EU4Health Civil Society Alliance event in the European Parliament called for better, more sustainable ways of funding for civil society organisations of all sectors
4 Sep 23
Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) across the EU are facing increasing barriers in the implementation of their activities, as outlined in the 2022 European Commission’s rule of law report and a European Civic Forum report.
In addition to a shrinking civic space, CSOs are facing difficulties in securing safe, regular, and sustainable funding. As there is a wide discrepancy in the availability of sustainable funding for CSOs across policy sectors, CSOs in some sectors are particularly affected.
Access to sustainable and regular funding allows CSOs to plan their activities, advocate for the public interest, and give an effective voice to citizens, in particular vulnerable groups. In particular, EU funding through operating grants is a vital source of funding that allows European CSOs to support EU policy making in an efficient, sustainable and independent way.
This event aimed at shedding light on the situation of health CSOs, as part of the EU4Health CSA campaign to ensure that DG SANTE maintains the Operating Grants in the EU4Health work programme, and reinstates them in a multiannual framework. In 2021, health CSOs faced the prospect of losing public funding through these Operating Grants. These were partially reinstated only thanks to an extensive, well-coordinated advocacy campaign led by health CSOs and several Member States. However, since then, the Operating Grants have been awarded on a year-by-year basis, with restrictive eligibility criteria. Health CSOs therefore continue to face an uncertain landscape, with no guarantee that the programme will be maintained in the future.
European institutions play an essential role in supporting CSOs across the Union. Against this background, MEP István Ujhelyi partnered with the EU4Health Civil Society Alliance for this event to discuss ways of ensuring sustainable funding of civil society organisations across sectors through consistent EU frameworks. In addition to EPHA and the EU4Health Civil Society Alliance, the panel gathered representatives from the European Environmental Bureau, Civil Society Europe, SAFE Food Advocacy, Health Care Without Harm Europe, EuroHealthNet and FEANTSA, presenting insights from funding programmes such as LIFE, CERV, ESF+/EaSi, and EU4Health.
MEP Ujhelyi stressed that civil society across Europe is facing worrying trends. For the future of European democracy, it is important to understand that NGOs and CSOs are facing issues in many Member States. Particularly, the budget issue is a central one for CSOs, and access to sustainable funding has become an upstream battle, with increasing uncertainty around operating grants. MEP Ujhelyi also added that the EU would need concrete actions to implement the recommendations from the Conference on the Future of Europe, calling for a strengthened role of CSOs and a stronger civic space.
EPHA’s Dr Milka Sokolović presented the specific case of health CSOs, which has triggered the continuing campaign of EU4Health Civil Society Alliance to ensure that operating grants for the health sectors remained in the work programme each year, and hopefully return to their multiannual format. She reminded the audience of the key role of civil society in defending democracy and the rule of law in all levels of governance. Civil society gives a voice to the citizens and plays the role of watchdog. CSOs’ role is especially important in times of crisis. In that regard, there are no better examples than the COVID-19 pandemic and the invasion of Ukraine. Moving on to the topic of funding, especially for health CSOs, she explained that the annual nature of the health operating grants does not cater for the security and long-term planning that is necessary for our functioning. The absence of multiannual financial framework leaves health civil society especially vulnerable and disadvantaged. Multiannual funding programmes give health civil society the flexibility to develop their policy work, give a stronger balance between different interests in the policy debate, and allow for stronger impact. Finally, Dr Milka Sokolović stressed that the manifestos from EPHA, the EU4Health Civil Society Alliance and Civil Society 4 EU have all called for stronger funding mechanisms.
All the panelists, representing grantees from LIFE, ESF+/EaSi and CERV grants, agreed on the fact that operating grants are an essential funding programme for CSOs, that has been crucial in supporting existing CSOs establishing themselves and carrying out their activities in the past decades. The multiannual financial frameworks for operating grants allow CSOs to stick to their core work, advocacy, policy and engagement in the implementation of EU policies at national level.
The EEB is in the position it is today, and has been able to deliver its work for decades, thanks, partly, to that operating grant. However, we need to be agile and adapt; otherwise we are paralysed in our activities and our impact. The sector needs financial security, adequate support especially taking into consideration inflation and financial crisis.
Furthermore, it supports CSOs in their watchdog role, and in contributing to the policy debate. CSOs have been recognised as playing a central part in supporting the Commission in delivering their priorities. Particularly, the multiannual character of the operating grants enables CSOs to adapt slightly every year to the changing realities and adjust to crises as they occur, thus providing flexibility while keeping a long-term vision. It was also pointed out by the panelists that this discussion is part of the history of the EU, as the European Parliament has supported such frameworks in the past, to give balance and ensure that citizens have a voice through civil society next to other interest groups.
Having a multiannual framework sets our work and enables us every year to adapt slightly to the changing realities and adjust to crises as they occur. The OPG is a way of maintaining and nurturing democracy and the society we live in.
However, the panelists also indicated challenges they are facing. While there is recognition of this role, the lack of support to civil society is representative of the state of democracy across the EU. Beyond the need for financial support, civil society needs more recognition and a level playing field.
Operating grants provide essential funding that supports the advocacy work of civil society organisations. Without this funding, CSOs cannot bring the voice of European citizens to the policy debate and industry voices would further dominate (and skew) the EU policy space, with potentially detrimental effects to citizens’ health and wellbeing.
Furthermore, there has been a tendency to blur the lines between a project grant and an operating grant, the latter being increasingly treated like a project itself. The introduction of a maximum ceiling in the LIFE programme also had an impact on larger CSOs’ activities, particularly in difficult financial times with inflation.
Another element discussed was the lack of clarity on which co-funding rates are applied in which programmes. Timing was also listed as a challenge, particularly in the case of programmes without multiannual financial frameworks. The growing role of commercial consultancies in carrying work done by CSOs was also pointed out as an issue for CSOs to access funding, as well as the request for CSOs to diversify their fundings.
We should resist calls to diversify our funding. I think it is perfectly fine for NGOs to be reliant on public funding. Let’s collectively try to break down that kind of mantra.
The panelists noted that more coherence is needed across the different operating grants programmes. The re-granting mechanism in CERV (i.e., sub-granting by a primary grant recipient) could serve as a model and be used across funding programmes to support smaller organisations. These mechanisms can also be used for recipients of operating grants to support smaller CSOs. It was recommended to develop these elements, as well as support for capacity building, within a Civil Society Strategy. Calls for such a Strategy have already been made to the EC President.
In CERV, we have a re-granting mechanism for smaller organisations that can also be used for recipients of operating grants. It would be interesting to extend this possibility to other programmes.
A dialogue with the different DGs and DG Budget was proposed, in which the European Parliament could play a role, in terms of the evaluation of the programmes. The objective would be to review and discuss how the different DGs address funding of CSOs, and therefore break silos. Finally, it was also suggested to bring forward and discuss the added value of funding policy and advocacy work with other funders, with a call to foundations to fund the true costs of organisations.
While highlighting challenges such as co-funding requirements and lack of adaptability of funding instruments, the panelists have stressed that consistent, reliable funding through multiannual financial frameworks is necessary to support policy and advocacy work and maintain democracy. In that regard, health CSOs are left disadvantaged and in uncertainty, risking dependence on commercial actors to fund their activities.
The importance of the OPG, and why it is fundamental, is that it gives us the possibility to do advocacy in a constant and effective way.
Democracy is not only the opportunity to listen, to protect each other and to represent minorities, but also to be heard.
Clear action is needed to support civil society in accessing sustainable funding. For the future of democracy, operating grants must be secured and improved to strengthen civil dialogue and ensure that citizens, patients and marginalised groups are represented effectively.