It is not surprising that the Civil Society Organisations (CSO) fair has become one of the biggest annual events in Uganda where NGOs and other civil society groups showcase their products to the local, regional and international community. Last week, I described what a CSO fair looks like here in Uganda to an Ethiopian government officer based in Addis Ababa. And his reaction neither surprised me nor shocked me; he asked what there is for civil society to show case. “Is it the signed ‘transport refund’ lists or is it the academic non-practical publications that they spend their energies working on? How do they showcase ‘workshops’? May be you are talking about showcasing the huge 4X4 gas guzzling automobiles that their employees ride in”. He grinned after interjecting in a conversation that I thought was too serious to attract such presumptuous interposes.
Anyhow, just like him, many other folks think there is really northing to exhibit about the work of civil society. That mindset is not only wrong but too generic and (again) very inaccurate.
Recently, a fascinating initiative where civil society organizations are playing a lead role in building public-private partnerships in development interventions was unveiled. When (not if) this initiative takes off fully, it will bring together local, national and international partners in galvanizing the latent economic potential that Uganda has. It bears the capacity of provoking holistic coordinated progress stretching beyond just the economic borders to the social and political territories. In short, civil society groups (call them NGOs if you want) have a universal positive role in a cross-section of sectors in Uganda.
In that respect, it should not be a painful procedure to appreciate the contribution of civil society to the development paradigm in any society. It should not be such a big deal to recognize that if for instance NGOs were non-existent in Uganda some of key sectors including health, education, agriculture, energy, environment, security, trade and commerce, among others would either be terribly limping or non-existent at worst. Let’s face it, let’s give credit where it is due; hadn’t it been for some of the civil society campaigns such as the Black Monday Movement, corruption would by now be a regularized occurrence as it was in the first decade of 2000 AD here in Uganda. Had it not been for the on-going collective civil society effort to contest the thinning political space, may be by now it would officially be deemed unrighteous to use (or think about) concepts like democracy, human rights, good governance and the like.
Well, I am not saying that Ugandan civil society has turned the country round, but all I am saying is that its impact cannot be merely defined narrowly along the lines of ‘workshops’, ‘service delivery’, and ‘publications’ like some people contend. That is too limited a definition of civil society work and impact.
The contribution of NGOs enormous as it is should however not be used to as a scapegoat to undertake interventions not aligned with national development planning and prioritization. This also means, beyond the national level efforts to breed civil society-public sector partnerships, civil society organisations together with government must push for local (district-based) advisory committees that include representatives of government, planning authorities, private sector and civil society organizations in each of the districts (I mean the original districts of Uganda not the multitude 112). This will further hone the strength that civil society organizations have especially when it comes to mobilising both the public and private sector to reach out to and support in deprived sectors at lower levels even under the strict environment within which they operate. That strength should not be feared but respected!
At this year’s civil society fair, I am looking forward to hearing how government is planning to support civil society to bud, and bud freely. It is called mutual support, mutual respect – based on trust!