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NGO’s and Their Quest for Legitimacy in Africa


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There have been several changes in the dominant orientation of development policy over the past few decades. The emphasis on state-led development, from the 1950s until the 1970s, was followed by a `counter-revolution` highlighting the private sector. But, there are a vast number of organisations that are neither state nor private. This `third sector` pursues a wide variety of objectives: welfare, economic advancement, recreation, spiritual upliftment, professional identification and cultural promotion. Although such organisations generally have been perceived positively, it should be noted that not all could be regarded as progressive.

The early 1980s witnessed overwhelming expansion of Non Governmental Organisations (NGOs). Until this period, there was little appreciation for the potential role of NGOs in implementing development projects and influencing policy. This growth was also indicative of the emerging realisation that the African state was a stumbling block to development because of its lack of accountability and transparency. Indeed, the state in Africa has variously been described as "weak" or "soft" and that it is unable to pursue its objectives. This amounts to a turnaround in development theory, which previously held the state to be the ultimate purveyor of development in Africa. Thus, it was argued that this is the only way to promote governments that are anchored in democratic institutions and ethos such as accountability and transparency.


The decline of the state in Africa has also provided entry points for both foreign and local NGOs to embark on development work for instance, when states have been unable to provide adequate services such as health care, education, and agricultural and credit extension. Also, recurrent droughts, famines, and civil strife have provided opportunities for essentially humanitarian relief NGOs that have lingered to pursue development work after the initial calamity.

In addition, at the international level, NGOs have become prominent co-actors with many intergovernmental and multilateral development and aid agencies, such as the World Bank and various United Nations (UN) agencies involved in relief, environmental, and development work. As early as 1980s, the World Bank had started to explore ways and means of involving NGOs in its projects, which are essentially undertaken by governments. NGOs have similarly been involved in an increasing number of projects with national official aid agencies such as the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and even more closely with the UN through agencies such as the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF), the UN Development Program (UNDP), and the UN Environmental Program (UNEP).


However, the growing presence and capacity of NGOs in all sectors of development and their "overtaking" of states in some instances due to the states' decreasing capacity have put the two on a sure collision course. NGO activities that overshadow the state tend to be viewed as direct challenges to the "imperatives of statehood" - territorial hegemony, security, autonomy, legitimacy, and revenue. But, at the same time, it is true when NGOs spread out to all corners in pursuit of their goals, sometimes even to the most remote or most strife-torn regions, African governments have come to view NGOs not only as socioeconomic assets but also more warily as political challengers whose activities need to be directed and coordinated in order not to undermine the state.

Governments in Africa are therefore concerned about the growth and activities of NGOs on two political counts: NGOs constitute a network of resourceful organisations that are growing more autonomous of the state and NGOs have the potential to change state-society relations in the grassroots communities they work with. On their part, NGOs have exacerbated these concerns by challenging state policies or actions, especially those relating to the administration of development aid and political reforms. Moreover, NGOs that adopt an antagonistic approach, either by arguing that government policy is wrong or that government is not legitimate, are treated as a threat to the very existence of the state.

Accordingly, African governments are suspicious of NGOs. For example, the Kenyan government's originally favourable attitude to NGOs has transformed dramatically over the decade. The government responded to NGOs' political challenges by affecting the NGO Coordination Act of 1990, which sought to monitor and control NGO activities. This legislation was a contentious issue and is one of the areas in which NGOs have enabled civil society expansion and empowerment in Kenya. In Uganda, the government introduced similar legislation that placed NGOs under its internal security secretariat in 1989. Prior to that, in 1987, the Ugandan government had banned the use of radios by NGOs for cross-country communication. Other instances of African governments clamping down on NGOs can be found in many African states.

It is also important to bear in mind that many of the civil society organisations that have been involved in opposing the state had previously been docile political actors. For instance, organisations that have been at the forefront of opposing the Moi regime, in Kenya, such as the National Council of Churches of Kenya, the Green Belt Movement (GBM), and the Law Society of Kenya, all had amicable relations with the Kenya African National Union (KANU) government prior to the late 1980s. One cannot assert convincingly that these organizations have institutionalised the oppositional dynamic merely because they are part of civil society. Indeed, the persons leading these organisations are most identifiable with the opposition movement, whereas the organisations themselves provide resourceful platforms to propel diverse political agendas. Indeed, NGOs were able to force the governments to adjust its control over them because of their enhanced leverage due to collective organisation and resources, alliances with donors and oppositional forces and crucial access to the state as a result of the prevailing political opportunity.

Despite these tensions, NGOs have maintained the goal of empowering grassroots communities as a crucial step toward social, economic, and political recovery in Africa. However, NGOs find that their host governments are often unreceptive with their activities. In many instance, governments have instituted control mechanisms to contain such advocacy goals by NGOs.

In conclusion, given the present economic and political conditions in Africa, it is likely that the number and role of NGOs engaged in development will expand even more and, with this, their role in the social, economic and political arenas. Despite differences in origin, specific objectives, philosophy, scale (of operations, staff and budget), location and structures, a perception has arisen that such organisations may represent a development alternative that makes the achievement of progress more likely than in the past. Therefore, while NGOs have some comparative advantages over the public sector it would be an illusion to imagine that the patchwork of services that NGOs provide could substitute for state provision of basic education, primary health care, welfare services and essential infrastructure.

Written by: Debay Tadesse , Senior Researcher, Africa Conflict Prevention Programme, ISS Addis Ababa, Ethiopia



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