The Uses and Abuses of Civil Society in Africa
Author: Julie Hearn
Size: 11 pages (936 kB)
What are the implications of the development paradigm that aims to bring civil society into a closer relationship with the state? This article argues that donor influence in Ghana, South Africa and Uganda during the late 1990s resulted in a vocal, well-funded civil society that builds societal consensus for the state's development strategy. The development agenda of 'partnership', in which civil society organisations work closely with 'participatory and accountable governments', undermines autonomy and can contribute to civil society in Africa helping to stabilise rather than challenge the social and political status quo.
Autonomy – keeping a critical distance from the state – is an important, but frequently sidelined, feature of civil society. Although civil society in each case study responds to the specific political and economic context of the country in question, it promotes 'adjustment to poverty' across all three countries, 'selling' to citizens austerity without development. For example, in South Africa it is involved in convincing people not to equate democracy with expectations for a better standard of living, and in Uganda it focuses on 'living within one's means'.
Ghana is currently undertaking an ambitious economic restructuring programme in an effort to transform itself into a middle-income country by the year 2020. Instead of civil society being a hindrance to economic reform, as has been the case in the past, it is seen by donors as able to help broaden support for the economic reform process. Development assistance to Ghana is now explicitly oriented towards ensuring increased local legitimacy for current national development strategies, by bringing civil society into the economic policy process.
In South Africa, civil society organisations have changed the debate on democracy, ensuring that democracy in the new South Africa is about effective system maintenance rather than reconstructing the social order. The residual belief in social democracy has been eroded and replaced by the norms and practice of procedural democracy. The North has played a role in this process by funding the liberal proponents of procedural democracy in civil society. This has facilitated a newly legitimised South African state that presides over the same intensely exploitative economic system as in the past, but this time without a well-mobilised opposition.
Throughout the 1980s and 1990s in Uganda, civil society played an important role in 'filling the gaps' left by government in basic service provision. This model changed in the 1990s, when donors and government began to see the role of civil society as providing the service of 'accountability'. In this new paradigm, civil society organisations play an important role in ensuring that services are delivered efficiently and that the paradigm works. This kind of partnership blunts independent criticism and civil society organisations become implementers rather than critics.
The continued ideological appeal to partnership as a development model erodes the potential for civil society organisations to fundamentally challenge the status quo. This lack of independence does not apply to all organised interest groups, but:
Hearn, J., 2001, 'The Uses and Abuses of Civil Society in Africa', Review of African Political Economy, no. 87, pp. 43-54.