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Pierre Salignon expert in AFD
In the Sahel region, AFD has several ambitions: scaling up, acting quickly, and controlling risks. Although these are legitimate aims, they call into question the role of local civil society organizations (CSOs) and their capacity for action. How can we move beyond traditional modes of action to take better advantage of their expertise in the field? Pierre Salignon, head of the CSO partnership division at AFD, has some ideas on where to start.
Why is dialog with civil society so critical in the Sahel?

Their understanding of real needs in the field, local connections, and ability to reach beneficiaries are essential, for all parties involved in providing aid as well as for international funders. That is why AFD, like its partners, considers ways to work in parallel with the usual government channels to better support increased dialog and partnership with local civil society organizations.

For the moment, however, in practice, local CSOs are generally “circumvented” from several points of view, restricted to secondary, service-provider roles and therefore limited in their structural reinforcement.


How would you explain that paradox?

It is due in large part to the fact that, for the moment, there is a contradiction between the desire to make more space for local CSOs and the ambitions of development funders to act rapidly on a broad scale while managing risks, which determine their modes of intervention.

The question of scale for the projects they work on makes the issue of integrating CSOs particularly delicate. In the Sahel, funders back large-scale projects covering multiple sectors, players, sometimes even countries, both in terms of their operating objectives and the amounts of financing involved (€10 million and more). In fragile regions where governments are under pressure, these projects often require grouping together the various players (around NGOs and international organizations). Several projects that AFD has initiated since 2018 fall into this category, such as 3 Frontières and RESILAC.

Projects with such a large scope simply exceed the management capacity of local CSOs. If they do participate, in most cases it is as service providers to the international organizations leading the project. As a result, they are automatically less invested in the core work of the project. Sometimes, they may even disagree with its defined direction, because they were not sufficiently consulted during the initial steps of defining the activities to be implemented.

This peripheral position for local CSOs also applies when it comes to finances, leaving them unable to support their operations and consolidate their capacity. While they receive some funding for their activities, it rarely covers their own capacity and operating costs. Ironically, receiving that funding could upgrade their position in terms of project sponsorship and fund management. The relationship remains inequitable and prevents them from growing and developing their autonomy, even though many of them have the skills and expertise they need to develop. 


Given the urgency, then, how can we take quick action without marginalizing local players?

That is the big question. Currently, AFD and other funders are trying to accelerate the process of project construction and preparation and initiate “rapid impact” actions. This emphasis on speed, however, tends to encourage reliance on known, “trusted” partners and makes it difficult to remain open to new players, since there is currently limited capacity to verify their operations and the solidity of their second-tier partners.

Without sufficient, “reassuring” information about an untested option, we opt for the known quantity. For the moment, French and international NGOs are serving as “filters” and “guarantors” of their local partners for AFD and other funders, which helps effectively control and limit operational risks (personnel safety) and those related to money laundering, corruption, or even terrorism financing.


How can we improve knowledge of local CSOs?

One clear avenue is to get more involved upstream, by developing a systematic approach to identifying local partners in areas of intervention and within sectors of intervention. In order for this type of approach to be useful, it must provide qualitative information about local partners in areas including actions and results achieved, partnerships developed, and recommendations, including by external peers (bilateral and multilateral exchange of information between players is important). In other words, it must take place in the context of continuous dialog with local and international civil society, to develop a trust-based, reciprocal relationship.

After identifying partners, the next step is to offer capacity-building programs for local players. The concept of regional networks run by trusted leaders following the model of multi-actor concerted programs (PCPAs) is very promising. In the Congo, Guinea, Tunisia, and Algeria, there has been dialog about public policies in recent years between the governments and their regional representatives, representatives of civil society and local governments, and AFD and French diplomatic representatives. The work of dialog and consultation is a priority for generate future multi-actor partnerships.


Improving financing circuits is also an essential point. Which levers should be activated?

One solution that deserves more attention in the future is funding local players directly, with increased coordination between existing mechanisms for financing in the field (embassies, regional divisions of AFD and branches) and larger budgets devoted specifically to local CSOs, as the French Ministry for Europe and Foreign Affairs (MEAE) decided two years ago at embassy level.

Currently, within AFD’s regional division for the Greater Sahel, there are resources set aside for supporting local projects. The aim is to identify productive local initiatives and convert them into actions. It would be useful to earmark part of this budget to support projects sponsored by regional CSOs, with the aim of consolidating projects sponsored and initiated by local players and strengthening the organizations running them over the long term.

British cooperation is more advanced in this sense: 62% of bilateral funding allocated to international and national civil society organizations is spent via its national offices. As a result, a major, decentralized role is given regionally in partner selection, dialog, and management of funds earmarked for CSOs. Moreover, 15% of these funds are ultimately allocated directly to CSOs from partner countries—in other words, significant amounts compared to British development aid as a whole.


You mentioned the importance of integrating CSOs more fully into the project cycle rather than continuing to treat them as “service providers.” How can that be achieved?

Yes, a real effort is needed to better frame their role and position within consortiums and groups of actors. At first, this could look like incentivizing the organizations that sponsor these groups to do more to integrate local organizations into their partnerships at every phase of joint project development, follow-up, and implementation. Last but not least, it means encouraging the creation of consortiums that bring certain CSOs from partner countries that have demonstrated their expertise, know-how, and knowledge of their environment onto the front lines.

For more information: ONG@afd.fr