#TA10 Blog Series

Looking back, Looking ahead: African Philanthropy for Socio-Economic and Political Justice in the 21st Century

Re-imagining Agency: Lessons on Civil Society

Re-imagining Agency: Lessons on Civil Society

The continent has in the past three decades gone through what we commonly refer to as the ‘winds of change’- shorthand for the transitions from one party state and military dictatorships to multi-party political systems. Although the ‘winds of change’ specifically referred to changes within the political systems we also experienced these winds within the socio-economic space through the adoption of structural adjustment programs which literally marked the end of any romantic notions of socialism but instead saw most of us adopting market oriented reforms.

The African political and socio-economic landscape was at the time undergoing significant change driven by ordinary citizens in social movements and organized formations such as trade unions. Despite the significant and seemingly citizen driven change in the regions one could still notice that there was a missing piece in the equation, a thriving civil society based set of institutions working to mediate the rapid changes taking place within the continent. Although our continent was and remains very associational in nature, we did not have an adequate infrastructure to respond to the complex challenges that attempts at democratisation and economic liberalisation were about to throw at us. All of a sudden we had new society-wide obligations and responsibilities - for instance around civic education - to ensure that democracy can be entrenched beyond political elite-talk into a lived reality. We had to concern ourselves with how to organize elections - hence we developed new lingo, voter-education and election monitoring. The sitting government could not be trusted to deal with this responsibility alone thus citizens had to organize themselves to provide an oversight role. We also needed watchdog-like non-state organisations that could defend ‘human rights’ and also ensure that state excesses are curtailed.  Although we had democratized we learnt through the experiences of others that state-based political elites could not be trusted with power without an adequate countervailing force. In the socio-economic space, the African state after embarking on structural adjustment programs had to withdraw from the provision of public goods given the perceptions that it was inefficient and too bureaucratic to deliver development. We had to think of new ways of re-organizing the delivery of public goods such as education, health, sanitation etc and also dealing with new problems such rapid urbanization.

Although there are many actors within what can broadly be called civil society[1], it was the emergence of a thriving NGO sector that was both spectacular and significant in many ways. It gave us hope and a new way of doing things and also hope that citizen based formations can respond to the new challenges.  Despite the newness of NGOs[2] and in many instances their small size, we welcomed them as a possible facilitators of engagement and also for creating new opportunities for engaging with the state.

When TrustAfrica was established in 2006 we were fortunate enough to find a nascent but very active NGO driven civil society spread unevenly across Africa. We committed ourselves to working alongside a broad movement comprising of NGOs, membership associations and unions, policy oriented think-tanks and other grant-making institutions. We saw civil society as the arena in which the rights of citizens will be defended, power disciplined and the power of markets will be limited - this will be the place where history would be made. 

Our Partners on the Continent

We have mostly worked with civil society based partners who are NGOs, networks of NGOs, membership based associations/unions and also university based researchers. Our contact with governments has however been very limited. We had a very successful collaboration with the government of Senegal over the hosting of the Higher Education Summit and have also worked with a number of government based investment promotion agencies - but we are mostly a civil society focused foundation.

When we began operations, civil society based organisations were at different stages of maturation and sophistication in terms of their programs and even their levels of engagement with governments. We were very clear from the onset that we would be focusing on ensuring policy improvements to achieve the twin goals of democracy and development. We recognised indepdence had been achieved at a high cost on the basis of a desire to establish political authority- ‘seek ye the political kingdom’ and the rest will follow but we realized that there was with the two stage theory-for us both democracy and development could be accomplished simulateneously (why not). In the same vien we also made a commitment that we would consult widely and our priorities would be informed by what the citizens of Africa identified as the most pressing challenge..

As already noted in the first blog post we have processed more than 500 grants- and it is through the process of grant-making that we have learn many valuable lessons. One of the lessons has been that its not  about the actual amount disbursed but instead the creative idea/solution being pursued. A number of our partners have used some of the smallest grants to produce amazing results and also to leverage new  resources. . Whilst our role has always been to go beyond just issuing a grant but literally walking with partners through processes of co-creation, we have also been amazed at how some of our partners have reciprocated by opening doors for us in spaces where we had not made in-roads.

In 2011 we began an initiative aimed at ensuring the reduction of crimes of impunity and that perpetrators of political violence are brought to book. Initially we were condemned for being supporting the International Criminal Court’s investigations and prosecutions which were at the time seen as only directed towards African leaders but I am glad to note that together with our partners working in Uganda, Kenya and Ivory Coast we have managed to turn the debate to focus on victims’ rights and we are beginning to see policy traction in those countries. The recent trial of Hissene Habré here in Dakar, which we fully endorse, will hopefully contribute towards increased confidence in African initiatives.  

The majority of the changes we are seeing in areas such as smallholder agriculture in Ghana and Malawi are mostly due to partners who have literally gone beyond the call of duty to ensure that governments remain accountable to their citizens in terms of their fiscal allocations. The emerging consensus on Illicit financial flows as one of the biggest drivers of social and economic injustice also derives from the brave work of our partners. When we ventured into the arena of fighting against illicit financial flows in 2013, there were no African groups on this issue (at least to our knowledge). We give credit to our partners who have made sure that most of the domestic resource mobilisation processes officially recognize IFFs as an issue requiring urgent tackling.      

Challenges in Development Practice

However, it’s not all rosy in the sector, and here I will provide 5 of the key challenges we and our partners have been grappling with. One of the early observations that we made had to do with what I call the ‘myth of civil society in Africa’. Civil Society is not a silver bullet towards addressing many of the challenges that the continent confronts for many reasons. First, there is an inadequate and uneven supply of civil society based organisation across the continent. Organisations in this space are uneven in terms of their capacities and influence. At the risk of over-generalization, we have actually found that Anglophone countries tend to have stronger formalized CSOs than Francophone countries. Interestingly, we have also come to the realization that Francophone countries tend to produce strong social movements that are not necessarily supported/nurtured by philanthropy. Raising questions, which are not the subject of this post, on whether philanthropy disciplines social and political action into more civil forms of social action and in the process inhibits the emergence of radical actors such as social movements.

Secondly, the proliferation of local non-state institutions with policy research capacity has not yet made an impact on policy making. There currently exists a disconnect between the policy making process and the considerable base that civil society baed policy researchers are producing – i.e. when decision makers formulate policies, they do not make full use of research findings generated in Africa by non-state actors. The envisaged synergies between NGO based policy research organisations and governments’ policymaking processes are in many ways yet to emerge.

Thirdly, we have also come to realize that civil society based responses to government’s weak policies can at times be also inadequate, very formulaic and quite frankly, at times they do not create viable options to the big picture/systemic issues. The continent has recently gone through the budget literacy campaigns moment - where, especially in the women’s lobby groups the demand was that we needed gender sensitive budgets. This was immediately followed up by the percentage movement, 15% for Education, 10% for Agriculture etc. In the process Africa was losing close to US$60billion through illicit financial flows and very few in civil society were talking about this. Instead we were all busy fighting over the bread crumbs and in other countries such as Malawi, Lesotho and Tanzania - because of their significant dependence on direct budgetary support - endorsing donor based prescriptions. Civil society can miss important systemic issues - very few groups are still rooted in the Political Economy approach, which potentially contribute towards understanding the unjust manner in which Africa is inserted into the global economy.      

Fourth we quickly came to realize that one of the challenges confronting civil society (not only in Africa) were the silos that had developed around how organisations positioned themselves, were perceived and also quite frankly the implicit but widely acknowledged competition for financial support that discouraged a more collective approach to solving public issues. There were (are) many layers of silos within the space, starting from the boundaries that are established by thematic areas of work - where you will find organisations or networks focused on single issue such as a particular type of human rights vis a vis other human rights. There is also the policy reform/ advocacy and service delivery division, then the division between think-tanks vs the advocates of change. There are silos to do with the geographic area of focus regional focused vs national focused formations. The list goes on. These silos are not natural but overtime they have become a normal form of organizing within the formal civic space and to be fair there is logic to it. Certain expert skills such as legal minds in human rights would find themselves comfortable being engaged within organisations pursuing similar goals. The more professional the space becomes the more silos we will see.  The manner in which the World Social Forum and the different sub-regional forums were organized was an attemptto break the silos by bringing together actors focused on progressive social change into a single conversation characterized by multiple-narratives.

And lastly, the lack of/ limited connection between the organisations being supported and the communities that they meant to serve. The era of the concerned community organizer starting a movement around an issue such as safer streets for girls is slowly being replaced by the more sophisticated approach that starts off with offices before creating a connection with the community. In fact, community based organisations have rarely featured as a big constituency of our grant-making process - maybe because we are pitching change at a policy level which requires certain expert skills. 

Living and Working Around Silos: Fostering Collaboration

For a young grant making institution like ourselves, the silos actually made sense - they helped us to navigate the space. To be fair even larger foundations have sort of organized themselves within certain thematic silos or activities and making a shift has not been easy for many. Initially our internal organisation mimicked these rigid silos without questioning their logic and also the limitations therein. Silos in themselves are not a problem - they provide a more coherent logic of resource allocation, impact measurement etc. However, we also live in a complex world with systemic challenges and silver bullet approaches have most of the times failed to achieve desired change leading others to question if indeed the non-profit sector (especially philanthropy supported NGOs) can make a difference.

Some of things have to change if we are ever going to see continent-wide transformation. We are in the process of positioning ourselves  as a boundary spanning organization, so first we acknowledge that silos do exist and we devise approaches to break down those boundaries by ensuring that sufficient connections and synergies are created at many layers of interaction. We have also tried as much as we could to ensure that rather than focus on a single organisation we help create and nurture movements that exist within the country of focus and also nurture and create thematic connections across the continent. In the process we are hoping to see the emergence of movements that are not single-issue focused but those that can help to create a connection - for example, between access to higher education, youth unemployment and the business environment.  Such an approach demands a re-orientation internally by breaking our own silos to see the whole first, before the parts – it’s not easy but it’s happening.

Our bet is still on civil society based organisations as the arena of change where eventually history will be made, but we do not claim to have all the solutions. We realize the limitations of a grants only approach, and we have devised a more comprehensive suite of tools that we will deploy as an attempt to ensure that civil society is on the frontline of change for social, economic and political justice. Beyond these tools, a conversation needs to take place within civil society itself on what is required of the sector to reposition itself as a legitimate frontline actor for change.  


[1] We subscribe to Hegel’s description of the main features of civil society as composed of intermediate or mediating institutions between an individual and a state, the absence or lack of which leads to despotism.   

[2] For the record NGOs have been active Africa since the 1950s but had mostly played a peripheral welfare room, however in the new dispensation they had to take a more prominent role in both service delivery and also advocacy.

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