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Most donors see civil society organisations as crucial partners in ensuring positive development outcomes. Indeed, many see a strong civil society as a positive goal in itself as they believe that civil society organisations (CSOs) hold governments to account, promote the voices of local and marginalised communities by engaging in important advocacy work. This is shown in DFID’s response to the Independent Commission for Aid Impact recommendations on partnerships with CSOs. It is argued that a strong civil society promotes democratic values, and protects civil liberties and human rights.

There are several ways to engage civil society in anti-corruption programmes – playing to civil society’s perceived strength as a watchdog, including:

  1. Support to organise anti-corruption campaigns.
  2. Train investigative journalists to expose corruption.
  3. Support local NGOs to organise communities around corruption in service delivery.
  4. Civil society’ defined role in the UNCAC review mechanisms.

The definition and funding problem

Evidence supports the view that civil society plays an important role in addressing corruption and promoting good governance. But civil society is not a homogenous category, and simple engagement with CSOs does not always give the desired results. In part, this is caused by the fact that – whilst most development practitioners realise that civil society is a broad and overarching term covering a host of formal and informal groups – in practice, donors prioritise non-governmental organisations (NGOs) when allocating development funds for civil society. In other cases, it is not always clear what constitutes ‘civil society’.

What is civil society?

CIVICUS – a global coalition of civil society organisations and activists – describe civil society as ‘an arena outside the family, the state, and the market that is created by individual and collective actions, organisations, and institutions to advance shared interests’. Within such a definition are different types of formal and informal organisations from sports clubs to community groups, and from local to international NGOs.

A key challenge is how donors can operationally define what constitutes civil. A 2019 UNODC report on the opportunities for civil society action against corruption defines civil society as the ‘third sector’ between the public and private sectors. Civil society includes a host of formal and informal organisations including:

  1. Charities and ‘not for profits’.
  2. NGOs (a specific type of civil society organisation).
  3. Community organisations and associations.
  4. Faith-based organisations (FBOs) – churches/ mosques/ other religious bodies.
  5. Labour unions.
  6. Indigenous groups, clubs.
  7. Professional organisations.
  8. Foundations.
  9. Social and people’s movements.

The challenge is that not all these types of organisations or associations can be operationally funded by foreign donors.

Some civil society groups may be highly politicised, which donors and other anti-corruption actors often perceive as a problem. This is largely because the history of anti-corruption thought has – according to Michael Johnston – been apolitical due to a belief that political influence is inherently corrupting. This statement is open to debate. However, donors shy away from funding people’s movements and ‘spontaneous’ public protests since they often have political objectives; for example to remove political parties or politicians from power. Such wider political demands may cause diplomatic challenges for donors.

Others groups are difficult to fund because they lack formal recognition and organisational structures – even bank accounts. For example, they may not be officially registered as organisations in the country of operation, making it next to impossible to disburse funds to them. Additionally, donors often consider the lack of formal organisational structures – an independent governing board, transparent operational procedures, audited finances – to be a corruption risk.

As a result, international donors have practical and political preferences for funding certain types of CSO. Those organisations that do get funded by international donors may in turn choose to pass on funds to less formal organisations or community groups. But in doing so, they also assume the potential corruption risks of such organisations.

Who donors mostly fund

Mostly, donors fund NGOs. In fact in an OECD report on aid spending to civil society fails to make a distinction between civil society generally and NGOs. The report goes as far as to say that NGOs ‘…can be used synonymously with the term civil society organisation (CSO)’. Very few statistics on official development assistance break down civil society funding by type of organisation. Those statistics that do exist indicate that the bulk of spending in this area goes to NGOs.

Social accountability

The involvement of civil society organisations in anti-corruption and development practice comes from the perceived need to sidestep government channels and appeal directly to citizens to achieve appreciable reductions in corruption. This is based on a view of politicians and other government officials as having the most to gain from corrupt practices and thus the least incentive to stop them (Dixit 2015). From this perspective, anti-corruption programmes cannot rely on (potentially corrupt) state actors to undertake reforms that would reduce their own opportunity to secure access to bribes and other material gains ().

The solution, then, is to empower citizens and CSOs through local institutional reconfigurations that increase social accountability, while limiting state actors’ powers (Robbins 2000). CamargoCamargo (2018) defined this approach as ‘formal or informal mechanisms through which citizens engage to bring state officials or service providers to account’. Tools and strategies for such efforts can include:

  1. Local monitoring
  2. Citizen charters
  3. Citizen assemblies
  4. Community report cards
  5. Participatory budgeting
  6. Open data programmes
  7. Integrity pacts

The 2020 U4 Issue on Overcoming the pitfalls of engaging communities in anti-corruption programmes discusses these activities, which are often called social accountability tools.

Social accountability work has its clear challenges, though. One cannot assume that social accountability exists just because we have applied the tools. Instead, evidence suggests that certain contextual factors determine success:

  1. The local context matters
    Understanding local, regional, and national power dynamics is important. For example, social accountability initiatives in regions traditionally hostile to a ruling government may prove counterproductive.
  2. A strong enabling environment
    Social accountability can be successful when there are supporting conditions open to civic participation. This could result from:
    – Reform-minded officials in government
    – A strong history of civic engagement
    – Relatively free media
    – Access to information.
  3. The issue matters
    Building social accountability around issues that are relevant to people’s lives helps to enable and sustain citizen engagement. Top-down driven priorities may not resonate with local communities and so may not have the desired effect.
  4. Coalitions are important
    Creating coalitions between communities, civil society organisations, the media, and reformers in government is an important condition for success. Broad coalitions also help to insulate poor communities, marginalised groups, women, and minorities from retribution for speaking up against those in power.

Failure to consider these factors can have many negative effects and cause harm to ordinary citizens as those who are in power seek payback. In addition to these contextual factors, there are also broader challenges to keep in mind:

  1. Elite capture
    Local, regional, or national elites can capture social accountability initiatives – causing distorted outcomes.
  2. Lack of sustainability
    Social accountability initiatives can fail when funding ends if they are tied to short-term programmes. The lack of sustainability can lead to the threats and harm, see below.
  3. Threat and harm to those involved
    People who have – through social accountability efforts – spoken out against abuses can experience a backlash from eg angry local elites or others who dislike the new social dynamics. This can happen during implementation or when a project has ended, and the coordinating organisations are no longer present. For example, this Oxfam report from 2019 points to increased domestic violence against beneficiaries of women’s economic empowerment initiatives.
  4. Disillusionment
    Setbacks and failures can lead to citizens becoming disillusioned and cynical about long-term change.

Despite these challenges, social accountability initiatives continue to be promoted by donors, international NGOs, and other actors – particularly to ensure accountability of services.

Civil society is not a panacea for corruption

Whilst there is a role for civil society to play in addressing corruption, reducing corruption cannot be boiled down to “adding citizens and stir”. Indeed, the role for civil society is extremely complicated, which raises concerns important concerns.

Corruption in civil society

Civil society is not immune systemic corruption taking place in their surroundings, as pointed out in this U4 Issue on Countering NGO corruption. In many places there are few job opportunities for educated people while development support has become an industry of sorts. Here, civil society organisations may be set up to capitalise on donor funding opportunities.

As this Carnegie Endowment for International Peace report on fake NGOs shows, some NGOs in Nigeria have been cultivated by the ruling party in order to protect themselves from domestic and international scrutiny. According to the report, running a pro-government NGO has become lucrative business and has created new avenues for corruption to thrive. As a by-product, trust in genuine civil society organisations can be undermined, giving way to sentiments that CSOs are just as corrupt as their government counterparts. This development is worrying for anti-corruption campaigners, genuine civil society, and donors alike.

Downward accountability of civil society

Whilst civil society is not immune to corruption, there is some indication that applying the idea of downward accountability may strengthen civil society. Downward accountability is to ensure that CSOs remain accountable to the local communities or populations that would benefit from their activities.

The opposite is upward accountability – when CSOs are accountable to their international donors. This is kept in check through monitoring and progress reports and financial audits.

Downward accountability has been touted as a way to prevent civil society and humanitarian sector scandals – but downward accountability is difficult. That being said, they do have the potential to reduce corruption risks and improve the efficiency and effectiveness of development outcomes.

Shrinking civic space: a challenge for citizen led anti-corruption efforts

Many countries are experiencing a decline in democracy with increasing efforts to limit civic participation in the public sphere. This poses a serious challenge to civil society led anti-corruption efforts. The Covid-19 pandemic and related distancing and quarantine measures raises concerns that the already existing trend of shrinking civic space will worsen and further curb civic engagement and restrict fundamental rights. The global alliance of CSOs – CIVICUS – also highlights the fact that internet restrictions in place in many countries are limiting access to information (see previous link).

This trend poses several challenges for civil society and calls for new ways to engage local communities and push back against authoritarian tendencies. The U4 Issue on Supporting civil society during the Covid-19 pandemic points to ways digital accountability networks can support anti-corruption efforts.

The way forward for civil society

Despite some of the challenges discussed in this guide, no one disputes the vital role civil society can play in anti-corruption efforts. Indeed, CSOs continue to receive funding for their activities to engage communities and build networks of integrity to address corruption around the world.


Bawile, J. N., Langnel, Z. 2015. Downward accountability of NGOs in community project planning in Ghana. Development in Practice, 26:7, 920-932.

Burai, P. 2020. Overcoming the pitfalls of engaging communities in anti-corruption programmes. U4 Issue 2020:3.

DFID. 2019. DFID response to ICAI recommendations on DFID’s partnerships with civil society organisations.

Baez Camargo, C. 2018. Harnessing the power of communities against corruption. A framework for contextualising social accountability. U4 Issue 2018:4.

CIVICUS. 2020. We are in this together, don’t violate human rights while responding to COVID-19.

Dixit, A. K. 2015. How business community institutions can help fight corruption. The World Bank Economic Review, Volume 29

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Komujuni, S., Mullard, S. 2020. Downward accountability in humanitarian aid. The example of UNHCR Uganda. U4 Issue 2020:18.

Mullard, S., Aarvik, P. 2020. Supporting civil society during the Covid-19 pandemic. The potentials of online collaborations for social accountability. U4 Guide 2020: 1.

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Oxfam. 2019. Exploring the impacts of women's economic empowerment initiatives on domestic violence. Oxfam research report.

Page, M. T. 2021. Fake civil society: The rise of pro-government NGOs in Nigeria. Working paper. Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Robbins, P. 2000. The rotten institution: corruption in natural resource management. Political Geography, Volume 19.

UNODC. 2019. Civil society for development. Opportunities through the UN Convention against Corruption.

Yuesti, A., Novitasari, L. G., Ni, W. R. 2016. Accountability of non-government organization from the perspective of stakeholder theory.


    All views in this text are the author(s)’, and may differ from the U4 partner agencies’ policies.

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