Civil society space restriction – is it masking civil society ineffectiveness?

In December 2014, i blogged about a meeting organised by a leading INGO https://gabazira.com/2014/12/18/pitfalls-to-civ-society-partnership-wake-up-ingo/, at which variants of an ‘effective national civil society organisation’ and how it can best organise were discussed.

Looking back at some of the civil society events in 2014, it dawned on me that meetings like the above that delve on what i consider organisation basics i.e. ‘what constitutes an effective civil society entity and business model/s best suited to deliver effectiveness of such entities’, are a clear indicator that after many years of engagement African civil society sector and its occupants have not attained the organisational-maturity required to fulfil their mandate.  Those few civil society organisations that have attained organisational-maturity, have not yet realised the critical mass to significantly shift ground in the sector.

The lack of organisational-maturity is a reason likely to undermine progress in the civil society sector.  As an ardent believer in the ‘effectiveness’ of organisations, I know that organisational ‘weakness’ often results in an ineffective organisation.  Therefore, as we start 2015 I decided that the generic subject of a weak civil society in Africa (specifically East Africa) and how to address it, deserves our attention and is a good ice breaker to our civil society dialogue this year. Many in international development have for the last 15+ years known that African civil society is weak, and have partly attributed that weakness to nation-states that have apparently restricted civil society space. In effect, the latter hypothesis goes that:  if civil society were allowed ‘enough-space’ to run the way they want, we would witness a vibrant and ‘strong’ sector – well, are we over-simplifying and ‘log-framing’ too much, as we in international development act from time to time?

I have to ask myself as an experienced international development professional if: we all mean the same thing when we talk of ‘weak civil society’. It appears to me that we tend to mix the political status-quo in Africa of ‘increasingly sensitive nation-states’ (for whatever reasons) towards matters to do with civil society and the underlying causes of a weak civil society (for example internal governance weaknesses, lack of effective strategy, avoiding risk that comes with constructively engaging the nation-state etc). I dare say that the sensitivity and space restriction by the nation-state is symptomatic of weak civil society and not its cause.  Without simplifying what i know is a complex subject at times involving imprisonment, exile, and death, It is my opinion that only when civil society go beyond seeking solace in the subject of certain nation-states restricting civil society space to engage, and consider it their duty to engage the nation-state whatever risk and time it takes, shall we start to see what I term ‘strong and viable’ civil society.

In effect, only when civil society is able to secure its space from the nation-state, via an African led, robust, and longterm strategy, can civil society be considered strong and viable.  Securing this space shouldn’t necessarily mean street-fights with the nation-state, but constructive and patient engagement with African power holders.  Civil society will prove value to society when the sector and its occupants can sustainably engage, in a context sensitive way, nation-states that are becoming more and more suspicious of its intentions.  I want to believe that as an insider, fellow international development peers and civil society global-debate-masters will ostracise me for harbouring the above hypothesis.  However, the latter is the price we all need to pay for challenging current thinking and harmonising varying views on win-win solutions for civil society development.

The global aid industry is crying loud over the issue of restricted-spaces for civil society.  Indeed civil society (and i do talk for civil society in East-Africa that i understand better) have shown increasing interest to engage the rich-north aid architecture on matters about ‘spaces’ to work in.  Where engagement has happened in the past, civil society organisations’ attraction has been  the ‘power, resources, and clarity of thought (wrong or correct)’ of the rich-north donors and peers.  What is different this time is the focus on ‘space-restriction’ and the changed engagement strategy between the two parties – i.e. engagement has gone beyond dealing with one civil society entity to engaging many in open spaces. Donors are jointly defining solutions with civil society and I’m tempted to write in this blog that the time of bringing to the table finished solutions minted by donors alone in western capitals is over.  http://blog.usaid.gov/2014/12/why-strengthening-civil-society-matters-co-creating-solutions-rocks/

I have no problem at all with the above innovation and the resulting efficacy in getting ‘deep, rich and relevant’ common ground.  I’m a big fun of thinking big, being creative, but at the same time keeping things in ‘context’ so that any result of such thinking, is relevant and not viewed as a product of rich-north capitals, that breeds suspicion and resistance of the strong East-Africa nation-state. Push the latter nation-states hard and China will continue to offer an increasingly attractive alternative.

Evidence is emerging, however ‘lite’, of civil society practitioners starting to critically check ‘benefit-harms’ of the current north-south civil society discourse.  The latter is not to undermine gains made but to make sure we don’t lose them all.  On a transatlantic flight in 2014 someone shared an African civil society story with me: that African civil society is interested in networking with the external-world and does not try enough to engage their country governments. That African civil society forget that the so-called external world may have good but different interests for engaging and that longterm sustainability will be achieved when all stakeholders are engaged moreover, back at home (In Africa). Months have passed since we talked on that flight, but on reflection now, I do believe that spaces for civil society in East-Africa (safe or unsafe) will be created when civil society achieve the level of organisational-maturity to seamlessly engage the nation-state, craft relevant conversations, navigate risk, stand in the face of adversaries etc.

Perhaps, all of us civil society practitioners may want, even before we start to discuss all our other ills (inneffective-governance, lack of capacity to shape effective strategy, low staff-capacity, ineffective resourcing ($) etc) ask where our interest lies and should be harnessed.  I’m not opposed to global engagement and the resourcing it guarantees for African civil society, but instead, i’m opposed to the simplicity with which we treat this vexing subject of ‘restricted spaces’ – to put it simply, we need to consider the effect on our end-goal as civil society, of excluding sensitive nation-states from discourse.  Moreover, nation-states that are increasingly marking their territory and fighting off anything seen as ‘tutelage’ from the rich-north. Can we simplify the development of effective African civil-society to ”simple projects and their log-frames”?

Shall we ever be effective as civil society, unless we engage all stakeholders in the eco-system, even those we view with suspicion? Is consultation the same as engagement?  Do we want to consider basing such engagement at home (in Africa) and only leverage the excellent resource-base of the rich-north donor? Do we have the right human-souls to absorb the beating that comes with being servants (leaders) of civil-society? Should civil-society be treated as a bread and butter sector for those that work in the sector or a ‘religion’ led by shepherds that have received the call-to-serve civil society from the ‘gods’ of the poor?

Working for civil-society is a calling by the 'gods' of the poor & not about bread and butter

Working for civil-society is a calling by the ‘gods’ of the poor & not about bread and butter

Might it be about time we discussed and addressed the underlying issues behind some of the tension between civil society and the nation-state?

The pictorial below may perhaps be a place to start harnessing a win-win engagement model.  Internal discourse should take place between civil society and nation-states and once there is an emerging consensus or a road-map towards consensus (and that consensus may be agreeing to disagree), civil society shall engage the external world (rich-north) for resourcing and the global context – only then shall we see the middle part = sustainable alignment of civil society and the nation-state:

Constructive engagement of nation-state by civil society - a model to follow

Constructive engagement of nation-state by civil society – a model to follow

 

Is it easy said than done?  Let us start somewhere though – even if, it is to share views, even those opposing, as the case should be for such a complex subject!



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