Development cooperation by small organisations is changing the world bit by bit

Development cooperation takes place on many levels, from extensive programmes run by large sub-organisations of the United Nations (UN) and direct joint support from several states to cooperation between non-governmental organisations (NGOs). There is a reason for using different channels: through bilateral cooperation between states it is possible to reform an entire education system, for example. Small organisations do not have sufficient resources to achieve that on their own.

Through cooperation, however, even small organisations can improve the wellbeing of people who have been forgotten or face discrimination in the country where they live. Some governments may even dismiss improving the wellbeing of the majority of their population because of the power relationships of some ethnic groups, for example.

Organisations also work to support the local civic society, which has a very limited scope for action in many countries1. We need a pluralistic civic society in order to make the voices of different members of society heard in the decision-making. This will promote a stable society and democracy. Improving the skills of local NGOs improves their future scope for action. Supporting small organisations also supports the civic society in Finland.

Unfortunately, the number of small and medium-sized organisations in Finland receiving financial assistance from the Government has decreased significantly over the past few years, as shown by the calculations presented in a recent blog post by Finnish Development NGOs – Fingo2. The majority of the grants for development cooperation which the Government allocates to organisations is directed to large organisations as programme support, and only around ten per cent goes to small organisations3. Luckily, the latest press releases suggest that the Government is going to increase the funding for both4, 5. There is still a risk that the funding will be concentrated to a small group of large organisations. Small organisations can also make a sizeable impact.

SYL’s role in development cooperation

SYL’s particular strength in organisational cooperation is the student perspective. In many countries, students and pupils are seen as passive recipients of knowledge who have no say in the quality or contents of the tuition or the teaching methods used. Meanwhile, Finnish students have a legal right to participate in the decision-making at universities. It is of course not possible to directly transpose this opportunity to a different country or culture, but SYL’s nearly one hundred years’ experience of student advocacy can get local decision-makers to invest in hearing the views of the students.

In Ethiopia, the local student organisations were included in a project which supports students with disabilities in accessing higher education once SYL became a partner in the project. This way, we have aimed to improve the opportunities of students with disabilities to take part in student activities and to highlight their views on what they need in order to gain equal opportunities to get a university degree.

In Guatemala, SYL helped to set up a student organisation for Maya students in the early 1990s. This year, we are planning to cooperate with the same organisation again, this time in order to improve the democratic skills of Maya students. Corruption is common in Guatemala, and that has caused many of the citizens to shy away from politics. But the country needs more active citizens who can supervise the government’s activities and demand that problems are solved.

Even though the activities of small organisations may seem small-scale, and all the consequences of the cooperation cannot be perceived immediately once the project is completed, the work of even the smallest organisations can have an impact that is bigger than the sum of its parts.

Salla Mäkelä

Development Policy Adviser


1 Civicus Monitor. State of Civil Society in Your Country. Accessed 5 February 2020

2Blog post by Fingo Adviser Pauliina Savola. Järjestökentän monipuolisuus vaatii puolustusta. Accessed 11 February 2020

3News article by the Ministry for Foreign Affairs. Finland allocates EUR 18 million to support strengthening civil societies in developing countries. Accessed 6 February 2020

4Press release by the Ministry for Foreign Affairs. MFA: Additional funding of 22.5 million euros for civil society organisations’ development cooperation as part of the implementation of the Government Programme. Accessed 11 February 2020

Call for proposals for project support by the Ministry for Foreign Affairs. Accessed 11 February 2020


Latest news

See all news
SYL contact us SYL logo
Questions? Contact us!
We are the experts in student life, at your service. We are happy to answer any and all topical questions pertaining to students and higher education.