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The Department for International Development works well with civil society organisations (CSOs) to help some of the world’s poorest people, according to today’s National Audit Office report. But the department needs better information on the effectiveness of CSOs in developing countries, and on the impact of its assistance, if it is to ensure aid is used as cost-effectively as possible.

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Since 1997, DFID has doubled its funding for CSOs and, in 2004-05, spent £328 million supporting many bodies, both UK-based organisations and those in developing countries. DFID sees CSOs as important partners in virtually all the countries in which it operates, and has a good understanding of the important role which CSOs can play. Some of DFID’s in-country offices have developed specific strategies for working with CSOs, although the depth of analysis of CSOs’ capacity to help tackle poverty is limited, and doesn’t always provide a sufficient baseline for monitoring progress.

DFID-supported projects carried out by CSOs in developing countries have made a positive difference to peoples’ lives in a range of ways: improving access to basic services such as water and education, providing humanitarian assistance, protecting human rights, and increasing the accountability of governments to their citizens by giving marginalised groups a voice. DFID assessed that 80 percent of the projects reviewed had largely met their objectives.

Measuring the outcomes of donor support is challenging. Even so, DFID needs to improve in this area, particularly in respect of its strategic partnerships and for projects which help build CSO capacity. All DFID’s projects and funding agreements reviewed had established objectives, but only half of projects had indicators which were sufficiently robust for fully tracking progress. More generally, there was not enough information on, for example, unit costs or baseline data, to help assess the extent of value for money achieved.

DFID operates a range of schemes supporting CSOs. These schemes have a variety of purposes and have evolved over time. While the department monitors expenditure and results through each funding scheme, performance information to assess the circumstances in which each scheme would be most appropriate, or to evaluate the overall cost effectiveness of the different types of scheme, is limited. For the Civil Society Challenge Fund, for example, DFID measures the success of individual projects under the scheme but does not currently have adequate mechanisms for assessing performance against the scheme’s wider objectives.

Today’s report highlights DFID’s constructive engagement with an increasingly wide range of Civil Society Organisations in the UK and in developing countries. Its range of approaches has encouraged innovation as well as delivering direct benefits on the ground. The report recognises the popularity of the Partnership Programme Agreements, which offer greater continuity of funding and increased flexibility. It goes on to recommend that DFID work with other donors to improve assessment of the capacity of CSOs to effect change in a developing country. DFID should also develop better measures of what its funding of CSOs achieves to help assess value for money.

"Civil Society Organisations play an important role in many developing countries, helping people get their voice heard and securing basic necessities and rights. The Department for International Development has achieved positive impacts at a project level, but more robust assessment and monitoring needs to be in place to ensure cost effective, strategic and sustainable benefits for the poorest people around the world."

Sir John Bourn, head of the NAO


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