In the recent past, the relationship between government and a section of non-government organisations (NGOs) and the clergy has been getting sour with some political commentators accusing the latter of engaging in politics and going beyond their mandate.
Last year, five NGOs - Actionaid Uganda, GLISS, The Uhuru Institute, Public Affairs Centre and Action Alliance that were critical of the removal of Article 102(b) in the Constitution, had their operations halted, accounts frozen and some of their staff arrested by police for what the Force considered as subversive actions.
However, such accusations reveal a dire misconception of what constitutes politics and the fundamental role civil society should and has historically played in political processes world over.
There is a false and disturbing notion that civil society should not engage in political discourse, but should instead focus on delivering social services on behalf of government. It is a common among government officials to describe the role of civil society as ‘supplementing’ government efforts. They believe civil society’s work is to drill boreholes, build schools, distribute mosquito nets, and provide agricultural inputs, among others.
Yes, many NGOs continue to provide such services even when they are aware of the inadequacies, yet CSOs look beyond provision of services. True, such hardware from civil society is necessary, but not sufficient to heal the causes of poverty in a sustainable manner.
To many ideologically astute organisations, our programming is informed by the understanding that poverty is not only about individual deficiencies, but also a consequence of abuse and misuse of power by those in authority right from the household, community, nation and beyond.
For example, when power is abused, we see domestic violence in homes, resources allocated for less vital priorities, corruption, nepotism, inequality, failure to deliver services, self-aggrandisement, failed institutions, and unaccountable leadership, among other evils.
It is this notion that shapes the philosophy of many organisations such as ActionAid Uganda, which believes that ending poverty is not possible unless those with power and authority use it to better society and not for selfish interests.
Ending poverty will only be possible if people facing oppression and injustice are able to organise and use their power individually or collectively hold their leaders accountable.
CSO’s approach is, therefore, to check, monitor, and restrain abuse and misuse of power by political leaders, corporates and public officials in order to promote an accountable leadership that is responsive to the aspirations of citizens.
Since CSOs work to challenge power, our work is essentially political though not partisan. The accusations against our work are, therefore, unjustified in any State that upholds the principles of democracy and good governance.
The recent attack on civil society is just a growing culture of intolerance of dissenting views propagated by sections of political actors who seek to control peoples’ dissent for their selfish interests.
There are efforts being made to blackmail and delegitimise civil society as agents of foreign forces. A number of laws and administrative barriers are being used to curtail space for civil society.
Some of the legislation in place to curtail space for civil society include the NGO Act, 2016, the Public Order and Management Act, 2013, the Penal Code Act (Cap 120), sections of the Police Act, the Press and Journalists Act (Cap105), and the Press and Journalists (Amendment) Act (2010), among others.
A number of civil society actors are increasingly finding it difficult to engage in policy processes because a section of political leaders and government officials perceive them as enemies of the State.
Unfortunately, barring civil society from undertaking their activities, closing them on policy processes, gangs breaking into their offices or using the hand of the law to arbitrary prevent them from organising themselves will only widen the gap between the State and citizens. Government needs to recognise that society building is a shared responsibility and must facilitate civil society as an essential development partner.
As Ban Ki Moon, a former UN secretary observed: “If leaders don’t listen to their people, they will hear from them in the streets, the squares, or as we see far too often, on the battle field. There is a better way - more participation, more democracy, more engagement and openness. That means maximum space for civil society.”
Mr Kawooya is the manager policy, advocacy and campaigns at ActionAid Uganda. Fredrick.Kawooya@actionaid.org