Sunday, February 8, 2015

Time to re-imagine the role of civil society

Africa’s civil society has a crisis of legitimacy. They are perceived as “unelected, unaccountable institutions that answer to elswhere”. In an editorial published Novermber 26, 2013, the Daily Nation observerd that “if some NGOs behave as if they are acting at the behest of foreigners, then they cannot expect easy accommodation by governments”.

However, the emergence of fundemental freedoms, especially the expansion of democratic space in post colonial Africa, is largely attributed to strong civil society organizations. Twenty five years later, civil society groups are linked to terror, radicalization of the youth and schemes to destabalize the state. Moreover, there is a growing trend among African states to constrain the ability of civil society organizations to access foreign funding.

The idea of civil society emerged in the eighteenth century Europe as philosophers and historians sought to come to terms with the capitalist modernity. The emerging market economy was perceived to be bursting the state’s integument of unbridled capitalist accumulation. Enlightenment thinkers believed that it was civil society, the pressure of its public opinion, which determined how free, efficient and honest a market would emerge.

Scottish thinker, Adam Fergerson, thought of civil society as an alternative both to the state of nature and the heightened individulism of capitalism. German philosopher Friedrich Hagel, argued that civil society needed to be balanced and ordered by the state, otherwise it be consumed by self interest and would not contribute to the common good. French political thinker Alexis De Tocqueville argued that volunteerism, a sense of community spirit and independent associational life as protections against the domination of society by state, was a counterbalance to keep the state effective and accountable.

The idea of civil society, rooted in the Elightenment, was forgotten and re-emerged in the 1980s, given contemporary relevance by Czech teachers, writers, and journalist, shipyard workers and the intellectuals of Poland’s Solidarity. Inside these covert institutions blossomed the liberating energies that led to fall of the Berlin Wall and fueled revolutions in Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Poland and Romania in 1989.

Inspired by De Tocqueville’s idea of civil society and emboldened by the triumph of civil rights moverments in Eastern Europe and the end of the cold war, Africa’s nascent civil society organizations enabled the emergence of democracy in the 1990s. However, it is now widely perceived that the civil society is in trouble with Africa’s political class. Prescriptive universalism, the idea that civil society in Africa is a good thing and must be nurtured is becoming increasingly doubtful.  

Is there a place for civil society in 21st Century Africa? If there is, what kind of civil society and for what purpose?
Africa in the 21st century is different, it is a new Africa: buoyed by the Africa rising narrative; entranced by sovereignty and a spirit of Africa can do; inspired by China’s economic model and its growing influence in Africa; a self-possessed African Union, exasperated by perceived selective persecution of Africa’s leaders by institutions like the International Criminal Court. Moreover, we must deal with the fact that civil society in Africa is dominated by a legion of development NGOs funded by foreign donors. These NGO are large transnational organizations, which are seen as institutions of transnational governmentality, and are capable of challenging state legitimacy and undermining national sovereignty.

A new Africa defines the perfect condition for the emergence of a new, uniquely African civil society. Strong African economies, with vehement sovereignty claims could enable the emergence of strong and legitimate states. This will cause expectations of the state to rise, with citizens demanding better health and education, economic equality, more accountable political leadership and transparent governance. Capable, homegrown civil society organizations must emerge as a counterbalance to keep the state effective and accountable.

A uniquely African civil society space must be a platform for mobilizing voluntary associations for public purpose. A uniquely African civil society space could be the guardian of the ‘national development ideology’. State capitalism or private sector driven models currently favored by African leaders could degenerate into autocratic populism unless Africa’s civil society is vigilant and engaged to entrench fundamental freedoms and rights, while ensuring equitable distribution of economic growth. Civil society must re-invent itself. It can’t be business as usual.    


Kenya’s Public Benefit Organizations Act recognizes the role of civil society in supporting socio-economic development, building social cohesion and promoting democracy. These must not be empty words.  

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