Much has been written about the importance of civil society in Africa. However, the debate seems to have been dominated by non-Africans. Even when I came across an interesting article on “Civil society in Africa in a non-Western context”, the author was British.
For many years formal African civil society organisations, both the agenda setting and the financing have been the domain of external actors. Often indigenous NGOs have been established and financed to implement policies of international civil society organisations.
I think this now is about to change. In the future indigenous organisations should approach foreign organisations for cooperation, not the other way around.
Confronting, or constructive criticism?
African governments have welcomed foreign NGOs when the main focus has been service delivery. They are now, however, increasingly skeptical to external political/human rights involvement. There is no doubt that the shrinking space for many NGOs in Africa is often caused by the use of external funding to influence domestic-decision making. It is easy to be fatigued by advice and influence from outside.
Movements more than organisations
International NGOs are often surprisingly disconnected from newly established indigenous associations and movements now gaining influence in Africa. The new wave of new associations seems to be based on the importance of maintaining local legacy. They are open for cooperation with foreign NGOs, but not to be dominated by them. They would fail in their mission if they were to concentrate on designing log-frames and writing reports to donors. But they should be open for ideas from outside.
Trends and pitfalls
Civil society is not necessarily good in itself. In some cases civil society has contributed to destruction of societies and played a negative role in conflicts and peacebuilding. But in most countries civil society play an important “checks and balances” role. Often civil society is in a better position to scrutinize government performance than opposition political parties. Therefore an increasing number of African NGOs have an important watchdog function constantly challenging those in power.
But the biggest pitfall for all civil society organizations is to end up as described by a prominent African civil society leader:
“I am so tired of rhetoric about development, women and the poor. Too many good speeches while ordinary people continue to suffer”
(General Secretary of World YMCA, Nyaradzayi Gumbonzvanda)