Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Capacity building versus dominant donors

The practice of development cooperation is to a great extent shaped by the relationships between Western donors and their local counterparts. Many donors use concepts of partnership and ownership to establish and define these relations. What’s more, they advocate that these relationships should be based on the needs of the local organization. However, in practice many relationships between donors and the organizations that they support are characterized by dependency. And this dependency is often enforced by the attitudes and perceptions of the donor, the local organization, or both.

But what happens to capacity building efforts in an organization, if the organization is inclined to ‘bend’ towards donor’s ideas over their own? And if the donor is presenting its ideas in a top-down manner, linked to funding? When this relates to the subject of capacity building efforts undertaken in a certain organization, this may affect the sustainability of these efforts. Local organizations may almost automatically follow the donor’s approaches and ideas instead of their own, even if they have built capacity on these specific approaches and ideas.

This article is based on a discussion about this question between several ICCO capacity builders working in different places of the world. The discussion revolved around a real-life case that was presented by one of the capacity building advisors.

‘Bending’ attitudes of local organizations
The case that started off the discussion and this article involves a medium sized local organization in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. In this organization capacity building efforts are taken place on mainly monitoring and evaluation systems, by an ICCO advisor.

The organization in general has a ‘bending’ or submissive attitude towards donors. This is first of all caused by a deeply felt dependency on donors for survival. Also, cultural elements play a role in this attitude towards donors. There exists a general submissive attitude towards foreigners, and foreigners often represent Western donors. In the organization described in this specific case it is furthermore not seen as respectful to disagree with donors, or to discuss critical notions with the donors.

With the ‘bending’ attitude of the organization, there arises a growing tension between the organization’s own ideas and the ideas of the donors. This means that sometimes the organization is pressed towards going a certain direction, which not necessarily reflects its own priorities or ideas.

Dominant donor styles
The advisory style of the ICCO advisor working in this organization focuses on the implementation of ideas from the organization’s staff themselves. Also, the ICCO advisor consciously makes efforts not to be perceived as an advisor working for ICCO. As ICCO is one of the donors of the organization, this might affect the relationship.

Related to this specific case is another expatriate advisor that joined one of the projects of the organization. This advisor has a different, more dominant advisory style from the ICCO advisor, showing strong opinions about how certain things should be in the organization, and presenting herself as a representative of the donor.

The advisory style of the new expatriate advisor has affected the ICCO capacity building advisor directly in several ways. At the outset, the new advisor strongly advocated the adoption of the monitoring and evaluation system of the donor she represents. This caused stress with the organization’s staff, who had been developing their own monitoring and evaluation system as part of the capacity building efforts of the ICCO advisor.

Also, the staff approached the ICCO advisor to express their uneasiness with some other ideas of the new advisor. Despite this uneasiness, they intended to follow and implement most of the ideas of the advisor, even if they did not necessarily agree with them, because of the more general cultural reasons as mentioned earlier in this article.

Lessons and Experiences
How can, or should, a capacity building advisor get involved, in case the organization where the intervention takes place feels pressured into a certain direction? What to do about a submissive attitude towards donors, or a dominant attitude of the donors towards the local organization?

Internal and informal learning
Coaching could be an important tool that the capacity building advisor could use to encourage new understanding and reflection in the local organization. Through coaching, the staff may come to new insights on their expectations and needs with regard to their relationship with the donor, and how to shape this relationship. Also, it is a good way for the staff to reflect on how the organization perceives the expectations and needs of the donor, as these perceptions may not always be based on reality.

It is important to realize that coaching is only a good tool to be used by the capacity building advisor, if there exists trust between the advisor and the organization’s staff. This ensures the openness needed for successful coaching. One coaching model that can be used is the GROW model, but whatever model is used, effective listening by the coach is key.

One step further to encourage learning and reflection could be to organize an internal learning session in the local organization. This session could involve all relevant staff in discussing and reflecting on relationships with donors. This way they feel encouraged to think about their own needs, and the donor’s needs, as well as expectations, and attitudes towards each other.

Internal learning is an excellent opportunity to further discuss on how to relate to donors

In a culturally sensitive environment, like the case in Cambodia, it can difficult to talk openly, and perhaps critically about donors. It could be considered to be not respectful, and ungrateful towards donors – even inside the organization. In this case, one possibility would be to expand the topic to all stakeholders of the organization, of which donors are one, or to have a more general session on partnerships. Also, creating a more informal learning environment to have this session, for example during lunch or dinner, might help of overcome sensitivities that a more formal setting would intensify.
A more informal learning environment makes it more easier to discuss cultural sensitive issues

Learning between the organization and the donor
If representation of the donor is nearby, it could be helpful to create opportunities for informal communication between the donor and the organization, to create mutual understanding. In the above described case, the ICCO advisor had an informal meeting over coffee with the other advisor representing the donor. During this meeting the ICCO advisor had the chance to talk about her approaches to capacity building, and the other advisor had a chance to reflect on these approaches. This led to better mutual understanding and has also led to a slight shift in approach by the other advisor.

A more formal way to encourage dialogue on donor communication and relationships with the local organization is to arrange a donor meeting. In this meeting donors are encouraged to discuss and reflect together on their relationships with the local organization, and to solve contradictory approaches. In this meeting the local organization has a chance to include difficult or pressing issues related to the relationships with their donors. On their turn, the donors have the opportunity to reflect on these issues with each other, and with the local organization. Experiences with donor meetings in Sudan and Bolivia show that these kinds of meetings are greatly appreciated by both the local organization and the donors involved.

However, before organizing a donor meeting it is important to have internal agreement in the local organization on expectations and approaches towards communication and relationships with donors. This helps them to be a more equal partner in this discussion with donors. Also, it is important to have a good external facilitator in this process to encourage an open, safe and equal environment for discussion.

Involvement of Capacity Builders
It can be very tempting for expat capacity building advisors who work closely with local organizations to get actively involved when they perceive unequal relationships with donors. However, it can also be important for learning when the organization is exposed to new situations, approaches and forms of relationships and communication. If advisors become too protective, this may actually hamper possible learning and growth of the organization through exposure to different cultural beliefs and values. It is thus important to find a balance to optimally facilitate growth and learning.

Also, over the longer term it is important to realize that capacity building strengthens the organization. By doing so, it increases understanding on certain topics between organizations and their donors. And this understanding is an important condition for more equal and open relationships and communication.


  1. Thank you very much for this intersting post. The subject has (of course) also been risen during our workshop on Supporting the introduction of ComPart in the South, which I am participating in these days. You thoughts and sugestions coincide with what is being said over here in Lisbon. More information about our workshop can be found on the ComPat learning blog.

  2. Yes the advisor has a different, more dominant advisory style from the ICCO advisor, showing strong opinions about how certain things should be in the organization, and presenting herself as a representative of the donor.