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Saturday, 13 August 2011

The Democratic Deficit of NGOs

Democratic accountability can be further impaired when domestic NGOs line up support from international NGOs, which are usually less well-informed about local trade-offs but are financially and organizationally much stronger. There have been some cases where democratically elected local governments have been thwarted from constructing dams that would have provided irrigation for many small farmers. The activist opponents of the dams, taking up the cause of the displaced, mobilized their international anti-dam fraternity to protest at World Bank headquarters and with US Congressmen, compelling the World Bank president to cancel the previously promised large loans for dam construction without allowing for adequate hearing from the small farmers who might have benefited. Whether the dams should have been constructed is not the point. The issue is one of democratic accountability.
From a fascinating piece by Pranab Bardhan on the limits of NGOs in fostering global development. It is certainly true that there's a tendency by some people to treat Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) as a panacea for development. The answer to every problem appears to be "we need more CSO participartion". The truth is that whilst on average CSOs have been force for positive social and economic change, they have sometimes been instruments of state oppression and corrupt plunder. Indeed the problem we face in Zambia is how to distinguish a genuine CSO from an artificial one. Many corrupt governments have realized that where CSOs are against their political objectives, the logical approach is simply to create another CSO that is more favourable to its position (usually with grand and contradictory names e.g Forum for Leadership Search). How often does one read of a so-called NGO backing a clearly foolish proposal ?  So, not only do highly reputable NGOs suffer from weaknesses, but we find that many of CSOs are pseudo organisations purposely created to widen the democratic deficit in society.  Unfortunately, in an effort to hold legitimate organisations to account we face a problem of identification. 


  1. I.P.A. Manning (chosanganga)13 August 2011 at 08:34

    What is worse is when a local NGO - or a branch of an international NGO, don't oppose a clearly criminal, illegal or harmful proposal or action by the Government.

  2. There are several points to make about this article:

    1) Non-Governmental Organisations

    Too often this doesn't mean that they are connected to government, just not the government of the country in which they operate. So-called NGOs are often sponsored by the US and UK governments. How 'non-government' is that? They in fact represent not the will of the people, but the interests of foreign governments.

    2) Dams

    The creation of huge dams (and the displacement of thousands of people) is something that belongs in the 1950s, when people thought that science would provide all the answers, and people were even put on the moon.

    The truth is that it is much more efficient to fill natural aquifers, and store water in the soil and the ground itself, which raises water tables and fills wells. This displaces no one, it eliminates the issue evaporation, and is far better for the environment and wildlife as well.

  3. I agree, there are many bad NGO's spoiling the concept but if not for CSO's we would have had no Citizens Forum to resist Chiluba's manipulation of the Constitutional Review in 1995. This movement later forced Mwanawasa towards a citizens forum for constitutional review and many still refused to compromise with his half baked version. Women's CSO's also lead the fight against Lands Reforms in 1995 where Chiluba essentially wanted to remove traditional tenure rights. In 2000 Women For Change and NGOCC created the Oasis Forum to resist Chiluba's his third term bid while politicians sat around helpless.

    Democratic legitimacy and accountability of NGO's is guaranteed in the Societies Act but Government's poor implementation of the law allows personal-to-holder organisations to survive. The continual threat of dictatorship will require strong NGOs until society rises up to free itself of all the constitutional provisions for the presidential patronage.


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