Man fishing in Equador

How do CSO leaders rank SDGs and aid donors?

New survey findings from AidData, a research lab at William & Mary, show leaders of NGOs in low- and middle-income countries feel ignored by international aid donors.

The survey also highlights which Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) these leaders see as most important.

The Listening to Leaders 2018 report draws on the views of nearly 3,500 leaders in 126 low- and middle-income countries. The survey gives a voice to an audience often overlooked: government officials, civil society leaders, in-country donors and private sector representatives in countries that receive aid but are not always invited to the foreign capitals where aid decisions are made.

The research additionally serves as a virtual “customer satisfaction survey” on foreign aid providers, unusual because it asks leaders to assess not individual aid projects, but their perceptions of multilateral donor organisations or donor countries as a whole.

Leaders feel under-engaged with international donors

The data reveals that compared to other groups (in-country government leaders and the private sector), a significantly smaller share of civil society organisations (CSOs) report receiving advice or assistance from international donors, and they are less likely to find them influential or helpful when they do.

This sobering finding underscores that while many development partners have an explicit mandate, mission or objective to build the capacity of or engage with civil society groups, they have further to go before they break through with these leaders.

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As part of the research, AidData benchmarked 35 international donors on two indicators of performance: influence in shaping in-country policy priorities, and helpfulness in implementing policies. AidData found some donors do better at working with civil society leaders than others. The UK is seen as the most helpful donor to CSOs, followed by the EU, US, UNICEF and Germany.

The EU, US, UK and World Bank also do well in terms of influence with CSOs, but the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria is seen as the most influential.

Denmark and the UK are seen as more influential and helpful to CSOs than they are to either in-country government leaders or the private sector, though they perform well with these groups too.

Which SDGs are priorities for leaders?

Elsewhere, respondents were asked to list their top six development priorities, with answer categories corresponding to the 17 Sustainable Development Goals.

The results are striking: leaders’ top priorities for their countries to tackle are peace and justice, education, and jobs and economic growth. This holds true both globally and across the four main occupational groups of survey respondents (NGO leaders, in-country government leaders, donors working in-country, and the private sector).

Civil society leaders diverged on some issues from the other groups: it is the only stakeholder group where gender equality and poverty elimination make the top six. Whereas gender is the 5th-most important challenge for CSOs, it is only 11th for government leaders. Industry and infrastructure, a high priority for the other groups, did not make the CSO sector top six.

Health of the planet fares badly: just over 22% of CSO leaders ranked “climate action” among their top six priorities (out of 16 options), compared to 67.5% for the top priority, peace and justice. The bottom five for the civil society sector includes Life on Land (ecosystems, forests, biodiversity), Zero Hunger, Responsible Consumption and Production.

“Life Below Water” ‚Äì which includes oceans and marine resources ‚Äì came dead last, with only 4.1% of CSO respondents globally flagging this as one of their top six priorities. Only the private sector accorded oceans lower importance. More than 3 billion people depend on ocean life for their livelihoods, according to the UN.

The low importance assigned to environmental priorities was common across occupational groups. The researchers suggest one explanation for the broad agreement on highest and lowest priorities ‚Äì regardless of respondents’ occupation or location ‚Äì is that leaders are loath to tackle issues that require large upfront costs in exchange for uncertain future gains.

AidData found that elites and citizens in poorer countries generally agree on their top development priorities, and these tend to be goals with near-term, tangible benefits for individuals such as education and jobs, or basic public services that may be lacking or inadequate. Addressing these challenges is likely popular and politically wise. The downside is that less tangible problems with a longer time horizon, such as climate change, lose out.

Check out our SDGs hub for more insights, updates and resources on the Global Goals.