3 Civil Society Assistance: Actors, Objectives, Concepts and Strategies 


This chapter investigates civil society assistance. It will further specify how civil society assistance is understood in this analysis and what kind of activities are associated with civil society assistance. It will be clear that civil society assistance is first and foremost driven by external actors, often referred to as donors. Since donors are the driving force behind civil society assistance, they are the main focus of this chapter.

The section tackles the following questions, in particular: who and what type of ‘donating agency’ engages in civil society assistance, for what reasons, and with what expectations? What approaches do donors choose in order to assist civil society in other countries? The chapter thus focuses on donors, their objectives, concepts and strategies. Finally, the chapter discusses the extent to which the approaches actors use in their effort to nurture civil society abroad are suitable to trigger the development of civil society. It will be shown that the strategies applied often have unintended side effects that hinder rather than foster civil society development.


It should be noted that the following provides a theoretical approach to donors. A description of major donors active in CEE will be given at a later point of the dissertation (see chapter 6).

3.1 Defining Civil Society Assistance 

The following defines civil society assistance more clearly. The section will show that civil society assistance is first and foremost driven by (external) actors. Secondly, civil society assistance refers to transnational relations. Thirdly, it aims to build democracy from the bottom-up. Finally, civil society assistance stands for a deliberate attempt to transfer a certain image, namely civil society, from one place to another.

Civil society assistance is actor driven, i.e. it refers to various endeavors of international actors that aim to support domestic societal actors. While the first group commonly entails donors, who grant aid, assistance and advice, the latter group refers to recipients who receive aid and assistance.46 


The relationships between donors and recipients are always transnational in character. This is shown by the following definition which describes transnational relations as:

“… regular interactions across national boundaries when at least one actor is a non-state agent or does not operate on behalf of a national government or an intergovernmental organization” (Risse-Kappen 1995: 3).47


In other words, transnational relations may include state actors, but not exclusively though. As regards civil society assistance, recipients are per definition non-state actors, i.e. actors of civil society. Donors, in contrast, may be public or private, state or non-state actors.

This becomes more clear, when we consider the strategic options of democratic states who wish to foster democracy and civil society beyond their borders. We can identify two genuinely different approaches as to how to assist democracy and civil society by deliberate acts of intervention from the outside, commonly referred to as top-down and bottom-up approaches to democracy assistance.48 

Firstly, democratic states may chose to target state actors, and put pressure on the government of the respective state to liberalize and to install democratic institutions and a respective state policy that triggers the self-organization of societal interest from the top-down. In the absence of a global supreme authority and binding and enforceable international rights and rules, coercion and conditionality have been identified as the major ways to apply pressure on other states (see Whitehead 1996, Schmitter 1996). Coercion refers to cases where governments adopt respective policies in response to the threat of military force or negative sanctions such as barriers to trade in the case of non-compliance.49 Conditionality, in contrast, relies on incentives and rewards rather than on sanctions and force. In the case of conditionality, political reforms are enforced in anticipation of promised merits and benefits in the form of financial resources such as loans, direct grants or development aid or membership in international organizations.50


Secondly, rather than putting pressure on the government to liberalize, external state actors may aim to trigger democratization from the bottom-up and impact directly upon the society of authoritarian regimes or new democracies. According to the underlying assumption, a strong civil society will subsequently stand up for civic and human rights, demand respective political reforms, and insist on accountable government. A government that respects and protects civil society and that meets citizens’ demands is thus not the origin but the consequence of a vibrant civil society. Accordingly, actors inside civil society are the major partners of external agents. Primarily non-governmental organizations of various backgrounds and concerned with different issues are the chief beneficiaries of aid. On the donor side, private and public organizations are active. State agencies, and especially national development aid agencies, run programs for civil society assistance. Along with that non-governmental actors are deliberately encouraged and funded in order to enter transnational partnerships and networks with the aim of supporting civil society in other countries.51 Finally, non-governmental actors without a public mandate and financing are active. Examples are philanthropic foundations as well as trade unions or charity organizations that aim to support and empower civil society actors abroad.

The major distinction between the top-down and the bottom-up approach lies in the type of transaction involved. While top-down forms of democratic assistance are restricted to multilateral and bilateral forms of international relations which take the state as the main addressee of assistance, bottom-up approaches to democratization explicitly make use of transnational relations and networks and directly focus upon civil society organizations and thus actors inside the domestic sphere of the recipient state. The latter option consequently targets domestic politics and directly intervenes into domestic power struggles.

The various forms of international relations are illustrated as follows. The red arrows indicate donor-recipient transactions.


Civil society assistance refers to the deliberate attempt to transfer formal and informal structures that proved valuable in the ‘Western’ world to another time and/or space. For this reason, the dissertation conceptualizes civil society assistance as a transfer, whereas an encompassing interpretation of the term ‘transfer’ is applied as put forward by Dolowitz/March (1991: 349p):


“… we identify seven objects of transfer: policy goals, structure and content; policy instruments or administrative techniques; institutions; ideology; ideas, attitudes and concepts; and negative lessons” (Dolowitz / March 1991: 350).

The notion of transfer has the advantage that it allows us to incorporate the international and the domestic sides of the transfer into the analysis. Transnational pressure does not automatically result in domestic reply. Risse-Kappen et al (1995: 4), for example, observe:


“Transnational relations do not seem to have the same effects across cases”.

Different countries respond differently to civil society assistance. Risse-Kappen et al. conclude that the impact of transnational relations depends on domestic as well as international factors.52 By the same token, research on foreign assistance to civil society in democratizing countries needs to incorporate the international as well as the domestic side into the analysis, interests of donors and recipients, the export and the import side of the transfer, external push and domestic pull.

Civil society assistance thus has to be distinguished from other images of transfer such as convergence or diffusion. While the former refers to the spread of ‘the one best system’ assuming that previously divergent societies evolve towards a common endpoint, while the less developed society takes the advanced society as a template, the latter stress the point that institutions are usually copies and that institution building often involves some measure of imitation (Jacoby 2000: 4pp). However, neither focuses on both sides of the transfer. More importantly from the point of this study, both neglect the involvement of actors and their interests in the process. If actors’ perspectives are introduced, it is commonly assumed that domestic actors voluntarily emulate foreign models, whereas the possibility of external intervention is neglected (Dolowitz/March 1996). In contrast, civil society assistance refers not to emulation (although this might be involved), but to external intervention into domestic settings.


In sum, civil society assistance is defined as the deliberate, direct and explicit involvement of external actors in domestic settings with the aim of transferring the Western concept of civil society as a means to build democracy from the bottom-up. Civil society assistance focuses exclusively on societal actors of the target state and is thus always transnational in character.

3.2 Objectives of Assistance: Civil Society - a Remedy to Various Illnesses 

The following section investigates why external actors seek to support civil society beyond their borders.

As already demonstrated in the previous chapter, the attractiveness of the concept of civil society frequently has to do with its impreciseness and the diversity of meanings. Thanks to this very diversity and impreciseness, the concept of civil society serves as a means to reach various objectives. This is not only a reason for its popularity in domestic politics, but also in development cooperation and collaboration with transformation states. In the following the essential goals of civil society support stated by donor organizations will be briefly illustrated. Four main goals of civil society assistance can be identified: (1) democracy, (2) good governance, (3) efficient aid implementation, (4) market economy and economic development.53


The main reason for the increasing interest in promoting civil society is certainly the significance attached to civil society as a foundation for stable democratic development. Civil society functions as a counterweight to the state, prevents state despotism, increases citizen participation, strengthens the efficiency of the state by taking away some of its burden and thus leads to a greater input as well as output legitimacy of a democracy.54 Furthermore, the transformation processes in the former Eastern block countries, which were carried in particular by the idea of a free civil society in Central and Eastern Europe, seem to confirm the democratic significance of the concept. There, in particular, the strengthening of civil society commitments is recognized as an important means of facilitating the difficult democratic transformation. However, in other parts of the world as well the external promotion of democracy and civil society is an explicit goal of foreign and developmental policies. The end of the Cold War brought back memories of Kant’s old theory, which has yet to be falsified: Democracies do not fight wars against one another. The end of bipolarity at the beginning of the 1990s created the necessity for a new foreign policy orientation and an alternative to the previous policy of containment, which seemed to be the world-wide promotion of democracy.55 The external support for and stabilization of democracy and civil society advanced to become a foreign policy objective and an important component of active peace and human rights policies.56

“Viewed from this perspective, human rights and democracy are twin brothers. They originate from a common genesis. For this very reason, the existence or the establishment of civil society is a decisive factor for progress in the area of human rights. Wherever a "critical mass“ of the population wants to advance political change and promotes political participation, the means of state oppression to secure the outdated power structures are destined to fail in the long run. (...) Supporting civil society is one of the most important tasks of human rights policies. Strengthening it is in the very best interest of all states, because the equilibrium of societal interests attained by means of a functioning civil society is an important factor of stability.“57


Furthermore, the promotion of civil society became part of a new development strategy, which recognizes the significance of political conditions for development. While a modernization approach, which emphasized the significance of economic development as a prerequisite for political stability and democracy, prevailed in the 1950s and 1960s, hopes were disappointed on a large scale by the 1980s at the latest due to increasingly impoverished regions, corrupt forms of government and predominantly authoritarian structures. The crisis of previous developmental policies led donors – and above all the World Bank - to believe that overall political conditions and ‘good governance’ are an indispensable prerequisite for development. In this respect the promotion of civil society groups is based on the view that these more efficient and above all more transparent services can come to play where state or market-based activities have failed or do not function sufficiently and/or assume a kind of public monitoring function to achieve greater accountability on behalf of the government. In the course of the 1990s, though, the concept of ‘good governance’, which was initially limited to administrative activities, was increasingly replaced by ‘democratic governance’. In many donor documents, the view prevails that a “developed participatory and social democracy (can) be regarded (...) as a prerequisite for development“ (Windfuhr 1999: 2). Not only is the effectiveness of civil society emphasized here, but also its democratic potential.

Moreover, the promotion of civil society is also viewed as a means to improve developmental cooperation. State developmental policy, which had fallen into a crisis, discovered civil society organizations and NGOs and pinned their hopes on them (Nuscheler 1996: 498). Besides the economic benefits, the proximity of NGOs to their target group is seen as a particularly decisive advantage. Their closeness to the poor and discriminated is labeled by most donor organizations as an important advantage of the NGOs. NGOs are thus promoted as a mouthpiece and interest representation of the underprivileged (Robinson 1996: 7). The catchword for this in the jargon of developmental cooperation is “empowerment“ - thus enabling disadvantaged societal groups, generally the poor, handicapped, and women. The capacity of civil society organizations to trigger sustainable development is regarded as another advantage of civil society promotion.


“There is a general consensus that in order for any development effort to endure past the project period, the community must have the capacity to shape and continue the effort” (North-South Institute 1996: 8).

Finally, the development of free market economies as well as positive economic growth is also stated by donor organizations as a goal of civil society support. Institutions such as chambers of commerce or regional development agencies are supposed to provide the necessary infrastructure to support smaller and mid-sized businesses in particular. Civil society institutions – understood here as organizations independent of the state, but not necessarily non-profit organizations – are to accompany the free interplay of market forces, hinder and prevent state intervention into the free market and thus facilitate economic development. The main slogan here is ‘deregulation’, which is attributed great importance in supporting the transformation in post-communist states in which the market and states were equated with one another.

We should now keep in mind that the attractiveness of civil society and the reason why it seems so worthy of promoting primarily lies in the apparent capacity of civil society to reach several goals of the donors. Accordingly, civil society is reduced to a mere instrument, or a remedy for various diseases with which the main objectives of the donor organizations are to be reached. The following segment will elaborate on the civil society concepts on which the support programs are based. It will be shown that donors base their assistance on vague concepts and definitions of civil society that leave ample scope for interpretation.

3.3 Donor Concepts of Civil Society - One Term, Various Meanings


One must note that the various objectives and ambitious goals of donors of civil society assistance stand in contrast with the astonishing lack of concepts and vague definitions of civil society.

“Relatively little strategizing takes place among donors on what organizations within civil society need to be supported to what purpose“ (Robinson 1996: 4).


This section argues that although donors do not explicitly propose a profound concept of civil society, they stress different roles of civil society depending on their own national backgrounds and experiences. Despite these slight differences in understanding, most definitions of civil society given by donors still remain vague and leave ample leeway to interpret what civil society is and which groups act as carriers of civil society on a case to case basis.

One can note that donors largely employ a broad definition of civil society as a space independent of the state, which includes a variety of different organizations:


“Civil society denotes a public space between the state and individual citizens where the latter develops autonomous, organized and collective activities (civic associations)” (OECD 1995 quoted in Robertson 1996: 4).

“Civil society can be defined as the social structure which occupies the political space between the family and the state” (DANIDA, 1995: Support for civil society, Copenhagen, Ministry of Foreign Affairs).


“...(civil society refers to)... the broad spectrum of societal organizations, that are located outside the state and governmental sector and whose motives are not primarily profit-seeking. It encompasses voluntary services, women’s groups, communities, chambers of commerce, cooperatives, religious and clan-based groups, cultural groups, sport clubs, academic and research institutes, consumers and so forth” (DFID 1999, cited in: FES 2001: 43 –own translation).

Quigley (2000) points out that despite this lack of conceptual clarity, donors’ understanding of civil society is subject to their own social and political experiences. Depending on the nation of origin and the organizational purpose or the organizational culture of the donor we can thus identify different understandings of civil society which highlight varying roles of civil society.58 


Comparing American and European donors, Quigley jumps to the conclusion that the different support programs are oriented towards the own national model.59 According to him, American donors espouse an idealized image of civil society and stress the connection between civil society and democracy. Civil society corresponds with a large independent sector that is financially independent of the state, based on voluntary work, and composed of public-policy oriented NGOs that strive for the common good. This understanding is reflected in the definition of USAID (1996: 1):

”Civil society consists of non-state organizations that are engaged in or have the potential for championing adoption and consolidation of democratic reforms”.


According to USAID, so-called „civic advocacy organizations” frequently have this potential. These are a sub-group of civil society organizations which are most suited to generate public pressure for reform and to demand accountable government (Hansen 1996: 4). USAID basically considers a broad spectrum of organizations including “labor federations, business and professional associations, human rights and prodemocratic groups, environmental organizations or policy think tanks”. This spectrum is, however, quickly limited to organizations that “advocate on behalf of the public, analyze policy issues, mobilize constituencies in support of policy dialog, serve as watchdogs to ensure accountability in government functions (and)… act as agents of reform in strengthening and broadening democratic governance” (USAID 1996: 2). USAID stresses the ability of these organizations to generate the public push for political reform and to consolidate reform by holding the state accountable for what it does. In summary, civil society is understood as a (financially independent) sphere that countervails state power, with stress on the control- and socializing role of non-governmental organizations.

According to Quigley (2000: 4) European support programs have a different understanding of civil society. In terms of absolute numbers the NGO sector in Western Europe is smaller than in the USA. Moreover, various NGOs maintain close cooperative ties with the government. Public financial support is as much common as regular consultation and the adoption of public tasks by non-state actors. Interest representation is not the object of small lobby-groups that employ pressure on individual members of parliament, but is done by large associations that are closely connected with the political realm. Neo-corporatist arrangements are common practice. European donors thus often stress the role of civil society actors as intermediary and interest representative. This is evident in the following statement of the German political foundations:


“Civil society comprises the (political) sphere that is not directly controlled by the state, but formed by societal forces. It is the area of active citizen participation and interest representation between state and market. Besides the classical non-governmental organizations, trade unions, professional associations, women, human rights, farmers, environmental and other societal groups are part of civil society“ (Common statement of the German political foundations cited in: FES 2001: 29, own translation).”

Finally, we can identify an understanding of civil society that persists in the so-called “development profession“ (Jenkins 2001: 250) that is close to international organizations and international NGOs. Here a narrow definition of civil society is visible, which is restricted to non-profit seeking, autonomous NGOs and which stresses the democratic and emancipatory importance of NGOs as well as NGOs’ efficiency (Windfuhr 1999: 2). The “democratic and better” NGO (Schmidt / Take 1997) that identifies politically relevant issues and initiates public debate, mostly by means of campaigning is at the same time a service provider that performs tasks more efficiently than the state. This connection between public policy oriented advocacy and efficient service provider is evident in the following definition of civil society proposed by the association of German NGOs.


“As their (the NGOs’) objectives are aimed neither at taking over power, sharing state power nor at profit making economic interests, they constitute their own realm known as civil society, which is clearly distinguishable from market and state interests. In our view the orientation towards universal norms such as peace, justice, human rights, democracy and ecological sustainability should be constitutive for the affiliation to civil society …. The starting point for the activities of NGOs is the satisfaction of needs or the provision of services. This happens normally as a reaction to the state’s inability to do so” (VENRO cited in FES 2001: 13f, translation by the author).

We can thus conclude that depending on their national or organizational background, donors maintain slightly different understandings of civil society without making them explicit though. None of the examples given above clearly state which actors are regarded as the main actors or carriers of civil society and thus entitled to assistance. Donors mostly point to non-governmental organizations’, civil society organizations’, ‘civic advocacy organizations’ or ‘public voluntary organizations’ without a clear definition of those and provide long lists of groups that may belong to civil society. There is a lack of criteria which allow us to identify actors most suitable to advance civil society development and concepts on which such criteria are based.

The impreciseness and vagueness of donors when it comes to the definition of civil society has been highly criticized. Jenkins (2001) makes the point that donors define civil society and identify actors of civil society depending on their interests and intentions.


“... donor thinking relies not on one wrong or inappropriate definition, but on an array of detailed specifications, any one of which can be invoked depending on which developmental objective it seeks to achieve“ (ibid: 257).

In other words, depending on the main objective of the donor, assistance is granted to a human rights organization, an economic interest representation or chamber of commerce, a party-affiliated trade union or foundation, or a think tank that provides detailed research on domestic politics in English. Jenkins points to a ”definitional inconsistency“ of some donors. According to him, USAID is willing to widen its definition of civil society in a way that encompasses even “first-tier associations”, namely clan, tribe or ethnical groups if this helps to overthrow an authoritarian regime (ibid: 258). According to Jenkins, the World Bank also uses the concept of civil society as a subtle means of pursuing its interests.


”The Bank’s enthusiastic support for civil society ... is nothing less than a backdoor attempt to transform African societies from the ground up by substituting a new understanding of individual political subjectivity – for it is only through such a novel basis for the ‚self’ that the accompanying features of an open political sphere and a ‚neutral state’ can perform the roles assigned to them in liberal political theory and neo-liberal economic policy” (Jenkins 2001: 251).

The described practice of interpreting civil society on a case to case basis and in a way that serves donors’ interests best undermines the credibility of donors. If the programs and the underlying concept of civil society appear arbitrarily exchangeable, we may suspect donors to exploit the normative concept of civil society as a subtle means to intervene in the internal affairs of another country. Suspicion arises that donors do not aim to promote civil society development, but that they deliberately pick recipients and support only a small segment of civil society that consists of selected actors who enforce donor interests.

3.4 Strategies of Civil Society Assistance


In face of vague definitions and absent concepts, one may ask how donors translate the vague and normative concept of civil society into concrete support measures.

Although donors fail to present clearly specified strategies, the growing literature on civil society assistance and democracy assistance identified three major approaches donors use to promote civil society:60 Institution building, capacity building, and project-specific support.61 The following will briefly highlight these strategies. It will be shown that in their well-intended effort to promote civil society, donors yield unintended negative side-effects. Some even argue that:


“The grant game encourages donors as well as grant recipients to behave in ways that hinder rather than facilitate civic development” (Henderson 2002: 140p).

3.4.1 Institution-Building

Especially in the early years, civil society assistance largely involved institutional support. Financial and in-kind support to non-governmental organizations is widely regarded as an appropriate means to trigger civil society development. This practice is based on a moral image of NGOs as advocates of the poor, the suppressed and socially neglected who strive for the common good. NGOs are regarded as intrinsically motivated, and independent of political or economic interests. In such a view, the positive characteristics ascribed to NGOs, i.e. their watch-dog function, the ability to mobilize public support and to put issues on the political agenda as well as their ability to provide services more efficiently than the state and market recommends NGOs as the main carriers of civil society.62 The UN Secretary-General’s ‘Agenda for Development’ Report points out:


“A vigorous civil society is indispensable to creating lasting and successful development… Locally based NGOs, in particular, can serve as intermediaries and give people a voice and an opportunity to articulate their needs, preferences and vision of a better society” (UN Secretary-General’s ‘Agenda for Development’ Report, p. 107 cited in Chandler 2004: 226).

According to donors, civil society is thus primarily the result of the activities of NGOs. The more NGOs are active in a recipient country, the more vibrant civil society will be. From this standpoint, civil society assistance largely translates into NGO support. The success of assistance can be measured by counting NGOs active in a country.63 

In their support to NGOs, donors apply what has been called a strategy of “institutional-modeling” (see Carothers 1997). Donors are highly influenced by their national background and experiences and tend to support Western-style organizations (Quigley 2000). In her analysis of assistance to women’s groups in CEE, McMahon (2004: 254) finds that donors quickly altered an initial reactive approach and became increasingly proactive. Instead of supporting existing institutions, donors increasingly encouraged the development of organizations that would not have formed otherwise, often by providing seed money.


The initial focus of donors on institution building had unintended negative side-effects. McMahon (2004: 263) points out that the incentive for activists in the region to establish a new organization was higher than the incentive to work for an already existing organization. As a result, several small organizations came into being with similar goals and objectives, and sometimes even the same membership. Instead of joining forces and thus gaining political power, these organizations preferred to remain separate organizations. A fact McMahon largely attributes to the existence of foreign funds. Moreover, in light of scarce funding opportunities, intense competition among groups with similar objectives arose. Institution building thus resulted in a rise of small and largely superfluous organizations and additionally hindered the development of cooperative ties among NGOs or the ability for collective action outlined above as characteristics of a vibrant civil society (chapter 2.2.3). In her study on NGO support in Russia, Henderson (2002) comes to a similar conclusion. Recipient organizations in Russia largely failed to develop links with other groups of society or even with like-minded organizations:

”Perhaps … aid is best at fostering groups’ abilities to perform civil society’s external functions of advocacy and interest articulation, but it does relatively little to improve how these groups perform civil society’s internal functions of developing networks of communication and trust” (Henderson 2002: 164).

3.4.2 Capacity Building


Besides financial and material support to organizations, donors invest in human resources and undertake what is called “capacity building” measures. Countless seminars, conferences or in-door training seminars have been carried out in CEE with the aim of teaching individuals and civil society activists what civil society is and how to run an NGO. While at the beginning seminars were largely run by foreign short-term consultation, the dissatisfaction with this practice quickly shifted the focus to “train the trainer” projects.64 From 1993 onwards, donors qualified local trainers to carry out civic education and capacity-building measures.

Training and education measures are motivated by two different objectives. Firstly, professional staff is regarded as important for the building of strong organizations. Capacity building thus also serves the objective of institution-building. Secondly, capacitiy building has the objective of ‘raising awareness’ and triggering an understanding of the democratic role and merits of civil society. As a result, donors focus in their training efforts on the one hand on the transfer of basic techniques such as strategies for lobbying, campaigning or fund-raising. On the other hand, they aim to trigger a proper understanding of the role of NGOs. What exactly the ‘right’ role is, however, is largely determined by donors who often point to public-policy orientation and advocacy as major tasks of NGOs.65 This practice has been criticized for ignoring domestic needs and experiences. Case studies on civil society assistance in different countries and issue areas suggest that the constant focus on advocacy and public policy orientation leads NGOs to ignore their constituencies and to refrain from building a support base. As a result, NGOs often fail to address the issues of interest for their constituencies. In his analysis of OSCE civil society assistance to Bosnia, Chandler (2004) points to a gap between supported organizations and the Bosnian people (ibid: 235). He explains this gap as follows:


“The unintended consequence of creating civil society NGOs which are reliant on external support has been that they are never forced to build their own base of popular support … these NGOs … have no need to engage in discussion or create broader links to society” (ibid: 236).

McMahon (2004) comes to a similar conclusion in her analysis of Western aid to women groups in CEE.


“... this dependence on the international community has translated into a lack of accountability, if not interest, in grass-roots constituency building” (ibid: 262). (NGOs that receive Western assistance should) … “… engage and involve their local communities, not just seek to advocate on their behalf” (ibid: 259).

According to her, women’s groups in CEE adopted the language and issues as well as the perception of gender equality based on American values and norms. In doing so they did not only fail to address their constituency, they also failed to develop their own ideas on equality and women’s rights in the post-communities context (ibid: 264).

Nonetheless the various training and education activities of donors were still effective on the personal level. McMahon comes to the conclusion that donors succeeded in triggering learning through capacity building measures:


“… Interviews with activists from the region … suggest that (American NGOs) have been crucial to skill development for particular individuals” (ibid: 256p).

Similarly, in his study on democracy assistance in Romania, Carothers (1996a: 95pp) finds that the effect of political assistance ranges from modest to negligible. However, he illustrates what he calls “subjective effects”, i.e. “psychological, moral, and emotional effects at the personal level” (ibid: 95) that trigger recipient learning and increase recipients’ understanding of democratic participation.


Starting in the middle of the 1990s and in response to the criticism above, donors exceed the initial focus on training and education and increasingly aim to strengthen relationships within civil society and between civil society actors and other domestic actors. A research project on the matter conducted by the Canadian “North-South Institute” points out that strengthening the capacity of individual NGOs does not go far enough. If donors seek to strengthen the capacity of civil society as a whole, it is crucial to establish networks between the different organizations and to stipulate a dialogue among NGOs, governments, community groups, funding agencies and other actors (North-South Institute 1996). Capacity building thus includes a focus on networks and cross-cutting relationships and on the organizations’ ability to do their work in conjunction with other actors and forces. The aim is less on “brick making”, rather on “brick laying” (ibid: 12). Along the same lines, Carothers observes several years after his study on Romania:

“Aid providers still interpreted promoting the development of civil society in terms of supporting NGOs, but the range of … NGO aid was expanded considerably … Aid providers began to support centers for NGO training and development as NGO sectors grew rapidly” (1999b: 59).


Carothers continues by stating that donors encourage NGOs to invest in horizontal ties between civil society organizations as well as in vertical ties with governments and citizens. Donors increasingly push NGOs to develop productive partnerships with central and local governments, to seek to ameliorate the political and legal environment enabling civil society activities, to invest in NGO networks, and to develop more direct ties to the citizens on whose behalf they act (ibid: 60).

3.4.3 Project-specific Support

Finally, donors largely rely on the support for specific projects with a given time-frame and identifiable objectives. The preference of project-specific support in contrast to institutional support, which finances the running costs of a recipient organization,66 has much to do with the accountability of donors for issued funds and their need for controlling mechanisms. Project-specific support, however, often has the negative side-effect that it breeds what it aims to avert, namely dependent recipients, the waste of resources, and opportunistic behavior.

Donors either spent the money of tax-payers or of private contributors. In either case, the public is wary that funds are not wasted or embezzled. Donors are thus on a constant watch. They need to demonstrate on the one hand that their activities do not breed corruption, while on the other hand they are under pressure to present observable results. In the eyes of donors, project-specific support has the advantage that it firstly aims to yield immediate results in a given period of time, and thus secondly satisfies the donor’s need for controlling and evaluation. Financing a directory of NGOs is thus a safer enterprise for donors than support for workshops as in the former case the result is easily detected whereas the outcome of the latter activity is uncertain and not easily open to external inspection. Moreover, donors are aware of the fact that a trustworthy and suitable partner organization is not easily found in the post-communist context. In view of lacking finances, the incentive to establish a NGO for opportunistic reasons, i.e., in order to satisfy personal interests and motives, is high. Rather than supporting one single organization for a longer period of time and risking choosing an untrustworthy partner, donors prefer to support various projects of different organizations, thus minimizing the risk of corruption. In consequence, project-specific support satisfies donors’ wish for control and supervision. Additionally, donors believe that project-specific support is more appropriate to achieve their objectives than simply supporting an organization without a given purpose. In this way, donors can determine for which purposes recipients use their funds, and may chose projects they believe have the most impact on civil society development.


However, the tendency of donors to support primarily projects has negative side-effects. One may even argue that donors breed what they aim to prevent, thus opportunistic behavior. First and foremost, recipient organizations become overly dependent on project funds, a dependence that prevents local sensibility, stability, continuity and even sustainability. As international aid mainly supports specific projects, which further are required to be original, innovative and exemplary, recipients are forced to ensure their existence by implementing one project after the other. Each project, however, has different objectives, encompasses different activities, and often even involves different staff. After the project ends, financial resources are lacking to continue the established service or activity or whatever the project objective was. Project-specific support thus hinders continuity, stability and sustainability. Recipients cannot work for the achievement of their statutory objectives, nor can they develop an appropriate organizational structure. Instead they live with permanent alteration of staff, objectives and the constant need to pay for the running costs of established services. As one recipient in the region put it:

“Donors love to fund something original, innovative and unique. We (the recipients) need support to continue something proven and established” (interview with the author).


This tendency is intensified as civil society assistance is shaped by fashion and trends - a fact that is again a by-product of the good intentions of donors. Although the prevailing criticism of analysts tells otherwise, the fact remains that donors more often than not want to satisfy local demand. However, they tend to forget that other donors follow the same line of thought. Therefore if corruption in a recipient country is high, all donors launch anti-corruption programs. If a country is said to have a minority problem, all donors launch minority-programs. At the end of the day, more money is available to fund projects targeting the empowerment of ethnic minorities than NGOs focusing on minority issues. As a result, civil society assistance is seldom based on long-time strategic reflections. It instead follows short-term objectives. Recipient organizations thus face the challenge of adapting to new donor objectives and wants. The example of democracy project funding illustrates this point. Although donors do not make this explicit,67 civil society assistance in an authoritarian state must be different than civil society assistance in a new democracy. While in the former case the prevailing interest is the weakening and displacement of existing institutions and ruling elites, in the latter case the predominant aim is to stabilize and consolidate existing institutions and ruling elites. In both cases civil society plays a different role (see Lauth/Merkel 1997). In the first case, civil society is a counterweight and often a counter-elite to the ruling regime. External support to NGOs aims to support this counter-elite, to protect it from governmental arbitrariness and repression and to guarantee the material existence of oppositional NGOs. A further objective of NGO support in this phase might be to mobilize the masses. In new democracies, it cannot be the aim to protect a counter-elite to the state. Instead NGOs provide citizens with the opportunity to participate in political decisions, to represent societal interests, and to control state behavior. It has been argued that the different objectives of civil society assistance in different phases of democratization counteract the development of civil society (Jenkins 2001). This is firstly evident in a personal discontinuity. As the prevailing objective of NGO support in an authoritarian regime is the enforcement of a counter-elite, it is hardly surprising that NGO activists change their job against a seat in parliament or government once democracy is in place. As a result, organizations of civil society are left behind without leadership and objectives. Moreover, they are confronted with rather different donors’ wants and funding requirements. While up to now it was enough to be against the ruling regime, now donors ask them to be for something. Even worse, as donors often refrain from supporting particular interests, in order not to raise suspicions of taking sides,68 support is largely limited to service provision. NGOs are thus forced to provide services, which are, however, not aimed to serve interests of local constituencies, but what donors believe is in the interest of local constituencies. As a result, NGOs often shrivel to mere donor project-implementation organizations.

For all these reasons and due to the high dependence on foreign funds, project-specific support leads to opportunistic behavior and prevents local sensibility. Rather than engaging in activities they regard as useful, recipients quickly learned that it is more fruitful to satisfy donors’ wants than local needs. Ottaway/Chung (1999) claim that the lacking sensibility of donors to domestic needs leads to “top-down” civil society organizations, “with programs and activities molded above all by what donors are willing to fund” (ibid: 107). The strong requirements donors developed in fear of corruption and a waste of resources had mainly one effect: recipients developed sophisticated skills in proposal writing and fund-raising. As a result, donors more often than not fund not the project best suited to reach the outlined objectives, but the one with the best-written proposal. In the words of McMahon (2004: 262):


“The feverish efforts to keep their organization afloat and secure funding for the next year means that fund-raising and proposal writing are an organization’s main concern, while proposed activities and outreach must be secondary. Ironically, but not surprisingly, groups have to focus on keeping their organization going rather than undertaking programmes to help women or increase their domestic following”.

3.5 Conclusion: Problems of Civil Society Assistance 

The aim of this chapter has been to approach the phenomenon of civil society assistance. Civil society assistance has been defined as the deliberate, direct and explicit involvement of external actors into domestic settings with the aim of nurturing and supporting civil society as a means to build democracy from the bottom-up. Civil society assistance focuses exclusively on the societal actors of the recipient state and is thus always transnational in character. While recipients are thus exclusively non-state actors, donors may be state or non-state actors.

It became clear that civil society assistance is not the product of an altruist donor guided by humanistic ideals, rather satisfies rational interests and follows an instrumental reasoning. Civil society assistance is thus a highly interest driven enterprise. The intention of donors is less to promote civil society as a good in itself, rather as an instrument to achieve other ends such as democracy, good governance, efficient aid implementation or market economy. This is very evident when one looks at the concepts and definitions of civil society underlying donors’ activities. Most definitions of civil society given by donors are precise in describing the lofty goals civil society is able to achieve, remain, however, vague in outlining basic characteristics of civil society. Donors thus maintain the possibility of interpreting what civil society is on a case to case basis. In doing so, donors largely rely on institutional support to NGOs in their efforts to promote civil society development. The definitional vagueness thus leaves ample scope when it comes to identifying the organizations belonging to civil society that will subsequently be the main beneficiaries of assistance. In other words, depending on the interest of donors either the one of the other organization receives aid. Donors thus always make a selection – a selection of eligible organizations, or of a trust-worthy partner with whom one aims to implement a project. It goes without saying that an interest-driven and selective approach to civil society assistance is perfectly legitimate in principle. Why should civil society assistance not serve both, recipients and donors? This being said, the intentional and selective character of civil society assistance is still problematic for several reasons.


If civil society assistance is selective, there is a high risk that donors support only fragments of civil society and not a pluralistic spectrum of a variety of organizations. This can have far-reaching consequences, as the provision of resources, contacts, information and know-how strengthens the capability of selected groups, whereas others are left with little access to finances, training and know-how. It has been argued that in particular in the early stage of civil society development this imbalance determines the further development of associational life. Organizations that are the first to receive aid after political change gain a head start that can hardly be outrun by others.69 By these means, civil society assistance alters domestic power structures and is thus highly political in nature. In his study on civil society assistance in development countries Windfuhr comes to the conclusion:

“In countries whose civil society is weak, external intervention influences the direction of the development and composition of civil society. The weaker civil society is, the higher the risk that new conflicts arise because certain groups and interests are selectively supported and privileged.” (Windfuhr 1999: 1, own translation).


Furthermore, the focus of donors on institutions and leading NGO activists often weakens rather than strengthens ties within civil society. The selectivity of donors that equips some with resources, know-how and abundant contacts and leaves others with nothing frequently creates envy and resentment as well as fierce competition among NGOs. The competition for scarce resources, as well as the fact that it is more rewarding for activists to establish a new organization than to work for an existing organization instead hinders the development of ties of cooperation and trust among NGOs that constitute a vibrant civil society (see chapter 2). Moreover, project-specific support nurtures opportunistic behavior of recipients. In view of the scarce financial resources available, only NGOs that flexibly adapt to altering donors’ wants guarantee their financial existence. In the worst case, civil society assistance translates into nothing more than outsourcing development agencies that implement assistance projects from the donor to the recipient side. Such organizations fail to address their local constituencies. Furthermore, such organizations feel no need to address local demands, as they rely on foreign and not domestic actors in ensuring material well-being, reputation and political bargaining power. Analysts of civil society assistance thus critically put forward that recipients of external assistance are often detached from the local population. Some even point to a gap between the people and recipient organizations, i.e. the ones that pretend to represent society (Chandler 2004).

Additionally, one has to raise the question of sustainability. Doubts can be raised whether the selected NGOs are able to sustain themselves after Western assistance comes to an end, especially if they do not correspond with local needs. The evaluation of US-funded NGO support programs critically states:


“When there is heavy emphasis on demonstrating a policy change or other large impact, inevitably there will be pressure to assist high-profile national organizations...The problem of working with national groups is that they tend already to be well funded by foreign donors and share the priorities of the foreign donor community. These organizations may depend on foreign funding for their survival and find it difficult to build an authentic constituent base of local support. Ironically, the emphasis on impact and results may push donors toward supporting organizations that are not sustainable in the long run” (USAID 1999: 20).

Finally, interest-driven civil society projects undermine the credibility of donors and arouse suspicions of external manipulation. As already stated, civil society assistance is always political in nature and directly intervenes into the internal affairs of a country by empowering one actor’s group over another. As a result, civil society assistance may be perceived as a subtle form of political intervention from outside and rejected as an illegitimate interference in the internal affairs of a country. In consequence, the main recipients of aid are perceived as intruders and puppets of Western influence.

Bearing these problems in mind, the question arises whether an intentional and purposive intervention into the internal affairs of a country, even if it is classified as assistance, is at all capable of fostering civil society development? Is it not the case that the two problems inherent to civil society assistance, its selectivity and illegitimacy, render any attempt to nurture civil society development from the outside impossible? Are the critics of civil society assistance right who suggest that due to its intentional and selective character civil society assistance results in a mere supplementary structural feature of civil society - in westernized and highly professional NGOs with little domestic support?


This study aims to reveal that the anticipated failure is not a necessity. Not all analysts see civil society assistance critically. On the contrary, some even stress the advantage of civil society assistance in comparison to other forms of democracy assistance that target state institutions. Carothers sees civil society assistance as “one step further” that has the capacity of turning “democratic forms into democratic substance” (Carothers 1999a: 337). Quigley (1997: 106) stresses the ability of non-state actors and private foundations that function “outside of state-to-state relations”. According to him, their capacity to disburse resources more quickly and adapt programs more easily than public funders will have a positive effect on democratization. Moreover, donors are increasingly aware of the shortcomings of their selective approach and adapt their strategies to recipient needs. The emphasis on single organizations and institutions is supplemented by activities that aim to nurture ties inside society, i.e. between different NGOs but also between NGOs and local administration and the wider society. We thus face the paradox that the critical studies on civil society assistance cited above are opposed by several studies on civil society assistance that demonstrate that foreign aid played a major role in nurturing the rise of NGO activity in Central and Eastern Europe and that capacity-building measures had an immense effect on the individual and personal level.70 Donors also face the puzzle that their programs, projects and measures bear fruits in one country and have little impact in another. Civil society assistance, albeit instrumental and selective by character as we have now seen, thus may result in domestic changes that trigger civil society development. The question is not so much if but rather when, under which conditions, and in what contexts external assistance contributes to the development of civil society. The purpose of the following chapter is to approach these questions from a theoretical standpoint.

Footnotes and Endnotes

46 Although this terminology is commonly applied in the literature dealing with international assistance, to which this study is no exception, it has several shortcomings. Above all, the wording tells us nothing about the organizational structure, the legal status or any other characteristics of donors or recipients. Moreover, it neglects that on both sides, donors as well as recipients, we are confronted with different types of actors driven by various motivations. Third, the major distinction between donors and recipients implies an asymmetric relationship between the two, ignoring the leverage recipients possess. In some countries, a large inflow of donors eager to spent their funds encounter only a few recipient organizations. In this situation we have the paradox that it is not the recipients who compete for scarce resources. Rather, donors compete for scare recipients of aid. Moreover, the distinction between donors and recipients is often not as clear-cut as the terminology suggests. Often we observe intermediary organizations that are donors and recipients at the same time (see in greater detail chapter 6.2.).

47 One should note that transnational relations are a burgeoning phenomenon that is increasingly shaping international relations. Sub-national actors, be it non-governmental organizations, or separate entities of the governmental apparatus, form an important part of the international environment. Associations, foundations, trade unions, and enterprises but also ministries, counties, municipalities, or parties are increasingly involved in the crucial issues of world politics. Their activities are of international relevance and have to be taken into account by other international actors such as states. Examples of international activities of sub-national actors include transnational co-operation and networks between trade unions but also between other interest groups or parties; partnerships between cities and counties as well as internationally active NGOs which launch international campaigns. The rise of internationally active non-governmental actors is best illustrated by the fact that their number increased from 134 in 1905 to 2470 in 1972 and to more than 4600 by 1990 (Russett/Starr 1996: 68). As a result, the system of states (Staatenwelt) dominating the 19th century has been classified a ‘system of societies’ (Gesellschaftswelt) (Czempiel 1995: 419). See for research on transnational relations: Risse-Kappen (1995).

48 Considering various ways of democratically oriented external intervention, Czempiel (1995: 423pp) draws a similar distinction between direct and indirect strategies (mittelbare und unmittelbare Strategien) to promote democracy.

49 Coercion thus presupposes the existence of a dominant state, a hegemon, who possess sufficient power resources to enforce and uphold a normative order. The hegemonic power is thus capable of imposing a political structure or policy of his interest on other states, and to control their domestic political processes Examples for imposition from the outside by means of coercion or control include the US involvement in West Germany after 1945, the endeavors of Great Britain to export the Westminster model to its colonies but also the efforts of the Soviet Union to built its satellite states in CEE after its own model (Whitehead 1996: 10). For the concept of a hegemonic power that enforces common international standards and rules on which an ‚international society’ is based, see Bull (1977).

50 One should note that political conditionality is in contrast to economic conditionality a relatively new phenomenon. Especially the IMF has a long practice to make aid conditional to economic stability measures. In contrast, political conditionality connects rewards to political conditions such as good governance, democratization or respect for human rights. For this reason, political conditionality has been called “2nd generation” conditionality (Stokke 1995).

51 For example, the Phare and Tacis Democracy Program of the European Union includes on the one hand small grant schemes for NGOs in transformation states. The lion's share of funds is restricted to West-Eastern partnerships, or is administered by West-European NGOs (see chapter 6).

52 This conclusion is in line with the findings of scholars working on the international dimension of democratization. See e.g. Kümmel (1998), Drake (1994) and Pridham (1994).

53 For an illustration of the various goals of civil society assistance see, among others: Jenkins (2001: 253), Robinson (1996: 6).

54 For the democratic significance of civil society, see Chapter 3.1; On output and input legitimacy, see Scharpf (1998).

55 See Russett (1993). It must be pointed out that this euphoria of the first years after the end of the Cold War, by which in particular the domestic debate in the US was characterized, soon gave way to disillusionment and at least American policy of democracy promotion with peaceful means ended on September 11th, 2001 at the latest.

56 See also: Merkel (1998).

57 Joschka Fischer, German Foreign Minister, “Menschenrechte und gesellschaftliche Transformationsprozesse" (Human Rights and Social Transformation Processes); Fragments from a speech from March 2nd, 1999 in Jakarta.

58 See also: Fagin (1998).

59 This assessment is in line with the insight of Carothers (1997) regarding democracy assistance. Carothers identifies a strategy of ‘institutional-modeling’ as the main approach of democracy promotion and protection activities. Donors mainly attempt to sell ready-made solutions to recipients, often in the form of institutional templates modeling the democratic system of the donor country.

60 For literature on democracy assistance and civil society assistance see: Barkan (1997), Carothers (1996a, 1996b, 1997, 1999a, 1999b), Chandler (2004), Diamond (1997), Ekiert/Kubik (2000), Gyimah-Boadi (1999), Henderson (2002), Holmes (1999), Kearns (1999), Lasota (1999), McMahon (2004), Ottaway/Chung (1999), Quigley (1996, 1997, 2000), Regulska (1998), Wedel (1998).

61 See e.g. Quigley (1996: 109pp), McMahon (2004: 254p).

62 See for the positive effects attributed to NGOs and a criticism of the moral image of NGOs: Nuscheler (1996: 503p), see also section 2.1.3 and 2.1.6 in this analysis.

63 American donors, in particular, measure the success of assistance in the number and variety of domestic NGOs. See for example the “NGO Sustainability Index for Central and Eastern Europe and Eurasia”, which USAID has been publishing on an annual basis since 1996. See also a magnitude of directories of NGOs active in different issue areas in Central and Eastern Europe that are almost exclusively funded by American donors.

64 Central and Eastern European participants were frustrated with the fact that foreign consultations often revealed a shocking ignorance of domestic settings, experiences and needs. The short-term training measures have been identified as a fruitless enterprise with little effect. See Siegel / Yancey (1992).

65 As already mentioned (chapter 3.3.), USAID stresses the importance of “civic advocacy organizations”. The OSCE also stresses the importance of advocacy NGOs: “The goal of the NGO development work is to assist local NGOs to become self-sufficient, participatory, and actively involved in working on behalf of their communities. The kind of local NGO projects which most closely reach this aim.. are those which focus on advocacy and are willing to tackle actual political or social issues…” (OSCE Democratization Branch, Monthly Report, 1, p. 5, cited in Chandler 2004: 231).

66 English-speaking donors usually differentiate between “project-grants” and “institutional grants”. In Germany the different strategies are more commonly know under the headings of “partner-measures” (Partnermaßnahmen) or “regime-measures” (Regimemaßnahmen). Traditionally the KAS opts for the former, the FES for the latter approach (see chapter 6.1.3). In other words, the KAS prefers to work together with a small number of well-chosen partner organizations over a longer period of time, while the FES prefers to implement several project measures with different organizations.

67 An exception is USAID who differentiates between pre-transition, early transition, late transition and consolidation phase of democratization. According to USAID each phase requires different strategies of civil society assistance (USAID 1996: 3pp).

68 McMahon (2004: 260) makes the point that donors often restrain from funding political activities of recipients due to tax and legal requirements.

69 Here both Wedel (1998) and Petrescu (2000) for Poland and Romania respectively, come to the conculsion that organizations which received developmental funds briefly after the fall of communism continue to have a decisive impact on the development of an NGO sector.

70 See e.g. McMahon (2004: 255pp), Ekiert / Kubik (2000), Carothers (1996a: 95pp).

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