Who Funds Civil Society Activism?

By Ayo Olukotun

Gbolahan Gbadamosi, a former judicial editor of The Guardian and currently Executive  Director, Centre for Media Law and Research, it was who provided the topic of this write-up  by raising a query on an aspect of my essay published on this column last week.

Entitled, Mbeki on Nigeria’s ‘comatose’ civil society (The PUNCH, November 15, 2013) the intervention examined former South African President, Thabo Mbeki’s comment that Nigeria’s civil society is currently comatose and by implication does not act as an effective check on impunity and corruption by government.

Gbadamosi, in a text message, took exception to my suggestion that the civil society should be mindful in seeking funds, of the subversive generosity of the political class on the one hand; and the often narrow agenda of international funding agencies, on the other. Gbadamosi’s query is: If non-governmental organisations and civil society activists cannot seek funds from the political class or from international donors, where then are they expected to get funds for their work?

Before addressing Gbadamosi’s pertinent question, let us recall the magnificent role which the civil society institutions have played and continue to play in our democratisation process.  Obviously, without the heroic struggles of this segment of our nation collaborating with the international community as well as reformist-minded military officers, the transition to democracy would have been impossible.  Who does not recall for examples, the epic confrontations between the military state and June 12 protesters, the anti-Abacha militants, the creators of “Radio Kudirat” and the underground press as well as a motley of human rights organisations that continuously laid siege to tyranny.

Looking back at the quality of democracy on offer in Nigeria today, one asks with more than a twinge of disappointment: Is this what we fought for? No doubt, it is against this back cloth of awesome civil society struggles in the pursuit of democracy that Thabo Mbeki observed ruefully that the Nigerian civil society has been demobilised or politically chloroformed. Let us recap that several of the leading lights of the anti-military struggle have taken up political appointments either by election or selection. Indeed, some of them occupy commanding positions in the current democratic dispensation; they have also brought around them several intellectuals in one form of consultancy or another. In this respect, the struggle between the civil society and authoritarian and corrupt civilian government at national and sub-national levels has become complicated.

I referred previously to the tenuous economic status of our civil society and its vulnerability to the co-optation strategies of the political class bearing in mind that we have a one-legged economy in which the productive sectors are marooned while windfall from government is the only game in town. What this slippery terrain produces is a rump of civil society that maintains some distance from the political class and a largely partisan civil society that has become a part of the political elite.

In order not to be misunderstood, let us make clear that a partisan public sphere as reflected in the advocacy strategies of political parties, the voluminous literature explaining party positions, the journalism of the party press all serve to enrich a nation’s conversation and policy debate.   In fact, some political scientists would classify political parties as belonging to civil society in view of the overlap in roles and mobilisation functions. In terms of deepening democracy for example, opposition political parties by putting the ruling party on its toes and insisting on a level playing field, exposing corruption within the ruling party while of course being silent about corruption in their own ranks extend the frontiers of democracy, lend substance to citizenship rights and play more or less the same role as a vibrant civil society.

As is well known, some international funding agencies provide resources and capacity building wherewithal not just for the civil society but also political parties.  For while the civil society can place issues on the national discourse agenda, they require the authoritative collaboration of political parties and the state to initiate or pass bills around them or turn them into policies. Therefore, the civil society and political parties need not be antagonistic to each other but should ideally play complimentary roles.

That said, the decidedly partisan nature of political parties whose main goal is to win the next election makes it important for civil society institutions to be wary of them. What I find problematic in the current Nigerian scenario is that too many political activists are masquerading as civil society activists.  This of course serves the politicians who are using these activists for celebrity endorsement well since they are also unlikely to be raising issues regarding their own performance or lack of it, corruption as well as the authoritarian tendencies which they share with the political parties they are seeking to displace.

It is against this backdrop that I warned last week that although civil society activists are in principle free to seek funds from politicians, they must be clear about the terms and the possibility that they might end up as the intellectual wing of the political parties extending those grants. This is another way of expressing the problem of donor-capture whereby a donor exercises leverage and increasing authority over the profiles and core mandates of the recipients.

We already have something of this nature in the relationship between international funders and NGOs leading in some cases to what scholars have described as international donors as an alternative state.

Another dimension of the problem manifests itself when we find that the vocabulary of our NGOs is almost totally borrowed from the donor community without local adaptations. Perhaps, for the same reason, the agenda of our civil society is confined regrettably to the procedural and neoliberal version of democracy obtainable in most parts of the West with emphasis on human rights, free market and a downplaying of social democracy and economic rights.

On those terms, democracy becomes no more than electoralism and is often carried on without the demos i.e. the people.

Civil society institutions are free to seek funds from the international community but they should be aware of the price tag of such funding.

Interestingly, because of the global recession, international funding has dwindled to a trickle in recent times and NGOs in other parts of the world are discussing creative ways of raising funds such as voluntary donations from members and citizens who buy into their agenda, membership dues while of course applying cost-saving mechanisms that reduce their overheads.

In sum and to return directly to Gbadamosi’s question, civil society organisations that wish to retain their foundational vision should seek funds from such sources that do not compromise them, subvert their independence or turn them into spokespersons or decoys for factions of the political class and for that matter into proxies of international donor agencies.

External funding always comes at a price but some prices are heavier than others; while some include the total loss of identity. It is important however that civil society activity continues to flourish and for activists to maintain a wary distance from “Greek” donations that can destroy their souls.

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