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Civil society

In need of advice

by Barnim Raspe
Somalian refugee child in Ethiopia in 2007

Somalian refugee child in Ethiopia in 2007

The EU does not implement all its development programmes itself. Many projects are contracted out. Applying for funds from the EU’s Directorate General EuropeAid/Development and Cooperation, however, is a major bureaucratic challenge for civil society organisations. Germany’s government is the only one in Europe that is running a specialist advice service on the matter. Eva-Maria Verfürth of D+C/E+Z spoke to one of its experts, Barnim Raspe, who works for ENGAGEMENT GLOBAL. Interview with Barnim Raspe

Your office’s name is bengo, and you offer a virtually unique service in the EU. Why is your work necessary?
The European Commission and EuropeAid/DEVCO want an active civil society, but at the same time, independent organisations are confronted with a long list of specific demands – hence the need to provide applicants with information so they will understand all formalities. Many non-govern­mental organisations (NGOs) struggle to satisfy the complex bureaucratic requirements they must meet to get EU funding. A lot of knowledge is necessary, and experience helps too. And that is what we offer.

How exactly does bengo help NGOs access EuropeAid/DEVCO funds?
We operate a kind of help desk and provide intensive advice and training. We help iron out formal and substantive shortcomings in applications. To some extent, we also help civil society organisations and municipal authorities to get funding from the European External Action Service (EEAS).

What difference does your advice make?
Wherever possible, we try to confine our advice to formal aspects. We don’t want to interfere with content. But we also check whether an application is convincing – whether the text conveys an idea of the project, and whether it is organised coherently. If we do not understand the proposal, the reasons may be details like the use of acronyms or poor presentation. But sometimes we also discover inconsistencies.

So bengo basically helps to make sure that applications are properly drafted, am I right?
Not quite. We provide support in all three phases of a project. Support starts, of course, with an introduction to the range of funding options available and focussing on the relevant ones. If a contract is awar­ded, there is normally a need to incorporate modifications the EU requests before implementation begins. The EU and the applicant draw up a contract of about a hundred pages with ten different components. During that phase, we help applicants meet the requirements. Afterwards, our help continues through the implementation phase, when we advise on matters such as reporting, contracting, verification and disbursement of funds.

What are the special challenges of EU applications?
One major problem is decentralisation: each of the 130 EU delegations, which are something like embassies of the EU abroad, tenders for its own projects. All in all, the EuropeAid/DEVCO issues around 400 calls for proposals every year, and each one has its own rules. Many languages also make procedures more challenging. Where legal matters are concerned, German organisations work in German even when they operate abroad. But at EuropeAid, for example, the call for proposals to tender for a project in Brazil is usually drawn up in Portuguese – and so is the contract. Applicants’ managers, however, are not necessarily polyglot. High-profile NGOs from Germany – terre des hommes, for instance – have signed contracts in several languages, but small organisations cannot afford to do so. In cooperation with Germany’s Permanent Representation in Brussels, we have managed to ensure that at least the contract templates are translated into German.

What kind of organisations do you address?
We address both small groups of volunteers and large organisations that employ full-time professionals. Our job is to advise all non-state actors and even municipal agencies. Once, we even helped a municipal utility company apply for European Development Fund projects in Africa. And now that bengo has become part of ENGAGEMENT GLOBAL, we are sure to advise more municipal authorities in the future, because that is part of ENGAGEMENT GLOBAL’s mission.

Does bengo advise private individuals?
Generally speaking, eligibility to apply for EU funds is confined to organisations. They need to be able to point to at least three years’ experience in the field. Nonetheless, we did once help a German film-director who wanted to support a small local organisation in Myanmar. He wrote the appli­cation, we provided advice, and the application was submitted by the organisation in Myanmar. We do sometimes receive calls from private individuals with an idea for a project. Although it is not our job, we tell them about what planning entails. Having a good idea and implementing it are two very different things. Many ideas, more­over, are too Euro-centric at first.

What is your advice to individuals with an idea for a project of their own?
They should join an existing organisation. Building up an organisation from scratch takes a very long time. They must also look for local partners for each project. Another option is to link up with an organisation in the South and offer to draft the application for them. In that case, the partner from the developing country must submit the appli­cation.

Today, NGOs from developing countries are indeed entitled to applying to the EuropeAid/DEVCO. But if the process presents difficulties for Europeans, it must be even harder for organisations from the Global South. Can bengo help?
Basically, we advise only German organisations. But sometimes we provide indirect support to non-state agencies in the South. An example are the field offices of the foundations that are close to Germany’s political parties. Sometimes German NGOs approach us on behalf of partners when they are not applying for EU funding themselves. For example, we advised DGB-Bildungswerk, the education and training centre of the German Trade Union Confederation, which is involved in a project run by Colombia’s Trade Unions. German organisations often struggle to explain to partners how the EU bureaucracy operates. The issue is challenging in itself, and on top of that, cultural differences must be overcome.

What advice would you give to NGOs in the Global South that wish to apply for funds?
They need to approach the EU delegation in their country, which will provide information about what is available. The delegations are aware of priority issues, and they know which calls for proposals are coming up.

Are applicants from developing countries not at a disadvantage when they compete with European applicants?
The EU tries hard to prevent that. It has scaled up its programme of seminars for local applicants, most recently in Myanmar, for example.

Do you consider bengo’s EU advice service a success?
I know that, without us, many applications would not have succeeded. I can only assume so, of course, but bengo’s profile in Europe is getting sharper, which is a good sign. Recently, non-­government organisations demanded that the EU should establish an advice service like bengo throughout the EU.

So there really are no services like yours in other countries?
In Britain, there is an adviser available one day a week, and in Finland there is an adviser at the Foreign Ministry, although she also has other duties too. Apart from that, the answer is no. We have the advantage, moreover, of having accumulated lots of experience. We have supported around 2,000 projects since 1997.

Do you think German organisations will need more or less advice in the future?
The need for advice is increasing. Not only is there a constant stream of new rules and guidelines, but more and more organisations are applying for EU funds. The EU offers applicants a good assortment of FAQs and wikis, but bengo adds linguistic and cultural competence. We explain English-language tenders in German, providing not just a literal translation, but the right interpretation too.