018).


  1. Southern NGOs should be recognized as direct (contractual) partner for Dutch development cooperation

The discussion about direct funding of Southern NGOs is certainly not new and occasionally has been brought forward with some vigour. The WRR (2010), for instance, made a case for this and so did successive ministers for development cooperation in the Netherlands. Also here, however, practice is running behind with donors still strongly preferring to fund their own, national NGO sector. According to a study on Dutch government funding (Schulpen, 2016: 16), Dutch NGOs received 87.8% of all Dutch subsidies, with 11.2% going to International NGOs (INGOs) and 1.1% to Southern NGOs (SNGOs) over the entire period 2003–2020. Still, and despite the fact that it concerns relatively small amounts and percentages that tend to fluctuate, INGOs and SNGOs have become (somewhat) more important over the years. It should be stressed that this is an importance in terms of number of NGOs and not in terms of money. Even in the best of years (2009 and 2010) SNGOs receive only €16.5 million or a meagre 1.8% of the total subsidies granted. In terms of percentage, they do better in 2016 and 2017 (reaching at least 3.6%) but that is from a substantially reduced budget.


  1. Without substantial delegation of funding authority to the Embassies, it is unlikely that such a power shift will occur.

The Dutch aid system is still rather exceptional in the sense that a large share of the resources are allocated from the central level (in The Hague), whereas delegation of authority to the embassies is still rather limited. More than 80% of funding decisions are from centrally-managed funds, which is in strong contrast with, for example, European Union (DEVCO) aid funding that has been for almost 90% decentralized to the country delegations.

This has important implications for the involvement of local NGOs in Dutch development cooperation programs. Only in countries with ‘’adverse’’ political regimes, support to local NGOs is considered as a major channel. In most other countries, NGOs can be sub-contracted as executive agents for bilateral development programs, but they are hardly supported in their key advocacy role.

Some Dutch NGOs also established local or regional offices in the South, and thus might become ‘competitors’’  of local civil society organizations. They compete for scarce resources and could reduce opportunities for local NGOs. More importantly, they shift focus to development relief activities and barely provide opportunities for more political pressure and public advocacy activities.



IOB (2014), Useful Patchwork – Direct Funding of Local NGOs by Netherlands Embassies 2006-2012, The           Hague, IOB.

Hodgson, J., Knight, B. & Wilkinson-Maposa, S. (2017), New Horizons for Community-Led          Development – Recommendations For Funders, Johannesburg/London, GFCF/Comic Relief     (available here)

Schulpen, L. (2016), The NGO funding game – the case of the Netherlands, Nijmegen, CIDIN/CAOS     (unpublished research report).

Schulpen, L., Wintraecken, E. & Van Leuven, L. (2008), NGO funding in ‘like-minded countries’ – a         preliminary report for DSI/MY, Nijmegen, CIDIN, October (Desk study IS-academy)

Schulpen, L., Van Kempen, L. & Elbers, W. (2018), The changing Dutch NGO – Exploring organisational,               strategic and financial changes between 2010-2016, Nijmegen, CIDIN/CAOS (unpublished    research report).

Verbrugge, B. & Huyse, H. (2018), Donor relationships with development CSOs at a cross-roads? – a    comparative study of changing funding realities in 6 European countries, Leuven, HIVA

WRR (2010), Minder pretentie, meer ambitie – ontwikkelingshulp die verschil maakt, Amsterdam,        Amsterdam University Press.

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