Working with Civil Society

14th September 2022
Author: Juliet Millican

Civil Society, Economics and Finance, Gender, Participation, Politics and Power

Sustainable Development Goals

1.    No Poverty, 10.  Reduced Inequality, 16.  Peace and Justice Strong Institutions, 17.  Partnerships to achieve the Goals

The materials in this learning package emerge from two separate K4D Learning Journeys (2018 and 2022) held with the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO – and then the Department for International Development – DFID) on working with civil society. They were assembled or written to provide background to a guide to be shortly produced on how UK aid might work more effectively with local and INGO partners.

In 2018 key concerns included shrinking civic space and the impact of this on democracy. Developments between the two periods, particularly the COVID-19 pandemic, the Black Lives Matter and decolonisation movements, have only increased emphasis on commitments made as part of the Grand Bargain to localise and decolonise. This invariably means working more frequently with local partners and civil society organisations in the delivery of international aid to advance Open Society and Human Rights agendas. They have identified a need for principled guidance on questions such as:

  • Overcoming barriers to funding local and national Civil Society Organisations (CSOs)
  • Ways of working through and with international Non-Governmental Organisations (INGOs)
  • Building organisational capacity
  • Empowering local grassroots organisations and supporting social movements

Much of the material identified recognises the symbiotic relationship between states, the market, and the role that civil society and social movements are able to play in the delivery of services, the mobilisation of communities, and as a watchdog of state interference and legitimacy.

Open and progressive relationships with civil society impact the resilience of the sector, social accountability, and the creation of an open society; when civil society becomes an agent of the state their ability to hold them to account is limited. There is a causal relationship between state/civil society relationships, the maintenance of a democracy and effective development or response.

There are also large differences between working with or through INGOs and working directly with NGOs and local organisations and international aid often struggles with the latter.

Overview of the evidence

This learning package covers all these areas shared above, and looks particularly at how governments might best work with and fund local NGOs and social movements and the quality of relationships with civil society actors.

In states where diplomatic and development services have been combined into a single department and set of strategies, it is apparent that a delicate balance is needed between the conflicting demands and priorities of each. In places where development cooperation is discrete from national diplomacy or national interests, there is often more of a focus on the nexus between humanitarian response, peacebuilding, and development outcomes. Effective relationships between state, civil society and market actors in the development process are less dependent on the freedom with which civil society is able to operate and more on how far they are able to use that freedom to hold state, political and economic actors to account. and influence change.

The DAC guidelines, Enabling Civil Society in Development Cooperation and Humanitarian Assistance 2021, set out three inter-linking pillars for how development cooperation and humanitarian assistance might enable civil society involvement:

  1. Respecting, protecting, and promoting civic space
  2. Supporting and engaging with civil society
  3. Incentivising CSO effectiveness, transparency, and accountability.

They stress the principles of humanity, neutrality and independence across the humanitarian-peace-development nexus and set out recommendations under these three headings:

  1. Respecting Civic Space:
    • Maintaining clear policy positions and engaging in dialogue wherever possible
    • Maintaining an intention to ‘do no harm,’ and working with the private sector and independent media to counter disinformation and support greater participation in public policy
    • Addressing risks and inequalities around digital marginalisation
  2. Supporting and Engaging with Civil Society:
    • Promoting consultation and active participation of different actors in identifying risks and opportunities
    • Supporting local ownership, investing in leadership, and providing financial support to diverse NGOs
    • Supporting strategic alliances and sharing lessons between formal and informal groups, trade unions, faith-based groups, etc
    • Streamlining administrative requirements to enhance transparency and promote international standards of protection
  3. Incentivising Effectiveness, Transparency and Accountability
    • Building on existing good practice and meeting relevant Human Rights standards
    • Providing mutual capacity strengthening through equitable partnerships, encouraging CSO leadership
    • Working through participatory approaches that respect international rights-based approaches and legal standards.


The resources below have been selected due to their relevance to the learning package. Explore them to strengthen your understanding of working with civil society.

Continents, regions and countries