I have witnessed growth, stagnation, and death of civil-society organisations in East Africa’s great-lakes region over the past 15 years. As an international development practitioner, talking-up and overseeing a shift of power in the development sector to national civil-society, I’m challenged by the boom and bust cycle of national civil-society organisations. What will it take to start seeing a more viable and effective national civil-society organisation?
There is all sorts of reason for the status-quo: dependence on the rich-North INGO; unfair competition for resources with the rich-North INGO; corruption amongst national civil-society ranks; the brief-case civil-society culture; lack of capacity; poor internal & external governance, lack of a robust & sustainable business model etc
Just like development practitioners have reasons to explain the status quo of national civil-society, they also have a range of solutions: capacity building initiatives, the rich-north playing the ‘glue’ function between national civil-society and governments in what many times, is a marriage of convenience lasting as long as the projects and resources that create them, strict monitoring of resource use, secondment etc
Despite all the above analysis work and some positive progress over the years, there still is need to explore why the development sector can’t get effective solutions to already known national civil-society problems. Orthodox problem resolution theory points to the fact that if you can find robust means to identify a problem, the natural progression would be a process , robust at that, to identify and select solutions. Unfortunately, this has so far proved elusive in the case of identifying a roadmap to effective national civil-society, at least from where I stand.
One wonders if the development sector is identifying and dealing with the right assumptions and problem, when it comes to creating a viable national civil-society. Is the espoused model of national civil-society correct i.e. can national civil-society be simply a successor to the rich-North INGO? If the latter was to happen, is it assumed that the successor-role will also come with the power dynamic (in terms of fit to western aid-architecture and the resources that ensue) that the INGO currently boasts of? Is the development sector applying the right business model to national civil-society development? For example, should national civil-society be funded by government even though civil-society plays the ‘checking’ role against government and can be their nemesis? Could civil-society be treated as a public-utility funded by the tax payer, given its mandate to protect the interests of the average citizen? Should national civil-society viability be determined by financial parameters as opposed to factors like effective service to their constituency?
Suffice it to say that the current state of national civil-society calls for discourse to inform its role, business model, and effective resourcing. It is by doing that, likely disrupting what we already know and are comfortable with, that the development sector shall deliver a national civil-society that will stand the test of time.
If it is this simple, why have we not done it?