The North-South Divide

I don’t think anyone has yet come up with a satisfactory term to describe the different blocs of countries that have historically been described as rich/poor, first/third world, developing/developed or, most recently, Global North/South. All are – to my mind – wholly inadequate, as they try to lump together such heterogeneous countries in just two categories. It’s a futile exercise almost certainly doomed to failure – we want a straightforward, easy term to describe something that is immensely complex and difficult. In keeping with current usage among academic and civil society circles, though, I’ll opt for ‘Global North and South’. (I’m using the inverted commas as a way of saying ‘look, I don’t like this term, but it’s what people use and so, reluctantly, I’ll use it too’.)

One real issue in the North/South divide concerns the troubled relationship between funders and INGOs in the ‘North’ and local groups and organisations in the ‘South’. Why does funding not flow as easily from ‘North’ to ‘South’, how can more local philanthropy be encouraged and how might risk averse donors support more grassroots organisations that don’t conform to a typical ‘Northern’ image of civil society and NGOs? These topics and others were the subject of a recent event hosted by Bond that threw up some interesting issues and questions for future conversations.

Legal Barriers

In some ‘Southern’ countries there have been moves to restrict civil society by clamping down particularly on organisations receiving funding from abroad. The argument forwarded by legislators in those countries is that ‘Northern’ countries are attempting to subvert, undermine or even overthrow governments in the ‘South’ by funding projects and organisations. The argument is not without merit, as events a few years ago in Cuba demonstrated. The counter-argument is that governments seeking to crack down on wholly justified internal dissent can very effectively use this type of legislation to muzzle civil society and restrict their activities to ‘less political’ arenas. Whatever the real cause, legal barriers to receiving external funding can pose a fundamental problem for donors in the ‘North’ funding local or regional groups in the ‘South’. The uncertainties created by such legislation can dissuade funders from providing funds to local groups and instead ensure they fund large, external NGOs that are likely to be at a lower risk than smaller, domestic ones. In the ‘North’, meanwhile, financial regulations and legislation can be overwhelming, meaning that donors stick with the familiar, large INGOs for fear of falling foul of rules designed to prevent money laundering or terrorist financing, for example.

Plurality of Civil Society

Some funders in the ‘North’ maintain a view of civil society that chimes with their own experiences and prejudices, but may bear little resemblance to the type of civil society encountered in parts of the ‘South’. Where the UK or US, for example, have well defined registers of charities and clear rules on financial reporting, these may be absent or look quite different in other parts of the world. Given an affinity for the familiar and a fear of the unfamiliar, donors can tend to stay in their comfort zone and fund charities whose structures and regulations they understand, meaning that local groups may be overlooked. Civil society takes many forms – from the carefully constructed and managed professional NGOs, through to social movements, trades union and a whole host of other bodies and groups. But donors do not always recognise this and need to give greater thought to the sorts of groups they support and those they dismiss or never even hear from.

Local Philanthropy

That ‘charity begins at home’ is a well-worn cliché frequently encountered. In countries such as the UK and USA – with relatively well established histories of philanthropy and charitable giving – that’s fine, but in countries without such traditions it can prove much more complex. With few peers to learn from, difficult legal frameworks and a lack of readily verifiable information or charity regulation, the barriers to encouraging greater home-grown ‘Southern’ philanthropy are myriad. To be sure, the barriers differ from country to country and there are plenty of examples of great local philanthropy to be found, but encouraging a more widespread or systematic form of local philanthropy is key. Local knowledge and contacts can be all important and there is reason to believe that local philanthropy is much better placed to identify and act upon that compared to a potentially remote donor based in DC or London.

There is no one, easy solution to getting more funding and power into the hands of local organisations in the ‘South’. Nor can it be imagined that doing so would immediately solve everything – after all, the questions about who social movements, NGOs and CSOs represent would remain. And in some cases, INGOs may well be better placed to implement change or bring attention to a particular issue. What’s clear, though, is that the business-as-usual model of a handful of ‘Northern’ donors funding a handful of ‘Northern’ NGOs is very unlikely to bring about the kinds of change that those in the ‘South’ hope to see.