African Governments, NGOs & Civil Society: A Crisis of Legitimacy?

[Crosslinked with Bertelsmann Stiftung – Future Challenges Organization’s Blog]

In April, the Columbia Journalism Review raised the question of whether non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in Africa benefit from particular representations of the continent as conflict and poverty-ridden.

„Yet US journalism continues to portray a continent of unending horrors. Last June, for example, Time magazine published graphic pictures of a naked woman from Sierra Leone dying in childbirth… Reinforcing the sense of economic misery, between May and September 2010 the ten most-read US newspapers and magazines carried 245 articles mentioning poverty in Africa, but only five mentioning gross domestic product growth.“

The recent coverage of the famine in East Africa, while warranted, is profitable to NGOs. The influx of aid monies and resources allows NGOs to proliferate in the region. In Ethiopiain 1984, the outpouring of food aid in Ethiopia was not generally accompanied by concrete efforts to bolster local food security or conserve local water sources. Neither the government nor the private sector made substantive action to stop drought and desertification. The government, entrenched in civil war, instead diverted resources toward the military, rather than toward the threat of famine. For this reason, the United States chose to give less aid to the Ethiopian government, instead giving that aid to Sudan, which had less need. In fact, of the monetary aid given to Ethiopia to address the 1984-85 famine, millions of dollars were used to traffic weapons into the country.

“Another man claiming to be a senior commander, Aregawi Berhe, said that “95 per cent” of the $100 million given to buy food was diverted to purchase weapons or to boost the rebels’ cause.”

Alex De Waal, in his book entitled “Famine Crimes: Politics and the Disaster Industry in Africa” argued that some African governments, Ethiopia’s included, dodged their responsibility to implement famine-prevention measures because they require a socio-political contract between the government and civil society that allows citizens to hold governments accountable for famine. What happened instead was that governments through inaction and acceptance of foreign aid, ceded that responsibility to NGOs and “foreign technical experts” with a narrower definition of social responsibility and far less vested interest in the well-being of citizens. With this thesis, De Waal questioned the necessity and effectiveness of much of the humanitarian activity on the African continent.

The de-emphasis of what has been accomplished in favor of what remains to be done is a pragmatic focus for NGOs, but it casts a myopic gaze upon Africa. In the last sixty years, well over a trillion dollars of ‚development aid‘ has been transferred from the „West“ to African nations. Fact is: this aid is not free. Donor dependency, corruption and lack of incentive for governments to govern well and efficiently are all costs of aid.

Is this to say that aid cannot be beneficial? No. Historically, Germany was re-developed post-World War II through the Marshall Plan, $13 billion (about 1.1 trillion in 2011 US Dollars) of monetary and technical aid. However, Germany was already industrialized. In Africa, a trillion in development aid follows decades of colonialism and extraction economies designed to benefit the colonizer. Extraction economies were purposed to be supplemental and secondary to Western nations. Post-colonial economies in Africa often retained the same orientation. In 2005, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) published a working paper entitled “Aid Will Not Lift Growth in Africa.“ Shortly after, an editorial notewas published noting that this was not the IMF‘s official position on aid in Africa.

So what does this have to do with non-governmental organizations and civil society? The interaction between NGOs and civil society can undermine the government’s legitimacy. Political science and development theory both argue that governments- particularly African governments- derive their legitimacy from their ability to provide essential public goods and services to the citizenry. So long as NGOs serve a supplementary role, governments don’t face a loss of legitimacy. Moreoever, the question of NGOs’ legitimacy comes up. In 2003,Alliance Sud asked “Do NGOs Have a Problem of Legitimacy?” They are certainly not elected by the people that they serve (nor is being an elected official a guarantee).

Are NGOs an intermediary between the citizenry and the governments? Generally, no, they are not. Many NGOs are supranational and international, beholden to the interests of a group or organization outside of the countries in which they are operating. Even domestic NGOs can have their own agendas. But NGOs can foster democratic participation in civil society. So now we ask, how can we foster communication and transparency between NGOs and governments? The answer depends heavily upon the political climate. In an authoritarian regime, transparency is unlikely. Similarly, if a government is weak and given to brutality, neither communication nor transparency are likely. In the last 20 years, there have been examples of African governments conflicting with NGOs. In 1987, the Ugandan government banned the use of radios by NGOs for cross-country communication in order to inhibit their proliferation within national borders. Two years later, Uganda’s legislature placed NGOs under the umbrella of the internal security secretariat, thus enabling greater communication and accountability.

Non-governmental organizations may well be in competition with African governments as they provide goods and services that the governments do not. As NGOs step in and fill the gaps with their foreign-funded resources and growing presence and capacities, the legitimacy of aid-recipient states is called into question. It is incorrect to suppose that NGOs cause antipathy on the part of civil society toward governments. Also, it is incorrect to state that all NGOs undermine the governments of the nations in which they serve.

Arguably, the legitimacy crisis of NGOs is in tandem to the legitimacy crisis of African governments. Because the provision of public goods and resources is part of the socio-political contract between the government and civil society, NGOs do risk undermining the legitimacy of the government. On the flip side, the legitimacy of foreign-funded NGOs comes under question when the interests of their international and surpranational funders conflict with national interests.

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