Struggles for local organizations’ self-reliance

Drawing on recent research in Myanmar, Dave McClintock argues that self-reliance can be a healthy focus, but local groups should not be slaves to it. (See link below for the full report)

Some local organisation leaders admit they are struggling with self-reliance. They want to keep to their own organization’s purpose and vision and avoid reliance on external donors.

Hence, we found that self-reliance is not just a “donor construct” being forced onto local groups; there are a range of real motivations for local groups themselves. And we found that strategies for self-reliance did not seem to distort or change an organisation’s focus on their mission.

Our study brings together practical examples of 15 Myanmar Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) pursuing self-reliance using different options. We included community based and regional examples, so it was not just Yangon and NGO-centric.

The study did not set out to collect the views of donors, businesses and government. The study is an initial step in a longer process, and can inform advocacy with these other sectors as well as with local groups themselves.

The study showed three main approaches to improving self-reliance - generating income, broadening the funding base and decreasing costs.

Generating income

The best potential for income generation seems to be from service fees -payments for providing services, for example to government or other civil society groups. But to extend this avenue, the Myanmar government needs to further develop their contracting skills, as well as to develop suitable policies and laws for non-for-profit organisations, social enterprises and private foundations.

Obviously generating income is not for everyone because it takes a certain ‘business’ mindset. And the target for income generation should probably not be 100% due to the costs involved, as well as time and energy. Donor funds can still be part of a funding mix.

Local fundraising

Meanwhile we found that local fundraising is quite undeveloped, unless it is linked with merit-making donations or short term disasters. It also has some hidden costs – it takes time and effort to raise funds.

But there are also mechanisms for fundraising that many workers in Myanmar may not be aware of. For example, staff can direct 25% of their income tax as donations to recognized associations. This could be significant source of funds if a number of staff did this.

The private sector is another possible source of support. Myanmar’s recent history means there is a fundamental mistrust of local businesses by many local groups. Local organisations need to learn to understand the ‘business case’, build suitable relationships and be able distinguish between different types of funding from the private sector. Businesses need to learn more about civil society groups, in turn.

Managing costs

Finally, some groups take active measures to manage their costs in general. But the main approach to reducing costs is to harness voluntary contributions of time, especially from organization founders and staff. Nearly all local groups in Myanmar are likely to have evolved by using voluntary contributions.

Overall, we found that donors are seen by local organisations to have a special role to help or hinder efforts to improve their self-reliance.

They want donors to be flexible, to coordinate well, to allow for core organisational costs and to assist self-reliance efforts directly (with necessary capital, funds, skills, etc). We shouldn’t point at donors as being the sole problem and they can learn from civil society efforts too.

In the end, local groups should be encouraged to think about self-reliance in a healthy way, based on their own purpose and mission.

Some local groups should just look to find a good set of donors rather than trying to pursue income generation or fundraising strategies.

And we also should ask the question of whether some organisations or networks should be allowed to ‘die’ when they complete their (short term) purpose, rather than be sustained?

Meanwhile, other groups may be able to use income generation, fundraising and managing costs to help them to move toward their vision. The key is having a balanced perspective on self-reliance.

The full discussion paper is available on the PK Forum Resources page at!civil-society-in-myanmar/fk9y5

Pic By Mutt Lunker - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,