Civil society organizations (CSOs) around the world play a key role in providing local services, building community cohesion, and helping communities better engage with governments. However, in many places CSOs also face steep challenges. This is especially true in Africa, where civil society has an incredibly important function in improving the quality of life for many communities, but often lacks resources. Furthermore, because many local CSOs have either been set up or are heavily supported by international development organizations, they can often be perceived as “outsiders,” despite their local focus. Helping CSOs become locally sustainable and reducing external dependence is a major challenge for international development.

On August 13 the Aga Khan Foundation U.S.A. (AKF USA) joined with organizers at the Society for International Development – Washington, DC Chapter (SID-W) and the Center for International Private Enterprise (CIPE) for a lunchtime talk that showcased a range of perspectives around working with African civil society. I was honored to join the panel, moderated by Richard O’Sullivan, principal, Change Management Solutions, who founded and co-chairs SID-Washington’s Civil Society Workgroup, along with Lars Benson, CIPE Senior Program Officer for Africa, and Jeremy Meadows, Senior Democracy Specialist at the Bureau for Africa with the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). You can watch a video of the discussion here.

This conversation linked closely to the work we are doing at AKF to help better sustain civil society in Africa and Asia. When we work to improve civil society globally, the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN) provides systematic support for the sector at national and regional levels and strengthens individual civil society institutions. We follow a model we call ACT, based on building local Assets, Capacity and Trust to create a space for civil-society voices.

One area where AKDN works to build assets, capacity, and trust is our focus on community philanthropy. In 2013, we launched the Global Alliance for Community Philanthropy with other partners to better share lessons learned and best practices about local civil society sustainability. Another way AKF works to sustain local development is through our Multi-Input Area Development (MIAD) approach, where we implement integrated development through sustained public-private partnerships built on long-term economic growth and social development in settings as challenging as Afghanistan and Tajikistan. Through partnerships with USAID and others, AKDN takes a long-term view for growing and strengthening a sustainable, critical mass of civil society organizations.

A main point that came out of our panel is that CSOs shouldn’t have to go it alone in their search for sustainability. National-level associations can create a supportive atmosphere for the enabling environment of policies and laws around civil society and local philanthropy. In Pakistan, for example, the Pakistan Centre for Philanthropy (PCP) offers certification to CSOs, which can help local organizations become more trusted partners for donors, both within Pakistan and internationally. This certification builds public trust and provides benefits, including tax exemption, for participating CSOs. AKF works with PCP to help improve their institutional sustainability as a Pakistani NGO and also supports PCP to undertake a range of research activities that analyze the expansive work of civil society and impressive philanthropy occurring in Pakistan today.

During our panel, Jeremy Meadows pointed out that the Civil Society Sustainability Index (which AKF supports with USAID) highlights trends for civil society in Sub-Saharan Africa. Such trends include (1) CSOs continue to struggle with financial viability; (2) CSOs can at times be quite successful at advocacy; and (3) overall CSOs play a significant service delivery role in most African countries. To learn more about the CSOSI, see a USAID blog post from earlier this year.

Just this week President Obama announced a new partnership involving the U.S. government, the Swedish government and AKDN for strengthening civil society. That commitment to innovation centers in East Africa and Central Asia is another exciting piece of our commitment to citizen-led development. Watch this space for more news on that.

Our August panel offered a very fruitful discussion and I hope it’s the start of a dialogue around new models for sustainability and the dynamic aspects of civil society in Africa.

Natalie Ross, Program Officer for Civil Society, Aga Khan Foundation U.S.A.