Who owns civil society?
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CTA. 1999. Who owns civil society?. Spore 79. CTA, Wageningen, The Netherlands.
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Civil society' is getting organised, and gaining credibility and confidence. We look at the changing relationships between the Prince, the Merchant and the Citizen, including the Citizen Farmer.The sudden rush of the words 'civil society' into the...
Civil society' is getting organised, and gaining credibility and confidence. We look at the changing relationships between the Prince, the Merchant and the Citizen, including the Citizen Farmer. The sudden rush of the words 'civil society' into the everyday language of development, and donor priorities, over the last decade has made a lot of noise, like the rush of air filling a vacuum. In recent history, that is indeed what has happened. In several ACP countries, where the state has been forced by structural adjustment to retreat from many front-lines of development, the vacuum of power and of practice has been filled, in part, by various bodies of civil society. In the so-called 'transition' countries of the former Soviet bloc, where ten years ago whole societies found themselves overnight with neither government, nor value systems nor food security, the void has been occupied by programmes to strengthen civil society. Even though civil society is much, much more than the sum total of all non-governmental organisations in a country, it is in the NGO community that many people first seek the signs of today's civil society. According to anthropologist Chris Hann1 'its recent reduction by governments and aid agencies to the world of NGOs is an impoverished view of social life'. The NGO 'boom' has been phenomenal in the last two decades ? some say it is now on the wane. In ACP States alone, it is estimated that there are more than 50,000 NGOs, more than 10,000 of which are involved in agricultural and rural development. A study for CTA in 1997 calculated that in Madagascar there are more than 2,000 NGOs and associations, with more than 600 in the capital Antananarivo alone. In Burkina Faso, there are more than 250 member organisations of the national service body for NGOs, plus an estimated 6,000 local development associations. Ethiopia counts about 280 registered NGOs, with more than 10% in agriculture. In some countries, legislation has been introduced to curb the potential excesses of foreign NGOs. In Madagascar, foreign NGOs ? defined by one or more members of the board being non-Malagasy ? are now accorded less security of tenure. In Uganda, the body for national agencies, the Development Network for Indigenous Associations (DENIVA) is proud to count 438 members ? with at least 50 involved in agriculture and food security. Such 'patriotic' positive discrimination has the compelling power of strengthening local institutions, but nonetheless often requires the complicity of sympathetic external funders who recognise that their role is to fund, and not to interfere ? these qualities are not always evident. Not by NGOs alone The traditional core of civil society has been overshadowed by the recent dominance of NGOs, and the broader picture is only now shining through. In 'The Emerging Role of Civil Society', Bruce Shearer excitedly describes how 'new elements of civil society have emerged with unparalleled rapidity and energy in nations throughout Latin America, Africa, Asia/Pacific and the Middle East They build upon and add to the already present political parties, labour unions, workers' cooperatives, business associations, membership organisations and religious bodies. They include hundreds of thousands of informally organised local citizen's groups ? community associations, citizens' movements, social service clubs, savings clubs and advocacy networks ? alongside NGOs, and additional thousands of supportive institutions concerned with networking, financing and servicing.' New paradigms Many of the innovations in rural development and communication in ACP States are being developed across the broad sweep of civil society organisations (CSOs), and creating new synergies in the process. One such is the upsurge in rural radio stations, which have become a key vector for agricultural messages. In Uganda, rich in such radio, the new Ugandan National Farmers' Association, itself a vibrant membership body, has played a leading role in featuring broadcasts in its monthly journal, and in using radio to inform members. In Mali, the President seldom misses an opportunity to emphasise that his government is rooted in, and was swept to power by, a popular movement of CSOs which played an instrumental role in creating press freedom for citizen expression in the early 1990s. Similarly, the way that gender equity has been mainstreamed in the philosophy ? if not yet the practice ? of public and private sectors alike is largely thanks to the patient, relentless insistence of such women's groups as Jamaica's Sistren Collective or the journal Sister Namibia. Where many CSOs have been criticised from the outside as being problem-pointers rather than solution-seekers, they can, according to Hazel Henderson, a leading alternative futures thinker, 'quickly move to more positive and prescriptive agendas. They are often forced to innovate because existing institutions cannot respond to their proposals. For example, the Kenya-based Greenbelt Movement and India's Chipko movement were busy planting trees long before scientists studying climate change began advocating reforestation.' It is this innovative spirit ? often stimulated by a desperate shortage of resources ? that led to the emergence of networking as a new form of communication, first encapsulated by the Networking Institute in Massachusetts in the late 1970s. Basically the art ? or science ? of going as directly as possible to a source of knowledge you want to share, networking has now permeated much social behaviour in every country. Henderson: 'Because they can tap and organise information laterally ? across borders, corporate and government boundaries ? (CSOs) can rapidly synthesise overlooked and new information into new approaches and paradigms.' Many agricultural networks have been based on this simple philosophy, and on the availability of new forms of information exchange using computer linkages, and, latterly, the Internet (see pages 4-5). Say something accountable According to Malaysia's representative to the United Nations, Ambassador Razali Ismail, a leading figure in the dialogue between CSOs and the inter-governmental community, the telecommunications revolution has been the powerful engine of change in the relationship between NGOs and the United Nations: 'The breaking down of the states' monopoly on the collection and management of information leads to their relative decline while instantaneous access to information and the ability to use it provides non-state actors with knowledge. Knowledge is power and the ability to mobilise public opinion is to master the world.' Thus, in many instances, the telecommunications revolution has led governments to fear NGOs, to avoid having to deal with them, or to try to manage them, when they absolutely have to deal with them. Public bodies are indeed often reluctant to grant to NGOs the importance they so fixedly believe they deserve at policy level. This lies, often ironically, in their lack of accountability and representativity. Here the distinction between NGOs and Civil Society becomes crucial:many new NGOs are brazenly unrepresentative. Of the 12,000-plus NGOs registered at the Global Forum event at the 1992 Earth Summit on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro, several hundred were referred to by insiders as 'NGIs', or non-governmental individuals who had the money, but no mandate other than their own, to attend. The same applies, it must be said, to many NGOs in ACP States, which are blatant, albeit enterprising, one-man attempts to plug into donor funding systems (see box 1). The non-NGO areas of civil society can offer much more representativity. Community-based organisations can visibly demonstrate their support. Credit unions are one of the most vibrant forms of local community organisation in many countries ? Ghana alone counts 237 such bodies. Trade unions have a fundamental belief in genuine democracy, and are increasingly involved in global partnerships with employers to ensure best practice in development and environment approaches in the South. An example is the agreement between 'food giants' Nestlé and Danone, and the International Union of Foodworkers (IUF), which embraces workers in the food chain. Partnership building with CSOs is also a course opted for by many international bodies including the CTA, and the Consultative Group International Agricultural Research (CGIAR). The latter has spoken openly of the critical stance taken by many CSOs towards agricultural research priorities in, for example, biotechnology, the need for dialogue on this, and the challenge this poses. See me, feel me, count me Accountability and transparency are the two key issues in the process of CSOs being taken seriously as partners in governance by the public sector. Not that the political will is totally lacking: at national levels, several governments accept their role in formal bodies, such as in Senegal and South Africa. In the Chamber of Representatives of Burkina Faso, about 30 of the approximately 150 seats are allocated to CSOs from various special interests (see Viewpoint, page 11). Regionally, CSOs are becoming involved in the decision-making processes of the UN Economic Commission for Africa, through its Regional Centre on Governance, and in the Greater Caribbean Basin Forum of Civic Society. At world level, the Commission on Global Governance presented a plea in 1997 to the United Nations 'to reassess the relationship between the UN and the growing world-wide array of organised non-state activity.' The UN Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, responded by calling on CSOs to organise a Millennium Conference or Civil Society Forum. Various initiatives to do so have foundered on lack of finance. Part of the transparency of civil society has to come from demonstrating its financial autonomy, and in many ACP States this is indeed hard to achieve. Dependency on external funding is not a convincing argument for the independence of a message. One way ahead is for CSOs, as well as being visibly accountable to a constituency, to metamorphose into 'social enterprise'. Here business principles are applied to income-generating activities, such as sound credit programmes, or publishing, or Internet services, or food processing and exports, which are used to fund the non-financial side of the organisation. At this level, partnerships with the for-profit private sector can be fruitful. With leaders from CSOs, many from the agricultural sector, expected to find their way into national and global governance in the coming decade, maybe the axis that demands most attention ? and contains most financial and social rewards ? is between the Merchant and the Citizen. 1 See: Civil Society: Challenging Western Models, ed. By C. Hann and E. Dunn, Routledge, London, 1996. For more information: CIVICUS World Conference, September 1999. CIVICUS, World Alliance for Citizen Participation, 919 18th Street NW, Third Floor, Washington, DC 20006, USA. Fax: +1 202 3318518. Email: http://www.agricta.org/Sporefirstname.lastname@example.org. Website: http://www.civicus.org/ 'Civil Society Toolbox', by Richard Holloway. PACT, 1901 Penn Avenue NW, 5th Floor, Washington, DC 20006, USA. Fax: +1 202 466 5669. Email: http://www.agricta.org/Sporeemail@example.com. Website: http://www.pactworld.org/ Reading: Alternative financing of third world development organisations and NGOs (vol. I). F Vincent. CTA/IRED, 1995, ISBN 2 88368 005 1, 444 pp. CTA no. 682, 40 credit points Alternative financing of third world development organisations and NGOs (vol. II) F Vincent. CTA/IRED, 1995, ISBN 2 88368 006 X, 300 pp. CTA no. 702, 20 credit points See also: Viewpoint page 11, and 'Straight-talking farmers' in News in Brief, page 7.
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