By Andrew Mwenda
Police recently raided the offices of some Non-government Organisations (NGOs) including Action Aid Uganda and Great Lakes Institute for Strategic Studies (GLISS) and froze their accounts. The government accuses them of funding a campaign against the amendment of the constitution to remove age limits. Many Ugandans feel sympathetic to these NGOs. Yet, if the accusations against them are true, the government would be right to even shut them down.
Partly, this is because NGOs today constitute what is miscalled ‘civil society’ and are often presented as the vehicles for democracy. But these NGOs are bastardised civil society. Historically, civil society is supposed to comprise membership-based organisations. Citizens come together around a shared interest and in a voluntary fashion to form an organisation that promotes their interests.
In many cases, members raise money to fund the activities of their organisation. They elect leaders who serve at their pleasure. The leaders conduct the affairs of the organisation according to the interests, values and aspirations of the members. This is the basis of democratic politics.
On the other hand, the beneficiaries of the activities of NGOs, especially international ones, are not members of the NGO. Instead, the NGO is owned by individuals who solicit charity from abroad to serve those it chooses. Therefore what the beneficiaries get are not rights but charity. They are formed locally or internationally without consulting people they purport to serve. Many are funded from abroad. The beneficiaries do not elect the leaders of the NGO and neither can they vote them out of office. Instead, the leaders are bureaucratically appointed by a body the beneficiaries know nothing about.
The people who benefit from the activities of NGOs do not define the program, values, ideology and even activities of the NGO. Local leaders decide that, often based on where they know international donors will direct funding. The leaders, who are sometimes foreign, decide who, where, when and to what purpose money should be spent. It is this ‘power without accountability’ that needs to be curbed.
This kind of ‘civil society’ lacks the most basic democratic character. It is often a vehicle for Western powers to infiltrate poor countries and promote foreign interests. When they get directly involved in funding partisan political causes, as Action Aid and GLISS are accused of doing, they undermine democracy. This makes any government clampdown not only justified but also necessary. Can you imagine Russia being allowed to fund NGOs to influence elections in USA?
In poor countries like Uganda, however, NGOs displace and/or stifle the evolution of membership-based organisations that promote our people’s interests. So they reflect how the postcolonial organisations are disarticulated from the interests of citizens.
Ugandans today cannot pursue their interests in the way they did during, say, the immediate pre-independence period. In 1945 and 1949, Ugandan farmers rioted in demand for the right to form cooperative societies to promote their interest of collective bargaining for better crop prices.
At the time, the colonial state had restricted Africans to planting “cash crops” like coffee and cotton and forced them to sell only to Indian traders or the colonial state at a fixed price. Often, this was only about 15% of the international market price of their crop. The African farmer wanted that changed. They rioted and the colonial state conceded – confirming the old adage that power concedes nothing without demand.
Thus by 1951, Uganda had 401 cooperative societies under five unions with a total membership of 36,620 people. By 1961, these societies had reached 1,622 under 21 unions commanding 252,378 members. Given a population of 7 million people and assuming that an average farming family had seven people, this membership encompassed 25% of Ugandans then. Today, that would be equivalent to 1.4 million cooperative members and encompass about 10 million Ugandans.
Yet during the 50s, membership based organisations were not limited to farmers’ cooperatives. There were workers’ unions, traders associations, professional associations etc. They organised successful strikes and boycotts. They demonstrated real people power. These struggles, rooted in people’s livelihoods, became the springboard for the demands for independence, even giving birth to our political parties. Indeed, the first political party, the Uganda National Congress, was founded by Ignatius Musaazi, who had been leader of the Uganda Farmers’ Association. Hence the struggle for independence was rooted in actual challenges of our people’s livelihoods.
Today, there are many membership based organisations such as SACCOS (about 7,000 of them), professional associations, workers unions, etc. Imagine a political party born from the struggles of these people-based organisations. It would be hard to crush.
Yet none of our political parties today is rooted in such organisations. Instead, the demands of our people are articulated by NGOs – local and international; like Action Aid and GLISS – which claim to be our civil society but are bureaucratic institutions organised by locals and funded by foreign interests to advance someone else’s agenda.
The disarticulation of our political parties from membership based organisations has bastardised our politics. Just look at how all of them seek to win power.
The NRM courts the support of the people by promising welfare – free education, free health etc. and/or tax relief (like the abolition of graduated tax). Opposition parties like FDC, DP and UPC do so by highlighting the failure of NRM to deliver promised welfare. None articulates an alternative vision.
Our politics is about telling people their entitlements; never their responsibilities. Ruling elites do not see our people as citizens but as clients to be bought off with welfare and cash hand-outs. So we have myriad demands on the state from our people but hardly any contribution from them.
This reality explains why our political parties and NGOs cannot raise money from the people for the activities all of them conduct in the name of the people. Instead they seek patronage from abroad; often the West. This has disarticulated our NGOs, politicians – and as a consequence, even the state – from the interests of the people. Like the NGOs and parties, the state also relies on foreign aid for a significant share of its budget. The state listens to international donors more than it listens to its own people on policy making and orientation.
The government of Uganda is an agent of multinational capital. However, given its electoral base, it is more representative of the interests of Ugandans than Action Aid and GLISS. Its actions against non-membership based NGOs, therefore, carry more legitimacy.