GUEST COLUMNIST: Civil society work shouldn’t be partisan

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In the recent past, the relationship between government and a section of non-government organisations (NGOs) and the clergy have been getting sour with some political commentators accusing the latter of engaging in politics and going overboard beyond their mandate.

Last year, five NGOs – Actionaid Uganda, GLISS, The Uhuru Institute, Public Affairs Centre and Action Alliance that were critical of the government over Article 102(b) had their operations halted, accounts frozen and some of their staff arrested by police for what they considered subversive actions. However, such accusations reveal a dire misconception of what constitutes politics and fundamental role Civil Society should and have historically played in political processes world over. There is a false and disturbing notion that civil society should not engage in political discourse, but rather focus on delivering social welfare services on behalf of government. It is a common phrase, therefore, among government officials to define the role of civil society as ‘supplementing’ government efforts. They believe our work is to drill boreholes, build schools, distribute mosquito nets, and agricultural inputs, among others.Yes, a number of NGOs continue to provide such services aware of the inadequacies at hand, but we look beyond services as an end in itself. With renewed understanding of poverty, such hardware from civil society is necessary, but not sufficient to heal the actual cause of any manifestation of poverty in a sustainable manner.

To many ideologically astute organisations, our programming is informed by the understanding that poverty is not merely about individual deficiencies, but rather a consequence of abuse and misuse of power by those with authority, right from household to community, national or international level. For example, when power is misused or abused, what we see is domestic violence in homes, resources allocated for less important priorities at all levels, corruption, nepotism, inequality, failure to deliver services, self-aggrandisement, failed institutions, unaccountable leadership among other evils all which result into poverty.It is this notion that shapes the philosophy of many organisations such as Actionaid Uganda, which believe that an end to poverty is possible only if those with power and authority, use it to better society and not for selfish interests.

We believe that an end to poverty is only possible if people living in oppression, or facing injustice are able to organise and use their power individually or collectively to hold their leaders accountable in the way they exercise their powers. Our approach is, therefore, to check, monitor, and restrain abuse and misuse of power by political leaders, corporates and State officials in order to promote an accountable leadership that is responsive to the aspirations of the citizens. Since we work to challenge power, our work is essentially political though not partisan. The accusations against our work are unjustifiable in any State that upholds the principles of democracy and good governance and is an indication of the accountability deficiency on Uganda government. The recent attack on civil society is just a growing culture of intolerance to dissenting views.

propagated by a section of political actors, who seek to control peoples’ dissent for their selfish interests.

There are efforts to blackmail and delegitimise civil society as an agent of foreign forces, and 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), 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 State officials perceive them as an enemy of the state.

Unfortunately, barring civil society from undertaking their activities, closing them on policy processes, facilitating gangs to break into their offices or using the hand of the law to arbitrary prevent civil society from organising will only widen the gap between the State and the 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, former UN Secretary General 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.