Acknowledging Global Southern knowledge: the need for Global Northern capacity building

Inclusive Politics,Knowledge brokering,News22 Nov 2023Marijke Priester

Civil society organisations (CSOs) in the Global South know very well what is needed for social change and how they should work towards realising a stronger civil society. In some cases this is acknowledged in the current strategic partnerships under the Dutch Policy Framework for Civil Society Strengthening.  In many others however the significance of Southern knowledge and experience is insufficiently valued, inadequately interpreted or simply overlooked. Examples are the conditions for Southern leadership, the context of interpreting core concepts such as advocacy, the limited view on accountability that ignores trust and solidarity. The forthcoming Framework, foreseen from 2026, needs to acknowledge and take into account the knowledge and experience of Southern organisations. This requires Northern capacity building: learning and unlearning knowledge in order to work on Southern terms.

Nothing new on paper, still challenges in practice

One would say Southern knowledge is recognised in the partnerships, because it is not new. Twenty years ago, in 2001, Dutch Minister Herfkens presented her policy note ‘Civil society and Structural Poverty Reduction’, an excellent piece on civil society strengthening. Just one quote to get the flavour: ’The aid system -especially in the beginning- equated civil society with NGOs and ignored other, traditional or informal structures because they were less visible or did not resemble what they encountered at home. And donors too often made the role of those NGOs instrumental to their agendas. Participation was seen as a tool rather than a fundamental right.’  The policy note is a clear example that knowledge, even acknowledgment can be there at a certain moment in time, vanish, and reappear decades later.  A recent publication on the current partnerships shows that for now at least the challenges are still there.

Marijke Priester wrote the publication ‘Voices on Power: Recommendations for a more effective Dutch policy framework ‘strenghtening civil society’ – Partos’, a lively collection of 28 candid conversations for Partos, to gather perspectives of a wide spectrum of Southern CSO actors active in the current Dutch funded strategic partnerships towards achieving more balanced power relations between the Global South and Global North in the next Dutch Framework. This work closely relates to The Broker’s active engagement in reflections on equitable partnering e.g. in conversations around decolonization of aid and North-South knowledge brokering partnerships.  

Marijke Priester’s interview insights can serve as a valuable input to further inform (knowledge brokering) practices towards more equitable partnering. The interviewees participate in the 28 strategic partnerships funded by Power of Voices and the SRHR Fund, two substantial grant instruments under the current Framework (2021-2025). Both partnership programmes underline the importance of ownership and strengthening the role and influence of organisations in the Global South in designing and implementing programmes. Dutch and international organisations are expected to give local organisations more autonomy, and complement their efforts through innovation and strengthening networks. In practice, the operationalisation of this perspective meets hindrances. The interviewees share how they try to navigate their vision and mission into the structure of the partnerships. Their stories are prudent and honest and shed light on how far we have come since 2001.

Fast forward to 2023: Southern leadership

First of all unanimous appreciation for the Ministry as ‘a groundbreaking funder’ of the strategic partnerships is highlighted by all interviewees. The grant instruments Power of Voices and SRHR Fund include ‘more ownership by local organisations’ as a core component of the Policy Framework Strengthening Civil Society |. However, it frequently occurs in the interviews that it has not prevented a lack of opportunity to practise ‘Southern leadership’ and ‘ownership’. Both concepts are perceived as a laudable Northern initiative, though Southern organisations missed a solid preparation at the start of the current partnerships. Vital elements to create space for Southern leadership and attention for gradual building capacities were and are not everywhere in place. Neither is it always obvious, if ‘shift the power’ is embraced by all Dutch CSOs and the entire Ministry This can remain an issue, because the power is ‘given’, and not ‘taken.’ The giver decides to what extent power is transferred. Accordingly, the interviews reveal quite varying experiences between partnerships.

Make Southern-led collaboration work

Yet, with the entrance of (more) Southern organisations at consortium-level, their involvement in decision making has definitely increased. Still interviewees state that thriving Southern-led collaboration depends on several conditions: 

  • the composition of the consortium: in some consortiums the Southern CSO is the only Southern consortium partner, which is experienced as tokenistic; 
  • the process of partner selection: Southern CSOs should select their partners, instead of being ‘dictated’ with whom to work.
  • the budget division: despite participation at consortium level, the access to budgets for Southern CSOs and the budget division between Southern and Dutch consortium members has not always progressed. With the entrance at consortium level, additional roles and responsibilities are expected from Southern CSOs, on top of their implementing role. Question is, if the Ministry is willing to take the consequence and raise the consortium budgets appropriately. 
  • the decision making structure beyond consortium level: it is hard when Southern CSOs, fulfilling a role as country host, depend on decisions taken far away in the North, reaching the Southern CSOs only after several layers have been passed. (How) could the Ministry at this level oblige Northern CSOs to adhere to the principle of Southern leadership and a balanced power structure, given the multi-layered structures of Northern CSOs? 
  • the opportunity for investment in capacity strengthening to fulfil new roles, is not always provided. 
  • some interviewees state that the lack of familiarity with Dutch CSOs’ backgrounds needs extra steps to reach a shared vision.

Being the lead: Southern perspectives regarding budget- and consortium management

Given the Dutch Ministry’s commitment to Southern leadership, interviewees are clear that funding should go directly to Southern CSOs, instead of predominantly being managed by Dutch CSOs. 

The picture is however less clear about the wish of the Southern CSO’s to be the lead organisation of a partnership. Only two of the 28 partnerships are currently Southern-led. Their stories are insightful. Both gradually built their expertise as a Southern lead, starting with applying for smaller Dutch funds. Both are built on a shared (feminist) vision and longstanding relationships. In these partnerships the Southern ‘lead’ is more of an appreciated consortium partner for taking responsibility for a rather unpopular demanding administrative and coordinating role. Still, it is mentioned that the Ministry and Dutch CSOs should be deliberate about building the requisite capacity of interested Southern CSOs to lead such partnership, providing at least the opportunity to take this position.

North becomes South

A power dynamic in the margins of the Framework context, but nevertheless causing concern in the interviews, is the development of Northern CSOs, registering as Southern CSOs in Africa. The ‘transformation’ of Northern offices into Southern CSOs is considered rather cosmetic, as Northern CSOs are perceived still to be in charge in the background. Further negative implications are feared. An interviewee refers to one implication as the ‘cynical fishing in Southern waters resource mobilisation strategy’. There is fear that these ‘Southern’ offices will increasingly dominate competitive funding in Africa. Certainly, a good conversation between Northern and Southern CSOs is needed, and deserves attention from the Ministry as well.

Acknowledging Southern knowledge a key to success for the upcoming Framework

Overall, the interviewees agree that a next Dutch Policy Framework for CSO support can augment the opportunities for social change and strengthening civil society, by bringing more Southern knowledge into the programme designs. Some examples to do this: 

  • It is doubted if a Call by the Ministry is the right instrument to come to a selection of partnerships and programmes, because the ‘killing competitiveness’ carries the risk that applicants are inclined to ‘sing the song of the funder’, instead of bringing forward and building on the issues that are relevant from a Southern context perspective, asserted by communities on the ground.
  • Whilst agenda- and priority setting should certainly take place in the Global South, there is an issue of ‘legitimation’ and a ‘representation’: it is not only the Global South that has a legitimate interest. Dutch funding implies a Dutch interest. How do we navigate together as Southern/Dutch CSOs and Ministry? And who in the Global South will set the agenda? An interviewee mentions one needs power to set the agenda. Who has the power? What about groups like key populations, who are not in power? Where are Southern governments?
  • The prioritisation of advocacy is supported, but the current Northern-defined straight-jacket insufficiently considers the volatile context in which advocates should be allowed to speak from credibility. They should be able to shift to complementary roles to prevent harm, even to save lives. Here the Ministry could also be more visible as an ally.
  • In terms of risk and accountability, interviewees observe that the Ministry defines risk management in financial terms. Southern CSOs however take a different look: ‘we need to take risks to stand up for the human rights of the people we work with’: instead of contracts, trust and solidarity count. Ironically, the Ministry challenges with its contractual approach, its own intention of working on a more equal footing, as an interviewee remarks. In terms of accountability, a disbalance is felt between the investment needed to Northern upward accountability, and time available for Southern downward accountability. Also, the Northern lack of attention for Southern horizontal accountability is mentioned, important for strengthening certain groups in Africa, such as key populations: they often remain in a bubble of accountability to the North.
  • The monitoring and evaluation part is experienced as a big time-investment at the cost of the ‘real work’, serving mainly funder accountability purposes: ‘the method decides the change, while the change should decide the method’. More qualitative reporting instead of reporting numbers is considered key. It is regretted that intersectional learning between partnerships is not facilitated by the Ministry. Communities should be involved, the learning should serve them.

Need for Northern capacity building to be able to work on Southern terms

‘Voices on Power’ teaches us that Southern CSOs know well what is needed and how it has to be done in order to contribute to social change and stronger civil societies in Southern countries. They appreciate dialogue and support from the Dutch partners and the Ministry, because they value the commitment to support and they recognise that Dutch funding implies a Dutch interest. But could it please be done on their terms? Every single interview can serve as an educational session for Dutch CSOs, the Ministry, even students, to bring the acknowledgment nearer. Knowledge brokers in the North: you can play a role here by supporting knowledge brokers in the South to develop a Southern contextualised knowledge base of policy and practice to inform future policies and practices. History has shown that while policy can be there, the translation into practice is sorely missed. This often is a matter of a lack of knowledge and requires learning and capacity building by Northern actors. It is also a matter of a lack of acknowledgment of Southern knowledge, rooted in power dynamics. In the next Framework, acknowledgment and Northern capacity building should go hand in hand.