The relationship between governments and civil society organizations has always been fraught with tension in Africa, and increasingly in Ghana CSOs are viewed with great suspicion when their pronouncements seem to be critical of governments.
But what are these organizations which encompass such a wide variety of activities, service providers, research and advocacy, support and assistance, self-help, and common interest and intermediary bodies? They operate in a huge span of sectors – from education, health, and housing to community safety and employment and enterprise projects.
Many of these are specific to particular localities and defined areas of activity but some of them are national in orientation and general in the way they operate.
They are essentially private organizations by ownership, but because they are not for profit, they are generally termed third-sector organizations, to differentiate them from private commercial organizations which occupy the first sector and government bureaucratic or commercial agencies, which are normally referred to as the second sector.
Ear to the ground
In some countries, they are known as civil society organizations because they are essentially voluntary agencies working for the social good of an area or sector or for the country. In Africa, however, they are generally known as non-governmental organizations to distinguish them from the activities of the government.
These organizations assist both the private sector and the government in promoting development because they deal with social issues which are too specialist for local authorities to deal with using a one-size-fits-all approach, or are not profitable enough for the private sector to profit from. Civil society organizations are supposed to know the community more intimately and are tuned to their needs and wants.
Their involvement means that they get instant feedback on what is happening in each area. Above all, CSOs recognize that the statutory power of governments is constrained by resources available to do all the good work that must be done in deprived parts of our peri-urban, rural, and inner-city areas.
In my article Five things to change Africa: what can we get right in this coming decade? I suggested that if we cannot mobilize our communities, we will never be strong players in the development stakes internationally.
Economic development takes place when there is an enabling environment at the local level. And the fact remains, wherever one goes, that the strength of communities is determined invariably by the strength of community organizations that serve them. Up-growth is more sustainable than the top-down imposition of growth strategies.
At the heart of economic development is this truism that it is only when products are competitive in local markets that they achieve success at the international level unless we want to continue exporting commodities and importing high-value products which we cannot produce ourselves.
It is difficult to understand why governments in Africa welcome foreign and multinational non-governmental and civil society organizations as development partners. Why has not much thought been put into developing our community and voluntary sector when that is the first stage of mobilizing the community to provide for social benefits to take care of their own?
There are added benefits of economic activity which supplement what would normally be generated. There are also political benefits of people being organized formally in groups at the local level, thus providing the core of good citizenship that we crave in our country.
For community groups and CSOs to fulfil their rightful role in supplementing the government and private sector as a basis of development, it is important to identify and grasp the characteristics of these kinds of CSOs, understand the dynamics which determine how they operate and find out what their needs are and how these can be met within a framework of registration, recognition, representation and regulation.
Such organizations will work better than the numerous quasi-governmental projects that are almost always a source of corruption and ineptitude, which leads governments to think they cannot fix the country.
I remember how, once when I came home to Ghana on a visit, bearing a proposal for how we can strengthen the community and voluntary sector, a government minister told me that the government was working with high officials at the International Labour Organisation to do all the development work. When I persisted in pressing my case, he told me, in the crudest Ga that he could muster – “Kɛ oohɔŋ o kɔmi ni ŋkɛɛ ŋheɛ, obaa teshi ni oya blɛoo” – to wit, “If you are selling your kenkey and I tell you that I won’t buy, you should just walk away quietly and leave me.”
And yes, I just remembered that a study in England by Demos – Change Within, on the role of these community, voluntary and civil society organizations – described them in a positive way, as fixers, catalysts, brokers, advocates and campaigners.
So, perhaps, if the government cannot and will not fix the country, we might as well turn the country over to these CSOs whose heart is always in the right place.
June 2021, England
Owula Ade Sawyerr is a writer, social activist, and founder partner of Equinox Consulting, which works to develop inner-city and minority communities in Britain. He comments on economic, political, and social affairs and is a past chairman of the UK branch of the Convention People’s Party.