Evaluation of Norwegian support to strengthen civil society in developing countries

Despite it being an important channel for Norwegian development cooperation, Norway has no overarching strategy for its civil society support.

Written by Lillian Prestegard, senior adviser in the Evaluation Department in Norad. 

The Evaluation Department recently finalised an evaluation of Norwegian support to strengthen civil society in developing countries (report 1/2018).

The evaluation looked at the partnerships supported by the Civil Society Grant managed by Norad. The main objective of the grant is to strengthen civil society in developing countries.

In the evaluation period of 2006-2016, the grant nearly doubled in volume, from 1 billion NOK in 2006 to almost 2 billion NOK in 2016. As a share of the total Norwegian development budget this amounts to 4-5 per cent, which has been constant throughout the period, signaling the relative importance of civil society as channel in Norwegian development cooperation.

The Norad-grant is an important part of the financial basis for Norwegian civil society organisations’ programmes in long-term development. However, in terms of volume, funds managed by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Norwegian Embassies, account for more than half of the total annual funding channeled through Norwegian CSOs.

The evaluation finds that Norwegian support to civil society:

  • Largely achieves its immediate objectives at project level and is making a positive difference for the target group. The challenge is that the number reached is relatively small, and that projects rarely have any wider effect.
  • Is fragmented: Norway’s support through CSOs is provided from Norad, the MFA and embassies, much of this involves efforts with an objective of strengthening civil society and democratic governance. There is no overarching strategic framework for the Norwegian support to enable a coherent approach, neither at the policy level nor at country level. The funding is not systematically seen in relation to other Norwegian aid in the country, whether through civil society or other channels.
  • Lacks coordination: There is weak coordination between the grant makers (Norad, MFA and embassies) and also between the organisations receiving funds. 
  • Has many objectives and thematic priorities. For the Norad grant, the overarching objective of strengthening civil society is not systematically planned for nor reported on.
  • Is channeled almost exclusively through Norwegian organisations. Direct support to national organisations in the global South is negligible. The value added by Norwegian organisations  to their local partners is not clearly articulated nor documented. National and local organisations see their Norwegian counterparts as partners not donors.
  • Is not sustainable. Most partners will not be able to sustain their activities without the external support. However, partners have organisational capacity to continue without a Norwegian counterpart, found to be in part a result of strong investment in capacity development. Many partnerships are seen more as permanent relationships, than as time bound project collaborations.

Despite the fact that civil society is an important channel for Norwegian development cooperation and that civil society strengthening has been a consistent objective for Norwegian support over time, Norway has no overarching strategy for its civil society support.

This sets Norway apart from other likeminded donors, which have some form of strategy or policy for their engagement with and support to civil society.

This ‘strategic gap’ of Norwegian aid has been identified as a fundamental challenge in a number of evaluations over the past years, commissioned by the Evaluation Department (see list of related publications).

The benefits of having a strategy or common framework for collective efforts towards a common goal, find support in research literature and evaluations. Some examples are given below, drawn from an Evaluation Brief for a recently published evaluation on Norway’s Support to Education in Crisis and Conflict through CSOs, Evaluation Report 9/2017.

How might a strategic framework improve Norway’s support to civil society?

  • Outline an overarching approach to the overall objective of strengthening civil society, including an articulation of how various modalities support this objective, as well as how Norway’s civil society support relates to its other assistance on democratization and good governance. It would also aid in separating between the engagement towards the overall objective of strengthening civil society and the many other objectives of Norway’s civil society support;
  • Enable better coordination between the various parts of the Norwegian aid administration which provide support to civil society, including the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Norwegian Embassies and Norad. The support is often towards similar objectives. A strategy could help ensure that resources pull in the same direction, and possibly reinforce each other;
  • Ensure better transparency and accountability towards partners. A clearer formulation of Norway’s goals and strategic objectives is important for allowing stakeholders to hold Norway accountable for its choices and actions;
  • Initiate and sustain discussion of challenges and dilemmas at an overall policy level. The process of formulating a strategy, which would involve stakeholders, including embassies, civil society partners, and others, could in itself contribute to important conversations about the Norwegian engagement;
  • Place Norway’s support into a wider context of international support to civil society, democratization and efforts to promote good governance;
  • Help bridge the humanitarian-development gap by formalizing coordination, processes, to ensure better integration of these fields in the Norwegian system;
  • Facilitate learning and knowledge sharing, collective rather than at an individual project basis.

The evaluation was timely, as in parallel with the evaluation process, Norad has been revising its Principles for Support to Civil Society (2009), which has also involved finding new approaches to current challenges such as the shrinking space for civil society in many countries, changing partner relations and roles for south based actors, and opportunities of new technologies.

The evaluation has served as input to how Norway should address some of these challenges. The evaluation also had useful reflections and recommendations as to how Norway’s support to civil society may become more effective if allocation of resources were resulting from strategic choices based on common situation analyses, whether at country level or at overall policy level.

In the further follow up of this evaluation, in line with recommendations in the evaluation, Norad and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs may want to use the opportunity to develop a comprehensive, coordinated approach to Norwegian civil society support that would apply not only to Norad’s civil society grant, but to all of Norway’s civil society support.

Published 09.05.2018
Last updated 09.05.2018