The Department for International Development needs to work more closely with charities to ensure the overseas projects it funds continue once the department stops providing aid to the host country, delegates at the Labour Party conference in Brighton have heard.
Roberta Blackman-Woods, the shadow minister for international development, yesterday told a fringe event on rethinking international development that DfID needed to create a closer relationship with NGOs to build the necessary infrastructure in poorer nations for civil society to thrive.
Referring to a report released last year by the Independent Commission for Aid Impact, Blackman-Woods said DfID had a "mixed and confused message" in transition countries and there was a "lack of clarity" about what DfID would offer to support.
"DFID’s withdrawal has often meant that civil society organisations it had been funding for years without proper support in transition were not able to carry out their work because of the sudden withdrawal of funding," she said. "Lots of work that had been built up over many years was being lost."
Branding a government response to the report as "really disappointing", Blackman-Woods said she wanted to see charities push for clearer information from DfID on what the department would do to help civil society in certain countries.
Adam Pickering, international policy manager at the Charities Aid Foundation, discussed CAF’s campaign to grow charitable giving in emerging economies, and said that building the right infrastructure and environment for charitable giving in poorer nations was crucial to developing a healthy charity sector.
"Too often when we talk about protecting organisations abroad, we focus on what kind of things we can fund to help them protect themselves," he said. "I’m increasingly wondering whether the best protection is to engage the mass population.
"If we look at the UK, if we were to try to close the space significantly for civil society organisations there would be one key barrier in the defence: that would be donors, volunteers and the millions of people engaged with charities on a day-to-day basis.
"We want to help put policies in place and fund the kind of infrastructure that will help to build civil society and a new generation of engaged donors, activists and volunteers around the world. That may be the best option that we have."
Pickering said DfID could fund programmes that helped to train charities, improve governance and help to demonstrate impact, and engage donors in transitional countries to provide the infrastructure on which civil society could thrive.
He also called on the government to set a good example for other nations and protect the civil society in the UK by implementing the Conservative peer Lord Hodgson’s proposals to reform the lobbying act, which the government rejected earlier this month.
"We are often seen as a shining example of what is possible for civil society," Pickering said. "We have an extremely long history, a very diverse civil society and quite well-implemented laws. We need to make sure we continue to set that example.
"A number of recent policies proposed or enacted in the UK could be seen as regressive: the recent grants clause that was proposed, albeit watered down, or the lobbying act and the failure to implement Hodgson. We need to look at this at home as well as abroad."
Stephen Doughty, the Labour MP for Cardiff South and Penarth, told delegates that his party needed to promote justice rather than charity in international development, saying it should create the conditions for citizens to call on governments for more health and education spending, rather than military reinforcements.
The risk of not doing this, Doughty said, would be that "well-meaning organisations end up providing a sticking plaster rather than generating fundamental changes". He said charities should work on the assumption that they could make enough of a difference to be no longer needed in 30 to 40 years.