Uncomfortable questions for Zimbabwe civil society!

Uncomfortable questions for Zimbabwe civil society!

THABO MBEKIThe Observatory
IN the last few weeks we have looked at the post-election period in terms of how it will likely impact both ZANU-PF and MDC parties.
This week I am going to look at the civil society; which is a critical component for any democracy-seeking society.
Many of us will remember just how much outcry there was from civil society in being excluded from key political processes during the inclusive government.
Some civil society organisations had even tried to claim space at the Global Political Agreement negotiation table, ultimately blaming Thabo Mbeki for playing what they termed “exclusionist” politics.
The next five years are going to be defining for civil society. This phase will test the capacity of civil society to self-reform and adapt to the new political climate.
It will also stretch civil society beyond the boundaries of luxury that the sector has enjoyed for some time.

I believe it is only those civil society organisations, able to strategically re-align themselves to the new terrain and pursue internal reformation, that will survive this coming period.
One of the greatest challenges that civil society will face is that of funding. In the last couple of years we have seen the mushrooming of civil society organisations with  much duplicity.
Just a scan of civil society organisations in the human rights, democracy, women, and youths sectors will reflect a range of organisations with so many of them fighting for the same space and  with very limited collaboration and cooperation.

We begin to question the wisdom of such proliferation. Is it based on need or is it a mere scramble for resources?
My understanding is that this multiplicity is also caused by the poor governance system prevailing in civil society in Zimbabwe.
Most civil society organisations, although purporting to represent and mandated by the ordinary citizens of the country, are actually entities owned and run by individuals.

We have spoken of a serious patronage system in politics in Zimbabwe, but civil society, which is meant to keep the politics in check, is itself swimming deep in the murky waters of patronage.
Looking through the management and board structures of most of the civil society organisations, the same individuals seem to emerge in all governance structures.
There is a clique of civil society leaders who have maintained a solid grip of the sector.

Many of these leaders have led their organisations for more than a decade, failing to replicate the leadership renewal that they are demanding from politicians.
Civil society has also failed to establish a representative foundation of the citizenry it claims to embody.
We have seen how most civil society organisations have lobbied and advocated on positions, which they claim to be beneficial to the citizens of the country, without due consultation of the citizenry.
Civil society has at times imposed its agenda and priorities, misrepresenting that as derived from citizenry input.

That is a glaring misrepresentation, which denotes a serious lack of both mandate and constituency.
At times I wonder if my poor old Muzarabani-based grandmother’s condition, status and needs are represented in civil society deliberations and the resolutions that form their advocacy pointers.
The failure to build a robust constituency-based mandate has led to civil society merely becoming elitist-driven and creating a sub-economy for individuals’ survival rather than serving the populace.
The other critical factor for Zimbabwean civil society is the donor factor.

We have also seen the scramble for donor funding in civil society. There are some civil society organisations that have become amphibious.
They transform their areas of focus based on where the greatest amounts of resources are being channelled.

Over time they have done so many things without being effective in any. Many of the donors who have pumped millions of dollars don’t seem to care about the governance and mandate issues I have highlighted.
Maybe that reflects on the perennial question of donor interests and their genuineness in socio-economic and political developments in countries such as Zimbabwe.

If these donors really did care, then their efforts would be expended more in ensuring that the primacy of the baseline of these civil society organisations is defined by profiling the needs of the citizenry.
Not only should they focus on that but also in how the leadership structures of the civil society organisations are themselves accountable to the citizenry.

It is one thing to expect civil society to hold government and State institutions to account when there is no internal accountability within.
It is one thing to expect civil society to mobilise citizens on progressive agendas when it specifically has no mandate from that citizenry.
It is however not all civil society organisations that are characterised by the flaws I have highlighted.

There are some that have played a critical role in ensuring that the voice of the citizen is both represented and heard.
There are some that have operated with an effective community-reach focus. Their governance structures have been transparent and able to infuse high levels of accountability within their operations.

It is however time that the civil society sector is cleaned up. Some theorists posit that whenever developing countries go through socio-economic and political challenges and conflicts, the civil society sector normally transforms into a sub-economy which effectively feeds the middle class and elites, while disenfranchising and misleading the poor and sub-structures of society.

Is this what Zimbabwe civil society has been of late? Other theorists allude to the point that in times of crises, some civil society organisations become mechanisms of sustaining the crises as their mere existence is at times justified on the prevalence and intensity of the crises.
Is there real intention by civil society to see the Zimbabwe political challenges fully resolved, or is it the fuel they need to continue being relevant?
It is time we start asking those uncomfortable questions about Zimbabwe’s civil society.


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  • gutter poet

    Interesting piece Allen but you seem to have lumped all civil society under one umbrella, the one political.There are others like you allude in your article who are doing fantastic work out there. Duplication of activities is a somewhat difficult one to manage as the donors for these bodies are also diverse as they are wide and this situation is not peculiar to Zimbabwe alone but world wide. Rather the civil society should also self introspect via their mother body to formulate guidelines on how they operate. It will therefore not be easy to find civil society that is representative of what the common man in the street wants rather they play an important role that of advocacy not prescription. Holding the current government to account is one area where one has to admit they have done well and the visibility for some is commendable..so hey instead of shooting them and kicking them in the face be clear where you would like to see them improve in the pursuit of their mandate. Not much is going to be gained by either you or them by blanket generalisations. Rather the press and the civil society should work together to hold public officers to account.

  • Tendekayi Machivenyika

    This is a very good analysis. What we should bear in mind however is that for these societies to function they need funding, and it is quite difficult to find someone who will give you money and allow you free will. This has been the undoing of some of these societies, because they end up with the script being written for them even if they started out with real causes. Some of them are even created to suit a certain script and they lose membership once people see that what they believe they should be fighting for is not what is really happening. In the end we have people who know where the funds are coming from, and how to get them, creating societies with different names and ‘fighting’ for different causes – you mentioned individuals cropping up at the top of most civil societies.
    Maybe what we need are our own grassroots people with money, people who know what we want and what we need, to fund some of the these civil societies. At the moment we rely on foreign donors who have their own beliefs of what should be on the ground (our ground), the so-called development partners. At this rate all we are doing is running around in circles, getting money from abroad to blame each other for this and the other while the few who are in the know keep getting rich at our expense. There are those who have succeeded, yes but are we happy with this rate of success? As Africans we need our own home grown philanthropists, people we can identify with. Otherwise thanks for the article, this really needed to be said.

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