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Re-invigorating Civil Society in Uganda: An Agenda for the Future

Sunday, September 23, 2018 - 21:47

A think-piece developed for the DGF Partners Conference, November 30th 2016 

Arthur LAROK, ActionAid Uganda 

‘… we are at a point in the NGO debate, at which serious questions are being raised about the ability of NGOs to meet their long term goals of social justice and transformation at a time when the development sector is narrowly focusing on short term results and value for money…’                                             

1.    Introduction 

In a review of the DGF CSO Diagnostic Study, both John de Coninck and Prof Joe Oloka Onyango stress the need for civil society to examine its relevance in the face of changing circumstances and contexts in their work. John asks, ‘how does civil society see their desired future’? And Prof Oloka suggests that after 30 years of operation since the revival of civil society activity in Uganda, there is need for stock taking and asks, ‘what is the essential raison d’etre of civil society? These and similar questions about civil society’s relevance in a dynamic context is what this think-piece[2] is about.

In next few pages, I re-echo a compelling argument about what civil society’s overarching agenda is or at least ought to be, then touch on the structural constraints NGOs face, what we need to do, how we could do this and finally end with some propositions for our consideration as a sector. But first, a short conceptual appreciation of what civil society is and the enduring error we make to equate NGOs to civil society, placing civil society’s historical mission on NGOs, and in the process push them on the verge of collapse under the unrealistic weight of expectations.

2.    Civil Society and NGOs - what is and what isn’t!

In addition to the justification in the preceding paragraph to clarify the concept of civil society as opposed to NGOs, this differentiation is particularly important in light of the use of the term adopted in the DGF diagnostic study which as Prof Oloka Onyango correctly notes is limiting and ‘… places structural constraints on the issues that were handled … it simply describes the fields and not the activities of CSOs’. He suggests a more expansive definition of civil society as “the full range of voluntary associations and movements that operate outside the market, the state and primary affiliations, and that specifically orient themselves to shaping the public sphere.”[3] Civil society is a ‘space in which actors mobilize to bargain, negotiate or coerce other actors in order to advance and promote certain interests’. The civil denotes that we are consciously guided by methods that are considered civil. This doesn’t mean violent expressions don’t occur but this if often the exception. Also there are some actions which some theorists have suggested belong to ‘uncivil’ society.

NGOs can thus be seen as one actor in the civil society space. However, with a deeper interogation, one may actually argue that not every NGO is neccessarily part of civil society. The emphasis that civil society specifically orient themselves to shaping the public sphere suggests that there is an enduring intention about civil society’s work and its effect on the public. Many typical and traditional development NGOs which see their role in a narrow sense as gap-filling and not engaging in or shaping the public sphere may thus not be considered part of civil society. The critical point being made is that, when we talk about civil society, assess its import and plan support to it, we must think of a diverse set of actors beyond NGOs.   

3.    Civil Society’s historical mission and claims we make as NGOs 

‘Civil Society names [taking up an issue] … it frames [projects the issue in the public space] … and then it claims … [forces solutions on the issue]. If need be, civil society also shames… ultimately all must lead to positive change…’[4] 

From a global and historical perspective, two developments[5] have tended to shape the agenda of contemporary civil society and NGOs in particular. First, was the large scale reduction in public expenditure during the structural adjustment era, occasioned in part by the perceived failure of top-down development - in this instance civil society were seen as darlings of development because of their ability to connect with beneficiaries and innovations in working with people in the margins. Secondly, was the ‘withdraw’ of structural adjustment and ‘re-governmentization’ of aid, accompanied by the language of human rights, participation and strengthening of civil society. In the case of the latter, civil society and NGOs were seen as a countervailing power to governments.   

Further, today, we live in a moment where the dominant model of economic growth and development is being questioned by citizens worldwide for driving unprecedented crises and inequalities of power and wealth. There is momentum across countries and multiple stakeholders to transform towards a more equitable, socially and environmentally sustainable world[6]. Civil society actors, in their diversity, are working to re-imagine a different pathway for humanity. 

In Uganda, there are numerous challenges we face that set the context for the work of civil society: politically, we see an erosion of institutional authority and decision making over critical issues is fast becoming de-institutionalised. As impunity reigns, citizens are increasingly resigning and lowering their expectations of the state and its institutions. Economically, we see at best economic stagnation, but more accurately decline in terms of productivity, including from agriculture where majority of our people live. Economic opportunity is connected to a political patronage system that greatly undermines efficiency and rewards for hard work. The much touted private sector and especially the authentic domestic private sector is struggling to stay above the waters because the context of their operations is disabling and unfair to majority. Socially, Ugandans are being pushed to retreat to ethnic enclaves to make a bargain with the state with social disharmony becoming a ‘new normal’. The service delivery crisis across the country makes the quest for a life of dignity seem like expecting too much of this country and its abundant resources. 

At a time of difficulty as we find our country in, citizens, despite their precarious situation are not giving up: many Ugandans continue to work hard and their resilience is an important asset; popular resistance to many injustices and greater collective efforts to challenge the status quo is visible in the work that civic and political actors are doing; despite suffering a serious numerical deficit, there are progressive forces in every institution, including those that have lost so much public trust like parliament and the judiciary; Ugandans continue to talk and raise serious questions to leaders and debate, aided by liberation technology, about almost anything under the sun, sometimes at a high cost. So while it is tempting to despair, it is in the existing progressive impulses that we must find the impetus to keep the struggle for justice and equality alive. 

Civil society, for all its limitations remains an important part of the progressive effort for better. It is in this context that the role of civil society as summarized in the quotation above: naming, framing, claiming, shaming and changing is looked at. As NGOs in Uganda, we claim to: a) fill gaps where the state is failing; and b) challenge unequal power relations and pursue transformative agendas. A lot of our missions are aligned to challenge and transform power, even if our activities tend to favour operational efficiency and policy influence that is demanded of us.  

In short, we as NGOs and civil society have been incentivised, especially by external forces such as donors, repressive states and other conditions to creep away from our missions to pursue agendas and issues that are ‘soft’ - press conferences rather than attracting media to a cause and sensitization instead of political mobilization for our causes.

4.    Structural Constraints NGOs face delivering on Civil Society’s Mission  

There are many structural constraints that impede civil society’s and in particular the NGO sub group’s ability to deliver on both the historical mission of civil society as expected of it by many who either equate it to civil society or see them as the dominant face. Three critical challenges as enumerated by (Bunks, et al)[7] are worthy of re-echoing especially to NGOs that are the primary or at least majority recipient of the support of the Democratic Governance Facility (DGF): 

a)     Weak roots of majority of NGOs in civil society and the public - Marina Ottaway[8] used the word ‘trusteeships’ to describe what she called an assumed mandate that many civil society organisations and NGOs have. They are often not as embedded as they ought to be in the societies and communities they work in. Like we often ask in our street talk in the sector, how many people would rise up to take public action if an NGO was closed down tomorrow?  

This is not just a matter of civil society in developing countries but also International NGOs in the countries where many of us raise money, including from individual givers. Like the CEO of one iNGO asked of his staff in the UK, how many of them are connected to the 52% of British people who voted Brexit? Or most recently which US NGO that works actively in international development connects with the 69 million who voted for Donald Trump? If NGOs of the type that DGF supports are to improve their chances of being relevant, they must connect better with the population, lest we increasingly alienate ourselves from reality that is driving the world. 

b)     The rising tide of technocracy that has swept through the aid industry - this has driven NGOs as clients to work on a limited range of agendas, mainly biased towards service delivery and democracy promotion instead of deep rooted transformation of politics, social relations, markets and technology. This, despite advances made by donors in moving towards more political methods for facilitating development, which efforts remain hampered given there has been little shift in the aid chain away from a narrow conceptualization of civil society, and few examples of their ability to design more innovative funding mechanisms to support, rather than erode, the political roots of civil society organizations. This is particularly the case for bi-lateral donors who unlike private foundations, are a lot more ‘governmental’ in their ‘DNA’, align more with or at least sympathize with governments, and are always mindful about their limits. 

c)     A constraining national and international political context - this is manifested externally in the diverse drivers of shrinking political and civic, upward accountability incentives, disabling legal and administrative instruments, short term projects that define development interventions, the non-political nature of many NGOs and other internal challenges within NGOs themselves.  

5.    How we could re-invigorate Civil Society in the next 5 years 

… as civil society recaptures its historical mission, NGOs must critically examine their positioning within a broader ecosystem. An ideal role we could play is one of being a connector so that the whole may be greater than the sum of its parts … 

In a context of vast and widening political and economic inequality, NGOs do and will continue to struggle because of their non-political roots and strategies. A shift towards a stronger, more inter-connected civil society in which NGOs play a key bridging role between diverse actors within the civil society space, local and national governments may be an important idea going forward. As we think about re-invigorating civil society in the next five years, the following may be important things we work to achieve or make progress towards: 

a)     Re-politicize Civil Society: Given the current governance trajectory and challenges we face as a country, we must re-politicize civil society without necessarily crossing the thin line of partisanship. This means we should overcome the political fear-factor, be more proactive in challenging injustice, be more socially embedded and relevant to public discourse and challenges and be more accountable downwards. We also must identify with and support social movements and people’s struggles (including actors many may think of as ‘uncivil society’) for justice.

b)     Create and or strengthen a ‘Pan Civil Society Platform’: We must think of civil society beyond the limitations of NGOs and connect with other civil society formations, especially trade unions, cooperatives, social movements, student movements, business associations, traders and others. We must look beyond the current constraints that NGO Forum and Deniva have and provide a more inclusive civil society forum in which actors beyond NGOs find confidence and value in associating with. This needs thought and not an haphazard action of creating yet another NGO. 

c)     Building knowledge and intellectual rigour: Civil Society suffers serious intellectual ‘constipation’ - we are not reading, analysing and theorising enough. The often donor driven evaluations, quarterly and annual reports are not enough. As Prof Oloka put it, we must regularly learn, unlearn and relearn if we are to be intellectually robust. We must build more structured collaboration with academia and produce knowledge about the sector, its evolution and trends. This used to happen in yesteryears led by CBR, CDRN and to an extent DENIVA. We must revive and start next year with a robust ‘value’ (read worth) study of civil society politically, economically and socially. This will give us new energy to push back on threats to us. 

d)     Revive Civil Society Leaders Reflection Platforms for scenario building and response: As part of the proactive engagement civil society needs to be ‘ahead of the game’. Deniva and NGO Forum had, in 2006 initiated a bi-annual civil society leaders reflection retreats that leaders took time off to reflect on developments and trends in the country. This process eventually degenerated to one day, poorly conceptualized meetings that ended up as the usual talk-shops, with no clear strategic actions by the sector. We need to learn from the past and revive a more inclusive (beyond Kampala/urban) strategic leader retreats, infused with a scenario building methodology that will make the sector better prepare to engage with a dynamic environment. 

e)     Honest Dialogue with Development Partners beyond ‘shadow boxing’ shows: There is an urgent need for CSOs and their donors to bridge the gap in their relationship which in my reading is often artificial. We are sometimes involved in what I think is a ‘shadow-boxing’ game in which both civil society and donors have serious doubts of the other but prefer to remain politically correct on the dialogue table, including occasions such as donor conferences organised by a number of civil society organisations where discussions are technocratic and not political or ideological. We remain mutually suspicious of each other in the corridors. There have been attempts to bridge this gap in an EU - CSO Structured dialogue process that the Uganda National NGO Forum and the EU office in Uganda initiated a few years ago, but a lot needs to be done to make such spaces more inclusive, authentic, honest and collectively owned.  

The question of honest dialogue should also happen with government in a structured manner. At the moment honest discussions are ‘informalised’ and thus personalised rather than institutionalised. With honest discussions, we shall bridge the knowledge gap, agree to disagree and entrench mutual respect even when we disagree. 

f)      Tackle the transition question especially in NGOs: This, like the funding and sustainability question is another elephant in the room. I think the question of transition (and we can debate the form, substance and more) is the single most important question Uganda as a country needs to ask and answer. Uganda still yearns for a legitimate and peaceful transition of power and this should not be swept aside as trivial for to have 1 president staying longer than the 8 others combined since independence, or for our one president to stay in office longer than 6 American and 5 other neighbouring country leaders is a serious matter. In political parties, the transition challenge is clear, in religious institutions, we have recently seen what has happened in West Nile and in the Western Uganda, businesses have collapsed when owners have passed on and families have disintegrated when parents have died with or without wills. Coming closer to civil society, we know the problem of ‘founder syndrome’ and many organisations would struggle with some of the leaders we have now leaving. Think for a minute and you will have numerous examples, including some of us reading this sentence or hearing the word in this meeting. 

Every organisation needs a transition plan which covers deliberate succession planning. The sector needs a leadership development programme similar to what URDT used to run in the 80’s.