Profit and Loss: States Parties Rethink Contributions to Civil Society, Dr. Robert Zuber

14 Jun

Global Action is privileged to be part of several online ‘communities’ linking diverse NGOs, UN policymakers and place-based civil society organizations serving constituents around the world.   Such involvements on our part help us to keep track of developments impacting diverse communities, but also to remind us of responsibilities we have to help build local capacity and link that capacity to relevant policy discussions taking place in the international community.

Thus we were quickly made aware of shockwaves this past week when it was announced that Finland would significantly cut back on assistance to civil society organizations within its own borders as well as in areas of the world where it had previously made significant and helpful investment.  This decision was a blow to those who feel – rightly I might add – that Finland’s national identity is bound up with its capacity to share its abundance beyond its pay grade.   At the UN, Finland was an early supporter of UN peacekeeping and has consistently provided leadership disproportionate to its size in areas such as international law, the global arms trade and, perhaps somewhat ironically given recent policy shifts, international development cooperation.

Finland’s decision was not, however, a stand-alone incident involving a single country but is part of a larger trend within and beyond Europe.   Across the board, even as diplomats and NGOs seek to develop and endorse funding guidelines for post-2015 sustainable development goals, the donor terrain is shifting dramatically.   For a variety of reasons, commitments to end inequalities and promote peaceful, inclusive societies are being crowded out by institutional branding of one form or another.  Corporations are shifting their “giving” programs to serve the interests of advertising.   Private foundations are simply turning over funds to well-branded, existing grantees rather than keeping their funding commitments on the cutting edges of social change.  States at the UN are reassessing commitments to “general operating” funding in favor of direct grants to support programs and capacity within the UN that align more closely with the “national interest.”  And in the US (and likely elsewhere), what can be a toxic “noblesse oblige” has given way to an even-more-toxic narcissistic competition to see who can most effectively ‘game’ the system, reap its vast rewards, and brand the results.

A few of these shifts are somewhat understandable, inasmuch as donors have often wondered (even aloud) why they should continue to support organizations and structures that fail to produce even minimal results (UN Disarmament sometimes comes to mind). And funding commitments in whatever form are not “matrimonial” in nature but come with timelines and most often expectations of transition.  Here in New York, we have been blessed with enough supporters (none of them governments) to stay just barely above the line of basic solvency, but there are few guarantees going forward.  The only true guarantees are related to how badly we want to do this work and how creatively we can forge global partnerships to preserve some small and hopefully effective spaces at the policy table.

On the other hand, one of the things we have witnessed (and at times assisted) in various communities around the “developing” world is the enormous energies that local civil society organizations have invested in ‘getting up to code’ with their largely northern donors.   Despite sometimes horrific infrastructure limitations, as well as the many local needs which continually beg to be addressed, we know of many civil society organizations that have painstakingly adopted technology and procedures to meet the increasingly burdensome expectations of these donors.   To have made those infrastructure commitments and then to have the funding to sustain those commitments unilaterally dismantled is a particularly discouraging irony that should seriously grieve those of us working in more comfortable circumstances.

One of the responsibilities now for NGOs in the north is to find ways to respond to this creeping disregard for the non-governmental, non-corporate side of civic life. Indeed, one of the groups with which we regularly conspire is drafting a letter to the Finnish government, citing the “political” dimensions of its funding decision and asking for reconsideration.  It is important to remind governments and other donors that their sometimes cavalier and self-referential relationship to funding can have a traumatic impact on human lives.

But this is about more than money, and those of us facing threats to our budgets will also need do a bit more of our own discernment. We must think about our ongoing responsibilities to promote equity for the planet’s marginalized, but also more deeply discern our own relationship to money and to the institutions that provide it (and increasingly it appears skeptical of providing it).

The Finnish government has not suddenly become our adversary. Other states that have decided to reposition their global contributions have not necessarily become so either.  From Financing for Development (SDGs) and obligations under the Arms Trade Treaty to Ocean ecology restoration and the prosecutorial work of the International Criminal Court, we are rarely in UN conference rooms where requests for funding are not being made by one state (or NGO) or another.  Politics notwithstanding, states are under pressure to preserve multi-lateral space and fulfill ambitious commitments such as the SDGs, all while ensuring constituents back home that funds expended on international development and other key concerns also serve a national interest.  This is not an easy soup to bring to table under the best of economic conditions – and these are surely not that for most.

As civil society, our task is also multiple.   We must remind governments of what they are doing – and losing – as they “recalibrate” their funding commitments.  We must find ways to strengthen our commitments to diverse communities of social practice while rethinking our own relationship to money and its sources.   And finally, as funds are available, we need to make sure that we take no more than our share and accomplish as much with what we take as humanly possible.

A long time ago, a friend reminded me that “money changes everything, and only occasionally for the better.”  With full respect for those around the world with a different relationship to the funding community than we have here in our little New York office, there is a lesson here that we would all do well to consider.   Resources are not self-authorizing but need our very best efforts to ensure their fair, transparent and effective application. Thankfully, where funding is concerned, we have what it takes to ensure the “better” change.

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