Policy Issues in Global Affairs Partnerships with CSOs




1.  Global Affairs Policy on Partnerships with CSOs (2015)    Go to this section.

2.  Focusing on Poverty and Rights Issues in GAC Disbursements for CSOs    Go to this section

2.1  Focus on countries where poverty is prevalent

2.2   Focus on countries in Sub-Saharan Africa

3.  Supporting Small and Medium-Sized CSOs in Development Cooperation    Go to this section

4.  Supporting an Enabling Environment for CSOs as Development Actors    Go to this section

4.1  Canada’s commitment to supporting an enabling environment for CSOs in developing countries

4.2  Global commitment to an enabling environment for CSOs


See also Trends in Global Affairs Partnerships with CSOs  Go to this page.


1.  Global Affairs Policy on Partnerships with CSOs (2015)


In February 2015, the Minister for Development Cooperation renewed Global Affairs Canada’s [formerly DFATD] commitment to CSOs as development partners in its Development and Humanitarian Assistance Civil Society Partnership Policy. This Policy recognizes the importance of partnerships with CSOs for the implementation of Global Affairs’ program priorities. It acknowledges that Global Affairs’ partnerships with CSOs are based on the notion that CSOs are development actors in their own right, not instruments of government.

Among its nine objectives and actions, Global Affairs commits “to establish predictable, equitable, flexible, and transparent funding mechanisms, including those that are responsive to CSO initiative (including unsolicited proposals).”  It commits to “institutionalized, regular, predictable and transparent policy dialogue with Canadian international development and humanitarian assistance CSOs, in addition to engaging with Canadian, international and local CSOs in developing countries.”  With respect to public engagement in Canada, Global Affairs will be “supporting initiatives that encourage Canadian volunteers, raise financial resources for development cooperation, and act as a channel for Canadians to personally engage and contribute to development.”

Data calculated and posted March 2017.


2.  Focus on Poverty and Rights Issues in GAC Disbursements for CSOs


The GAC’s Development and Humanitarian Assistance Civil Society Partnership Policy recognizes the central importance of support for CSOs “to reduce poverty, deliver effective and timely humanitarian assistance, and advance democracy and human rights in developing countries,” [page 2] and “augment the voice of poor and marginalized People, including Women and Girls.” [page 4] According to this Policy, GAC support for CSOs should be guided by the Canadian ODA Accountability Act, Principles and Good Practice in Humanitarian Donorship, and the Istanbul Principles for Development Effectiveness, among other legislative and policy directives. 

The ODA Accountability Act requires the Minister for Development Cooperation to be assured that all disbursements for ODA 1) reduce poverty; 2) take into account the perspectives of the poor; and 3) are consistent with human rights standards agreed by Canada.  How can GAC’s  support for CSOs be measured to confirm its consistency to the requirements of the Act?  A number of proxy indicators are possible.


2.1  Focus on countries where poverty is prevalent


CSO disbursements focused on low income countries and lower middle income countries where vast majority of those living in poverty are found      GAC disbursements through Canadian CSO (excluding disbursements through foreign international CSOs) have been particularly focused on least developed countries and low-income countries. Data since 2010 demonstrate between 53% and 57% of disbursements going to these countries, when regional disbursements and Canada disbursements are discounted. Further discounting humanitarian assistance (which in recent years goes to upper middle-income countries in the Middle East), there is a consistent 58% of disbursement to low-income and least developed countries for longer term development projects. In addition, a consistent average of 32% of Canadian CSO disbursements are allocated to lower middle-income countries, such as Ghana, the Philippines, Viet Nam or countries in Central America, where there is persistent poverty.

See GAC Disbursements through Canadian CSOs by Country Income Group (low income/least developed, lower middle income, upper middle income)

When compared to GAC bilateral disbursements (geographic partners and multilateral aid delivered through Bilateral Branches), CSOs deliver less of their assistance to low income and least developed countries (58% compared to 69% in 2014/15, excluding humanitarian assistance).  But when low income and lower middle income countries are taken together, both avenues for Canadian development assistance deliver the vast majority of their resources to these countries (88% for CSOs, 93% for Geographic in 2014/15, excluding humanitarian assistance).  The vast majority of those considered to be living in poverty live in these countries.

See GAC Disbursements for Geographic Programs by Country Income Group (Geographic Organizations and Bilateral Branches via Multilateral Organizations)

Data calculated and posted March 2017.


2.1  Focus on countries in sub-Saharan Africa


GAC disbursements through CSOs for Sub-Saharan Africa has averaged 47% since 2010       The vast majority of the population of Sub-Saharan Africa live in extreme poverty (on income less than US$1.90 a day) and below a minimal poverty line (on income less than US$3.10 a day).  While there has been some variations in the degree to which GAC disbursements through Canadian CSOs have focused on Sub-Saharan Africa, CSO performance has revolved around 50% since 2010 (in 2014/15, 47% of disbursements through these CSOs were directed to Sub-Saharan Africa).

The five-year average of 47% for disbursements through CSOs for Sub-Saharan Africa compares fairly with the overall average of 49% for all country/regional allocated Canadian ODA for these years (see this page)

See GAC Disbursements through Canadian CSOs by Geographic Region (excluding humanitarian assistance)

Data calculated and posted March 2017. 


3.  Supporting Small and Medium-Sized CSOs in Development Cooperation


AidWatch Canada’s analysis of overall trends in Global Affairs Canada’s support for CSOs (section 2) demonstrates an increasing concentration of disbursements among the top 10 Canadian CSOs receiving funding from all GAC/DFATD Branches since 2005 (see chart).  By 2014/15, the top 10 CSOs received 68% of all disbursements to Canadian CSOs, and the top 5 received 50%.  This growing concentration is somewhat less, but nevertheless a trend, in Partnerships for Development Innovations Branch, increasing from 35% for the top 10 in 2005/06 to 46% in 2014/15.

This concentration of disbursements has affected small and medium sized organizations in particular.  Most of these CSO historically received funding from Partnerships for Development Innovation Branch.  The number of small disbursements in a given year (less than $500,000) in this Branch has fallen from 281 in 2005/06, to 181 in 2010/11, and to a mere 78 in 2014/15.

See Trend in the Number of Contributions to Canadian CSOs by size of the Disbursements, Partnerships for Development Innovations Branch

AidWatch Canada worked with the Inter Council Network (of Provincial and Regional Councils for Development Cooperation) to assess the impact of the funding trends on small and medium-sized Canadian CSOs (SMOs).  This research drew from independent evaluations of SMOs to identify key characteristics of SMOs that make them effective development actors, alongside larger CSOs involved in Canadian development cooperation.

See Small and Medium Size Civil Society Organizations as Development Actors: A review of evidence, A Report prepared for the Inter-Council Network by Brian Tomlinson, AidWatch Canada, April 2016.

This Report made a number of observations about SMOs in development cooperation.  The following points are drawn from its Executive Summary:

  • SMOs raise significant new resources for development cooperation from the Canadian public, which is obscured somewhat by the dominance of the very large CSOs.  SMOs raised 15% of total revenue for overseas activities in 2014, according to data from Revenue Canada on more than 800 Canadian CSOs involved in development activities.  When the four largest CSOs are excluded, this share rises to 25%.   While no data exists, it is commonly understood that many SMOs rely on non-cash contributions in addition to this revenue, perhaps more so than large CSOs.
  • SMOs are more likely to depend on direct donations from Canadians to support their programs. In the sample of 800 CSOs, SMOs account for 30% of all revenue from individual Canadian donations. This revenue source is much more important in sustaining their activities than larger organizations. Private individual donations make up 67% of the revenue for small organizations, 44% for medium sized organizations, but only 22% for large organizations.
  • SMOs are the main avenue to reach Canadians in their communities, with an SMO direct presence in many cities and communities across Canada. More than 85% of large organizations have their headquarters in Central Canada, Ontario or Québec (mainly in Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal). While location is not the only determinant for engagement with Canadians, it is notable that close to 40% of small organizations are based in provinces west of Ontario. Similarly a third of medium sized CSOs (33%) are located in these provinces. With a correspondingly smaller share of the Canadian population, Atlantic Canada has fewer organizations from all classes of CSOs, with less than 5% of small organizations based in these provinces.

The review of SMO institutional evaluations suggest ten important characteristics and key competencies of SMOs as development actors:

1.  Focus and specialization       SMOs are highly specialized, perhaps more so than larger organizations involved in different aspects of development cooperation. At least half the evaluations pointed to the importance of specialization in terms of mandate, sector or geographic local.

2.  Access to sector expertise       Many SMOs, through their specialization, have well developed institutional connections in Canada, from which they can draw (often voluntary) contributions of Canadian expertise for programs overseas, where the expertise needed is determined by conditions and counterparts in developing countries.

3.  Transfer of knowledge and capacity development       Close to half the evaluations commented on the increasing roles of SMOs in capacity and knowledge development with counterparts in developing countries. They note the effectiveness of such programs, particularly where the SMO has been able to indigenized capacities through sustained support for long-term partners, sometimes spanning decades of development cooperation.

4.  Public engagement with Canadians       Given their presence in all provinces and regions of Canada, SMOs are uniquely positioned to implement Global Affairs Canada’s policy commitment to work with CSOs “as a principal mechanism to engage individual Canadians and raise awareness of and involvement in international development.”  While among the 20 evaluations there are examples of effective programming in public engagement, an overall observation is that these programs are often marginal to the work of these SMOs. A much more deliberate approach to, and financing for, public engagement is called for if SMOs are to take full advantage of their strategic location and connection with communities across the country.

5.  Reflection of aid effectiveness principles       Consistent with the ODA Accountability Act and Canada’s commitment to international aid effectiveness principles,

SMOs are strongly focused with their programming on the 25 priority countries for Canadian aid;

SMOs have wide experience in country ownership through partner-led multi-faceted relationships with their counterparts in developing countries; and

SMOs have improved their approach in ways that strengthen the use of results-based management.

While formal participation in transparency and accountability initiatives can be a challenge for many SMOs with few resources, many are members of Provincial, Regional and National Councils where they must adhere to well elaborated codes of conduct. 

6.  Long term engagement with partners       Canadian CSOs have long standing experience working in partnership, and SMOs are no exception. All 20 evaluations highlight the importance of long-term sustained partnerships for effective development cooperation on the part of SMOs, including the use of flexible core institutional support in the case of one SMO.

7.  Multi-stakeholder engagement and partnerships        Given their size, SMOs are often strongly motivated to foster multi-stakeholder approaches in their development cooperation initiatives, which is an increasingly important goal for Global Affairs Canada and the international community. More than half the evaluations highlighted the contribution of particular multi-stakeholder initiatives in deepening the impact and leveraging modest SMO resources. Equally important is a deliberate approach to developing trust and commitment in these initiatives, built on sustaining of programming and competencies over years.

8.  Sustainability and results       All CSOs are concerned that their initiatives have sustained outcomes and impacts over the longer term, and for SMOs, while perhaps sometimes more challenging, these goals are no less important. The evaluations identify particular SMO strategies for sustainability – multi-stakeholder partnerships, capacity development to reach out to new donors, organizational strengthening through core support, sustained presence with partners and communities, limiting episodic engagements, etc.

9.  Flexible and adaptable to changing local conditions       The evaluations provide some evidence that SMOs may be more nimble than larger organizations, given their size, with decision-making and responsiveness to changing conditions on the ground.

10.  Cost effectiveness and voluntary efforts       Evaluators for the 20 SMOs were consistent in their praise for these organizations as cost effective actors in development cooperation. They point to a “multiplier effect” from volunteer efforts combined with a small amount of financial resources, the importance of focus and access to volunteer expertise, perhaps unavailable to larger organizations. They also highlight the impact of volunteering on the individuals concerned, which not only deepens a global perspective, but has sometimes contributed to life-changing directions involving a future career or volunteer effort in development organizations.

While these characteristics may not always be unique to SMOs, they are important drivers in determining SMO effectiveness and development impact. The scale of an organization often allows for more variation in adapting to the needs of specific partnerships, very much directly engaging people in their communities, in both Canada and overseas.

Data calculated and posted March 2017. 


4.  Supporting an Enabling Environment for CSOs as Development Actors


4.1  Canada’s commitment to supporting an enabling environment for CSOs in developing countries


Despite significant challenges to an enabling environment for CSOs in Canada over the past five years, the Canadian Government has been promoting an enabling environment for CSOs in developing countries.  The 2015 Development and Humanitarian Assistance Civil Society Partnership Policy affirms: 

“An empowered civil society is a crucial component for advancing democracy, human rights, and development, and the sustainability of development investments depends on the ability of the population to hold governments to account over the long term. In order for civil society to thrive, it must operate in an enabling environment that promotes effective and accountable institutions and respects human rights, and where the rule of law protects and promotes the freedoms of expression, association, and peaceful assembly.”

Working with like-minded governments and international CSOs such as CIVICUS and the International Centre for Not-For-Profit Law, Global Affairs Canada has chaired the “Working Group on Enabling and Protecting Civil Society,” affiliated with the Community of Democracies.  The Working Group on Enabling and Protecting Civil Society, which is a collaboration of states, civil society and international organizations, engages via diplomatic means at international bodies, such as the United Nations and provides technical assistance activities to prevent the adoption of laws that target civil society.

Global Affairs Canada is also a member of the Task Team on CSO Development Effectiveness and Enabling Environment, which is a multi-stakeholder body (donor governments, developing country governments and CSOs).  The Task Team’s mandate is to promote and monitor the commitments made by all stakeholders at the Fourth High Level Forum in Busan in 2011, and subsequently reaffirmed at the High Level Meeting in Mexico (April 2014) and in Nairobi (November 2016).  AidWatch Canada is also a member of this Task Team and past-Co-Chair for civil society organizations (2012 – 2016).


4.2  Global commitments to an enabling environment for CSOs


Key among these commitments at Busan has been a recognition that CSOs are development actors in their own right, whose roles in development may complement governments, but with their own agency.  Governments committed to creating an enabling environment, consistent with international human rights standards, which will maximize CSOs’ contribution to development. 

The CSO Partnership for Effective Development (CPDE), as well as several international CSOs, have been closely monitoring the enabling environment for CSOs as development actors, and have documented its deterioration in many countries, despite the Busan commitments.  The enabling environment for CSOs have three major components:

  • A legal and regulatory regime that facilitates the formation and operation of CSOs as development actors in their own right;
  • Institutionalize spaces for CSOs to engage effectively in policy dialogue with other development actors, including access to relevant documentation, transparency and accountability; and
  • Modalities of support by aid providers, including funding modalities that strengthen CSOs as development actors and fora for policy engagement.

As a development actor, CSOs themselves committed in Busan to examine their own practices against a set of eight guiding principles, which were globally adopted by CSOs in the Istanbul Principles for CSO Development Effectiveness (2010) and the Siem Reap Framework for the Implementation of the Istanbul Principles (2011).

CPDE has monitored the degree to which governments and aid providers have lived up to their commitments to an enabling environment consistent with international rights, declared in Busan, Mexico and Nairobi.  CPDE’s recent synthesis of country evidence formed a significant contribution to a monitoring process undertaken by the Global Partnership for Effective Development Cooperation, the multi-stakeholder body dedicated to ensuring the implementation of the Busan commitments (in which CPDE is the CSO representation).

See CPDE’s GPEDC Indicator Two: Civil Society Operates within an environment that maximizes its engagement in and contribution to development – An Assessment of Evidence (June 2016), compiled by the Working Group on Enabling Environment and the Working Group on CSO Development Effectiveness.

See Making Development Co-operation More Effective: 2016 Progress Report, which is a joint publication between UNDP and OECD under the auspices of the Global Partnership for Effective Development Co-operation.   This Report compiles data reported by the governments of the 81 low and middle-income countries and territories that participated in the Global Partnership’s second monitoring round.


Based on its 2016 synthesis of evidence, CPDE concluded,

An Enabling Legal and Regulatory Environment for CSOs

  • Significant barriers continue to exist for organizations representing marginalized and vulnerable populations.       The true test of an enabling environment for CSOs, consistent with international rights, is whether the rights of CSOs working in more politically sensitive areas, including those critical of government and those representing views of marginalized and vulnerable populations, are fully respected and protected. Among the most vulnerable are human rights defenders, and women human rights defenders in particular; anti-corruption advocates; environmentalists; ethnic, linguistic, and religious minorities; indigenous peoples; LGBTI people; migrants; youth; persons with disabilities; and trade union and land rights activists.
  • A global trend towards shrinking and closing civic space must be reversed.       Despite the commitment in Busan to enable CSOs in their role as development actors in their own right, in increasing numbers of countries, since Busan, the trend has been towards laws, regulations and government practices that restrict the freedoms of association, assembly and expression.
  • There has been a deeply troubling proliferation in the numbers of restrictive laws implemented since 2012.       In 2014, CIVICUS drew attention to 96 significant restrictions on the rights of civil society in just the period between June 2014 and May 2015. These restrictive initiatives are located in countries across the globe, irrespective of region and overall development status.
  • Growing restrictions on access to funding for CSOs has become emblematic of a closing environment in increasing numbers of countries.       Restrictions on access to resources, and particularly foreign funding, have contributed to a profoundly disabling environment for CSOs around the world. Among the countries reviewed by CPDE, close to one-third have significant legal and regulatory restrictions on CSOs’ access to funding.

An Istitutionalized Space for Multi-Stakeholder Dialogue

  • While progress in some countries has been welcomed, it is deeply troubling that a significant number of countries still do not hold any multi-stakeholder dialogue.     While CPDE welcomes evidence of some improvement in the number of countries engaging in multi-stakeholder dialogue with CSOs on national development plans, it remains deeply concerning that five years after Busan, more than one-third of the countries examined in CPDE’s review of evidence have little or no experience of multi-stakeholder dialogue.
  • Much more attention is required on improving the quality of dialogue.       Evidence of dialogue in more countries has not necessarily resulted in meaningful engagement with a broad range of civil society actors. Major efforts are still needed to institutionalize such dialogue and improve consultation processes consistent with good dialogue practice, including timeliness, openness and transparency.
  • Right to information still seriously limited in practice in a majority of countries, reducing the effectiveness of multi-stakeholder dialogue.         Access to information is an essential pre-requisite to effective multi-stakeholder dialogue. While most countries now have laws formally granting some level of access to information, in almost all countries examined, there are still substantial practical road-blocks (institutional processes, capacities, failure to implement the Act), which undermine CSO access to the correct, requested information on a timely basis.

Official Development Cooperation Supporting CSOs

  • Providers need to step up bilateral and joint-provider systematic and structured consultations with CSOs on provider policy formulation, not only on program implementation, at the country level.       Where consultations have happened with providers at country level (often perfunctory), the focus is on programmatic implementation of policies already determined at Headquarters level.
  • Providers are not addressing key issues in enabling finance that strengthens CSO development effectiveness       CSO partnership relations are often shaped by donor/CSO policies and relations. CSOs at all levels continue to be affected, inter alia, by long-standing issues in funding modalities such as
    • Diminishing responsiveness to CSO priorities undermining country ownership, bias against local CSOs in favour of INGOs,
    • Need for CSOs to chase changing provider short-term priorities in seeking funding,
    • Providers’ difficulty in funding capacity building work with CSOs, and
    • CSO difficulties in receiving grants for sustaining core operations.


Several international CSOs maintain an ongoing data base and analysis of enabling conditions for civil society:

International Center for Not-for-Profit Law‘s database, its Civic Freedom Monitor, Global Trends in NGO Law which synthesizes key developments relating to the legal and regulatory issues that affect non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and its periodic International Journal for Not-for-Profit Law.

The Civic Space Initiative brings together four global partners, the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law (ICNL), ARTICLE 19, CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation, and the World Movement for Democracy.  Challenging the closing of civic space, the CSI intends to Create spaces for citizens, communities, and civil society organizations to meaningfully engage with government and other power holders on freedoms of assembly, association, and expression.  See here.

The CIVICUS Monitor – Tracking Civic Space creates an interactive world map allows you to access live updates from civil society around the world, track threats to civil society and learn about the ways in which our right to participate is being realised or challenged.  See here.

International Civil Liberties Monitoring Group (Canada) is a national coalition that brings together some 43 NGOs, unions, professional associations, faith groups, environmental organizations, human rights and civil liberties advocates, as well as groups representing immigrant and refugee communities in Canada.  The coalition focuses on national and international anti-terrorism legislation, and other national security measures, and their impact on civil liberties, human rights, refugee protection, minority groups, political dissent, governance of charities, international cooperation and humanitarian assistance.  See here.

Voices -Voix (Canada) is a broad Canadian CSO coalition that supports a strong enabling environment for civil society organizations in Canada, robust democratic traditions, and Canadians’ collective and individual rights to debate and dissent. It was founded in 2010 in response to unprecedented federal funding cuts to CSOs and measures that targeted progressive organizations and eroded our democratic foundations.  See here.

 Data calculated and posted March 2017.