The developing and poor countries, over the past many years, have been trying to strike a balance among their scarce resources and allocations to cater to the long list of public demands. However, the last three decades have witnessed a paradigm shift regarding the role of public administration in modern societies. Extensive changes in the theory of public management in the second half of the twentieth century outweighed the standard governance approach as outdated one. With this, a new public management (NPM) idea, which borrowed a bundle of management approaches and techniques from private sector, emerged and spread across the globe rapidly. The reform process has led governments to cut expenditure in many areas, especially in public service sector spending, which was pre-dominantly considered to be the basic function of a State. While backing out as the sole provider of public goods and services to citizens, the governments have left space open for other players to fill thus leading to the emergence of civil society organizations (CSOs).

There are many types of CSOs involved in aid and service delivery including faith-based groups, trade unions, professional associations as well as internationally-affiliated organizations with branches in many different countries. Constituency-based organizations such as trade unions or professional associations, for example, often do not self-identify as non-governmental organizations (NGOs) but rather as CSOs. Another component of the wider CSO sector, which has received considerable attention in recent years, is local support organizations (LSOs).

LSOs basically emanated from the idea of rural support programs (RSPs),which believe in mobilizing indigenous people and resources for local development. Aga Khan Rural Support Program (AKRSP) facilitated the formation of Village and Women Organizations (V/WOs) as informal institutional set up at the local level. These V/WOs served as a receiving mechanism for delivery of public services and creation of physical, human and financial capital through partnerships & linkages with government as well as private sector and civil society organizations.

Comprising households in villages, these groups were not only involved in identifying their priority issues and designing possible solutions but were also entrusted with the implementation of the donor-supported projects. The idea worked well for a couple of decades and produced remarkable results in terms of socio-economic changes in the intervention areas, but then the phenomenon termed as ‘donor fatigue’ set in.

Being pre-dominantly dependent on donor funding, these solidarity groups were left for no good as funding receded. Here emerged the LSO idea; a union or federation of V/WOs and other CSOs and groups at union council/valley levels. Characterized by participatory development, legal identity, professional management capacity, activist-led governance structure and a strong base of voluntary community organizations at the core, the LSOs aim at providing public and private sector service providers an interface to effectively mediate, channelize and sustain local development initiatives and service delivery functions on an ongoing basis.

Further, LSOs support their member organizations in effectively working together to address issues of poverty, micro-economic growth, gender disparity and youth engagement at local levels. Until now, LSOs have been established across the country with support from provincial RSPs, National Rural Support Program (NRSP), Rural Support Program Network (RSPN) and others.

Given that scenario in which a synergistic approach is to be followed at the country level, the question in the context of Pakistan is that “What resources and strengths do we already have to build on and how to utilize them in the best manner possible?”. LSOs offer themselves as one such platform that can be of valuable support in attaining Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). LSOs work at grassroots level and so they have better awareness of socio-economic issues and cultural dynamics of the area. Consequently, LSOs can develop and implement programs that are well-suited in the peculiar conditions. There are, however, many other factors that present LSOs as viable partner for social development.

First, LSOs run under a proper structure, which gives them a sense of permanency which is otherwise found missing in other voluntary groups. Their supervisory boards are democratically elected, thereby, ensuring transparency and accountability. According to a study by Pakistan Centre for Philanthropy (PCP), more than two-thirds of LSOs in Gilgit, Baltistan and Chitral ranked in the first and second tiers among four in terms ‘democratic governance’.

Second, LSOs cover a wide range of activities and regions; there are now over 1,000 LSOs active across Pakistan. These organizations are engaged in health, education, microfinance, human rights, infrastructure and other sectors. Hence, they can be partnered with for social uplift projects specifically in areas where the presence of government and other development actors is non-existent or ineffective.

Third, LSOs have been able to connect with a large number of volunteers especially among the younger generation, which gives them an edge to achieve development objectives with minimum cost and time.

If the relevance of LSOs gets accentuated in the newly-elected government policy, development would be steered at grassroots level by the locally-elected government bodies. In coming days, as the government has indicated, significant portion of development budgets of the provinces would be routed through local authorities. The plan, if implemented, presents an ample opportunity for partnerships between local bodies and LSOs; the former providing facilitative and supervisory role while the later acting as implementing partners.

LSOs, however, do have their own challenges; the biggest of them being their financial viability. As they have to rely on external funding, more often than not they run into monetary crunch, leaving them unable to live up to the expectations of the local communities. Financial constraints also limit LSOs’ ability to hire competent human resources, resulting in their inability to propose innovative solutions and generate funding for projects implementation. More than half of the LSOs in a sample study by PCP reported that they are struggling with sustainability of their projects due to financial constraints.

Inclusive growth, as setforth by the SDGs, is the need of the hour and requires collaboration and partnerships among all stakeholders to dole out development benefits at the grassroots communities levels. This in turn means that all possible avenues that can contribute towards achieving the sustainable development goals need to be exhausted and LSOs being one of viable options The only weakness in this particular system is financial volatility, which can be dealt with through partnerships with the government at provincial, district and local level as well as with international donor agencies.

The writers are staff members at Pakistan Centre for Philanthropy (PCP).