Part of the reasons for the emergence of Civil Society Organizations is the fact that governments over time had failed to perform their statutory functions of improving the livelihoods of their people through good governance rooted on the observance of human rights, engagement of people on issues that impinge on their daily lives, consultations to ensure participation in governance and accountability to the electorate, among others.
The realization that if development has to happen there has to be direct correlation with the above. The observance of the rule of law drags behind it a whole lot of positive outcomes that in themselves create the enabling peaceful environment under which people could embark on developmental activities.
Most African countries have had a kind of triple orientation: colonial domination characterized by the subservience of the colonized; the struggle or agitation for freedom, and the forging of ideological alliances with countries of the West and East… getting caught up dangling between communist and capitalist super powers.
The formation of neo-colonialist ties did not help the many developing countries to improve the lives of the poverty stricken compatriots who were marginalized to such an extent that they hardly understood what their governments were up to…no consultations and thus no participation in governance. At the time propaganda took the place of awareness raising and community animation.
Those were the times in Sierra Leone when the politicians pronounced every public building erected or physical structure completed was referred to as a complex and every meeting held or hosted by government was blown out of proportion and called a summit.
Although all civil Society organizations are virtually non-governmental organizations, not all non-governmental organizations are civil society organizations.
Described loosely, civil society is that realm of organized groups which have shared values and goals of forming the engagement bridge between the Government and the generality of the people excluding the market sector. The issue of who really constitute civil society some times draws quite a lot of controversy. Any delimitation needs also to identify who falls into the category of government. A sector that sometimes falls in the middle of the controversy is paramount chiefs and the rest of their retinue of local court staff. Traditional chiefs are supposed/were supposed to be on the side of their people. However with the change in the national power dynamics punctuated by the multiplicity of power brokers at district and chiefdom levels the whole picture has changed.
In a chiefdom which houses a city for example one could find an unending list of governance authorities like the mayor, paramount chief, town chief, section chief, Resident Minister, Provincial Secretary, Party chairmen and Secretaries, the AIG and influential business men. All these are somehow linked together by their political roles or links.
A very distinguishing mark of civil society is that its actions are guided by their taking sides with the poor, suppressed, and marginalized ordinary citizens who suffer the brunt of the ineptitude, mismanagement, corruption of state actors and duty bearers.
Now some NGOs do activities that address the needs of depraved people but some by outlook are partisan and therefore discriminatory in especially the choice of operational areas and beneficiaries. Civil Society on the other hand remains non-partisan, objective and is not fanatical about its political stand.
One thing needs to be stressed though that although civil society is non-partisan it does exercise its franchise but not in an overt and emotional manner. Civil Society’s objective stance gives it the respect and confidence to allow it to function effectively. This explains why most times civil society is called upon to broker peace and reconciliation because of their unbiased stand. I have advisedly avoided the use of the term “neutral.” Civil society is not neutral since it is always on the side of the people. It’s option is for the poor and down trodden. Citizens who suffer the twin squeeze of both the state actors and the market.
One interesting question is “Why is civil society and government often seen as strange bed fellows? Any government consciously practicing good governance should see civil society as a necessary component in the promotion of democratic ideals. The civil society merely gets state actors to account to the people who put them in power. It also helps the governed to understand the issues related to their livelihoods and empowers them to be able to do advocacy and demand the maintenance of their rights and accountability from those in governance. In many ways civil society also builds the capacity of state actors with a view to making them perform their duties in the best interest of the general good. By extension it keeps government on its toes… which is of great necessity today when poor African countries depend on donor funds provided by other countries’ tax payers.
One can imagine a country like Sierra Leone without a formidable civil society…surely many state actors will have a field day characterized by mismanagement, abuse of rights and the non-observance of the rule of law.
By S. Beny SAM