Finding CSO partners when civil society has been weakened by war

Conflict, Governance, Humanitarian, Methodology

After a difficult start, Oxfam’s fragile states project Within and Without the State has been making significant and exciting progress in South Sudan over the last few months. The team are now at the stage of selecting civil society organisation (CSO) partners. Rama Anthony explains more.

Within and Without the State believes that civil society has great potential to help strengthen governance in fragile contexts. In South Sudan, we hope to mobilise citizens to engage with power holders, both local and national leaders. Civil society engagement can happen in different ways, through working with the state on constitutional matters, lobbying for change, or encouraging citizen involvement in governance processes, but the aim is always to ensure power-holders are meeting
the needs of their citizens and guaranteeing their rights.

It was therefore really important to us to find the right civil society partners to work with: partners who share our aims and have the capacity to work effectively towards them, something which proved a challenging, but ultimately successful, process.  

The aim… is always
to ensure power-holders are meeting the needs of their citizens and guaranteeing
their rights.

The civil war which led to the creation of South Sudan has left civil society weak and the overall capacity of CSOs low. Many need support in areas of organisational governance, finance, human resources, and programme management. Most donor and INGO attention has focused on service-delivery and few CSOs are familiar with the idea of working on ‘governance,’ meaning that additional support will be needed to help CSOs turn their attention to this area.  

CSOs also face many other challenges, such as demands to help meet basic needs (e.g. poor, conflict-affected households; returnees; refugees from Sudan) and an environment which is  not yet supportive of CSO engagement. These challenges, however, only make our work seem more important and highlight the potential for WWS – especially as national institutions and policies are still being developed.

The search for potential partners

There are no accurate lists of civil society organisations in South Sudan, and Oxfam had few existing links with any – so it was hard to know where to start in identifying potential partners. But we managed to trace and consult with an ex-Oxfam staff member who helped us to identify appropriate organisations. We then recruited a project manager and a consultant who were able to build on this to develop a country context analysis and a list of potential partners. The project manager also played a crucial role in leading consultations, fostering stakeholder participation, and undertaking
partnership mapping, selection and capacity assessment, as well as partner project design and drafting contracts/agreements with Oxfam.

From there we set up a roundtable in Juba comprising a wide group of CSOs. From consultations at the roundtable we were able to shortlist 13 CSOs, based on their continued participation in the roundtable, their demonstrated interest in partnering with Oxfam, and the views of the wider group. We held interviews with the 13 shortlisted organisations to assess their capacity, and also consulted with beneficiaries, relevant government institutions, and a few funding agencies, to triangulate this information.

From this we were able to agree on the final five partners who seemed most appropriate to work with WWS. 

Building trust through open communication

Open consultation and communication with the wider group of CSOs in the roundtable were really important to the process of selecting appropriate partners. This wider group offered us continued support and advice throughout – based on their expertise and local knowledge; they also helped us to make ourselves accountable in the process, routinely reminding us to be transparent and open with our beneficiaries.

Another benefit of including a wider group of CSOs in the selection process is that it is becoming an effective advocacy forum.

The last meeting in November drew together all of the Oxfam affiliate partners in South Sudan and offered a training workshop on power analysis and advocacy. One of the Oxfam partners, Community Empowerment for Progress (CEPO), also presented a comparison between the South Sudan NGO Bill and the Ethiopian Societies and Charities Act as the basis for advocating for a review of the South Sudan Bill. The Bill was later successfully withdrawn from parliament for further review. 

We hope to continue to have periodic roundtable meetings, as well as monthly meetings between the five partners so they can continue to learn from each other and develop joint actions in future, further strengthening civil society.

Overall, we found choosing partners to involve much more than implementing a mapping and selection exercise to assess the capacity of CSOs. Crucially it involved finding the right people and engaging with them to identify possible partners – and most importantly, open communication throughout the process to ensure transparency and trust. 

Author: Rama Anthony
Archive blog. Originally posted on Oxfam Policy & Practice.