DFID’s partnerships with civil society organisations

DFID values civil society organisations (CSOs), but its funding and partnership practices do not fully support the long-term health of the civil society sector.

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10 Apr 2019
Amber - Red
Lead commissioner
Tina Fahm
Civil Society
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Approach paper

Civil society organisations (CSOs) pursue development and humanitarian objectives at multiple levels, from small village-based organisations to international non-governmental organisations with the capacity to deliver humanitarian and development aid across multiple countries. Their work supports the full range of Sustainable Development Goals.

The UK government has been funding CSOs since long before the establishment of the Department for International Development (DFID) in 1997, but the volume and modalities of funding to CSOs has changed over time.

In 2014-15, DFID’s bilateral civil society portfolio peaked at £1,375 million, or 25% of its bilateral spend. It then declined to £1,268 million, or 20% of bilateral spend, in 2016-17. In addition, a significant but unreported share of DFID funding to multilateral agencies is sub-contracted to CSOs.

DFID’s current approach to working with civil society is set out in its 2016 Civil Society Partnership Review (CSPR). The CSPR ushered in significant changes to how DFID funds CSOs at a time when CSOs were also adapting to fast-changing operational contexts.

Scope and Methodology

This performance review assess how well DFID’s partners with and funds CSOs, and also looks at whether the UK government’s broader influencing work on promoting civil society, is achieving the objectives set out in the CSPR. It covers the period from May 2015, when the CSPR was commissioned, to December 2018. We also include some elements of DFID’s work that began before then, to assess results that require longer timelines.

We looked at DFID’s CSO funding and capacity-building efforts managed by central DFID teams, DFID in-country offices and through multilateral agencies including funding for both development and humanitarian efforts, and for local, national and international CSOs. We look in particular at three large centrally managed funding instruments – UK Aid Direct, UK Aid Match and UK Aid Connect – and at DFID’s work with national civil society in two case study countries, Bangladesh and Ethiopia.

We conducted a strategic review of relevant literature and DFID documents, a learning review, 43 case studies and two country visit as well as interviews with DFID staff, CSO staff and external specialists.


  • DFID’s views on the role and potential value of CSOs are clear and consistent.
  • DFID has reduced the number of its centrally managed funding instruments and introduced stringent requirements, thereby improving CSO transparency and accountability.
  • However, these strict requirements, in combination with time-consuming and costly application processes and a short-term project-based funding model, limit the ability of CSO partners to ensure their relevance, health and adaptability.
  • The wider UK government lacks clear objectives on how to achieve the UK’s goal of protecting and expanding civic space.
  • Weak process management and poor management of the review period’s many disruptive events led to unreliable and unpredictable donor behaviour at all stages of the process leading up to contracts and funding agreements.
  • CSO partners saw DFID as a supportive donor once project implementation had begun.
  • DFID has recognised, but not yet filled, important knowledge gaps on how different funding mechanisms affect the results of CSO work for poor people.


  1. DFID should fill gaps in the knowledge needed to optimise the design of its central funding instruments.
  2. Throughout DFID’s central and in-country portfolios, the process towards funding agreements should be more efficient, predictable, reliable and transparent, and should allow CSOs sufficient time to develop proposals.
  3. Throughout its central and in-country portfolios, DFID should have a stronger focus on the long-term results of its CSO-implemented programmes, the localisation of development and humanitarian efforts, and its CSO partners’ long-term capacity to deliver relevant results in evolving contexts.
  4. DFID should do more to encourage CSO-led innovation, and to recognise and promote the uptake of innovation successes.
  5. DFID should provide a guiding framework for country offices on how to analyse and respond to closing civic space within a national context, and work with other UK government departments to agree a joint approach to addressing the decline of civic space at the international level.

Government response

The government publishes a response to all ICAI reviews. The government response is available to read online.

International Development Committee

Parliament’s International Development Committee (IDC), or its ICAI sub-committee, hold hearings on all ICAI reviews. The IDC hearing on DFID’s partnerships with civil society organisations is available to listen to online.