Zimbabwe's civil society needs to reform
Dr Alex Magaisa wrote an article critically analysing the role of CSOs on the Zimbabwean political landscape. He argued that it is necessary for CSOs to take a critical self-assessment in respect of their role, purpose and strategy in the transformation of Zimbabwe. He posed the proposition that instead of strengthening democracy and assisting the democratising movements, the CSOs may in fact be disabling them. Lawyer, Khanyisela Moyo responded and argued that Dr Magaisa’s article was inaccurate. She argued that in fact CSOs strengthen democracy and also attract foreign currency. Here,. Magaisa offers his response
Dr Alex T. Magaisa
It is the idea, not the person that captures my attention. I appreciate the kind words that come my way. I also acknowledge any words that might appear to be unkind about the character or limitations of my article and in some cases my person. I take them in my stride, as hazards of placing oneself in the public domain. The principal aim of my article was to highlight a perspective in relation to one of the most important forces on the country’s political terrain and to the extent that it has provoked debate, I am pleased, because we must not only generate ideas, we should also debate them rigorously. And for that I respect Ms Moyo’s views and I am grateful that she took time to read the article and even more to comment on it. Her points were useful – so useful in fact in that they went some way to confirm the proposition put forward in my first article.
It seems to me that the biggest contribution of Ms Moyo’s response is that it supports, in large part, the propositions advanced in that article. Ms Moyo is kind enough to tell us that she has been involved in the CSO sector in Zimbabwe and is currently a Board member of two similar organisations in the UK. She therefore writes from the vantagepoint of an insider in the CSO sector – and thankfully the article betrayed some of the problems that even my article had failed to concretise. Ms Moyo sang the tune, drew the picture and danced along in her defence of the CSO sector as agents of social change. Whether or not CSOs are agents of change is too general a question, which we cannot sufficiently answer within the confines of this site. Doctoral theses have been written and are being written on that question. Certainly, a closer reading of my article would reveal that I do not make a blanket conclusion that all CSOs are bad and inconsequential. In fact, I acknowledge that there are people doing very important work out there. But that should not deter us from taking a critical analysis of their work. The central question is whether the paradigm that places CSOs at the forefront of change in Africa solid and sustainable, given the contextual circumstances in which the struggle for political transformation obtains.
Further, the key in my article was a critique of the idea of using CSOs as instruments of advancing human rights while at the same time making a detachment from the political struggle. It is wrong, I argued, to make that distinction between the political and human rights struggle. The pursuit of human rights within our context is to a large extent dependent on political change. Harping on and on about human rights to a regime as intransigent as any can be is akin to hitting a stone wall with a wooden plank. It makes noise and makes everyone aware but cannot break the wall. To what end? You have to find means of breaking the wall.
Unfortunately, Ms Moyo misquotes my article by taking a small part of a paragraph without placing it in context. For example, she writes, "Dr Magaisa states that in “all of Europe, America and Asia, the first and most important fight was the struggle at a political level” not the fight for human rights." I do not say the human rights struggle was not important. A closer and accurate reading of the paragraph from which the quoted line is conveniently prised will reveal that my argument is that in you cannot achieve human rights goals without first fighting the political struggle. In other words you cannot separate the human rights and political struggles as some CSOs in Zimbabwe purport to do. They have to strategize at the political level.
This is what I say in the article, "Arguably, it is necessary to change the political system in order to achieve the human rights goals. In other words, the achievement of human rights is largely dependent on whether one can transform the political system." I do not think the European revolutions that Ms Moyo refers to were simply couched as human rights campaigns divorced from the general political struggle. If this is what Ms Moyo referred to as examples of inaccuracies and sweeping statements, then I am prepared to submit myself to be lectured on the art of writing but from what I can see, selective quoting on he part may have caused the misconstruction of her argument. A budding scholar, Ms Moyo should know all about referencing and quoting from secondary pieces.
Perhaps the most startling claim in Ms Moyo’s article is when she confirms what I feared in my article: that CSOs are not and do not have to be accountable to the masses. To whom then should they account? To the donors, Ms Moyo states with conviction. At best CSOs claim moral authority for acting for and on behalf of the people. They also claim, as Ms Moyo demonstrates, a role of checking the powers of politicians. Now, we must pause for a question: If not for the masses for whom do they check the powers of the politicians? On what basis do they claim to check and balance the power of those holding political power? Ms Moyo does not think that they have a duty to account to the masses, even though ironically they should be allowed to act on behalf of the masses interests. Instead they account to the donors, and rightly so because they provide the funds? So there we have it now, a new institution besides the traditional three arms of the state: Parliament, Executive and the Judiciary, yet having to account to no one within the country but to donors, who are largely external. And some people seriously think that can be right? Has any question been asked with regards to whom the donors are accountable? Surely their money does not simply fall like manna from heaven. And that is where the problem lies: failing to critique the wider implications of the dominant and widely accepted CSO-led approach to social and political change.
The point in my article was not simply to pursue the allegation that money is abused and sometimes many people choose the CSO route more for professional reasons than pursuing the cause at the heart of those organisations. The intention was simply to highlight a common problem that afflicts CSOs, which might appear non-existent simply because there has not been adequate scrutiny. My view is that if left unchecked the uncouth practices that come out from time to time threaten the strength and durability of civil society in Zimbabwe. Further because the masses may not actually make the distinction between “apolitical CSOs” and political parties in the opposition, the bad practices in the CSOs tend to feed the masses’ perceptions about the state of affairs in opposition politics. So to the extent that the CSOs and for example the MDC work together, CSOs ought to be careful that whatever bad conduct takes place in the midst is likely to negatively affect the MDC and other opposition forces as well.
Additionally, the proliferation of bad conduct and lack of public accountability in CSOs threatens their moral authority against the legitimate arms of state, which they seek to hold accountable. How, for example, can a leader of a CSO who is engaging in corrupt activities or doing things that expose him to conflict of interest with his own organisation, claim the moral authority to question the bad conduct of a cabinet minister or a parliamentarian? My argument is simple: Those that claim the authority to question the conduct of others and preach the gospel of good morals, etc should be willing to take the obligation to be accountable to others within the same political system. They must also be subjected to the same scrutiny that they expect to enforce in relation to public officials. Should they fail and they become actors in the game, what they are doing is no more than using people’s problems for their own benefit. And I must add that this is not a problem confined to Africa. A reader alerted me to the problems surrounding the billions donated to the victims of the Asian-Tsunami disaster. Perhaps my article was too kind to the Western counterparts of Zimbabwean CSOs – but Ms Moyo does not challenge the idea – on the contrary she confirms that there are many who do it not to pursue the cause but to pursue a professional career. There is nothing wrong in having people with a heart who wish to pursue a career in the CSOs – it is just that society does not expect them to ride on the people’s problems for their own personal aggrandisement. If that happens their authority is also undermined.
There seems to be a view that CSOs are important because they bring foreign currency into the country. I am not sure whether it is desperation or simply narrow and shallow perspectives on economics but what amazes me most is that even learned people take this view seriously. When people begin to rely on inflows through CSOs meant to support human rights campaigns – you might as well start selling anything, even people to secure foreign currency. Foreign currency inflows are not the primary issue here. CSOs are not in the business of generating income nor should they be relied upon for that purpose. More critically, CSOs are not in the business of production. They are quite simply, charitable organisations. To say they are vital cogs in the economy because they generate foreign currency is almost arguing for the perpetuation of the crisis so that they can remain viable so as to attract more donor funds. It cannot work that way, and that is why any justification of CSOs on the ground that they bring foreign currency must be dismissed. There are better reasons for their existence and using the attraction of foreign currency is really unnecessary and unfortunate.
Ms Moyo argues that they should claim successes because success in activism “attracts donor funding”. Really? But could there also be a chance that such claims may become exaggerated and unrepresentative of the truth in order to win funding? Is there a chance also that different CSOs might lay claims to the same “success” in their competition for such donor funds? And what happens when different CSOs and opposition parties all lay claim to the same success and in the process compete for the limelight, for the prize, for the recognition and also for the resources? If so, does this not therefore confirm the point in my article in relation to the unnecessary and divisive competition for political space? It seems to me that Ms Moyo inadvertently demonstrates the substance of my proposition in the article.
Ms Moyo also claims that the ultimate success of CSOs is in the “institutionalisation and the socialisation of human rights norms in Zimbabwe”. I concede that the pursuit of human rights is a noble venture. But it is also necessary to take a pragmatic approach. By now, CSOs would have known that the current regime would not accede to their demands unless there is some form of political transition. Pragmatically therefore, the key area of participation is on the open political arena not indirect ways. This idea of being indirect participants or adjuncts is unhelpful. There is also an unfortunate tendency to portray the image of Africans as people that are not aware of their rights – people that need to be educated and conscientised about rights. This justifies the need for CSOs to conduct awareness programmes – to educate the masses.
This view is not immune from challenge, because it conveniently marginalises history – Long before the current crop of CSOs, people knew of their rights. In 1900 people knew that their rights had been violated. In the 1960s and 70s, as Ms Moyo concedes, people were also fighting for human rights. So people know about their rights. It is not that the people are ignorant of their rights that is the main problem. It is how to attain and safeguard them that is the matter. So any claims by current CSOs that they have educated people are in many cases just vain claims. Ms Moyo and her colleagues at the NGO Forum may have helped victims of political violence but that is only a part of the jigsaw. You need to go further and construct a conducive political climate for the enjoyment of rights. That is the critical point and unless effort is centred on that primary goal of political transformation Ms Moyo and her colleagues will still be tending to victims of political violence for years to come. The key lies in focussing effort and resources at the political level.
Also, there is the argument that CSOs have played a key part in bringing awareness about and attention to Zimbabwe at the international level. It is possible that Niger has its own NGOs but how long did it take for the international community to know that there was a tragedy unfolding there? The same in the case of Darfur, Sudan. The DRC has been on a downward spiral and thousands are hacked to their deaths from time to time. Could it be that Zimbabwean CSOs are so powerful and hardworking compared to their counterparts in Niger, the DRC and Sudan? Or could it be that there are special reasons why Zimbabwe happens to attract more attention? The point here being that, there is probably more to the question of how the global media houses cover issues in different parts of the world and that the wider attention that Zimbabwe gets may not simply be attributed to the heroics of CSOs. But that is an issue for another day, for it requires its own space, ideas and time.
Finally, let me restate the point in simple terms:
• CSOs, the MDC and other opposition parties are part of the wider opposition forces;
• Their struggle is best-sustained in unity than diversity and division of effort and resources. They are ultimately fighting for the same limited political space and to the extent that they contradict each other and compete for resources, attention and limelight, they simply confuse the masses;
• Consequently, the opposition movement is disintegrated and ineffectual internally;
• The result is that the best they can do is raise awareness at the international level but to what end? They shout out and they shout back and it is the same story every day, every year;
• Why create a new force when the structures and resources for building a viable force are already in place. The question is, are the political parties willing to open up and be more inclusive and are CSOs prepared to redefine their purpose and strategy?
I have received
so much correspondence and people have great ideas. But these ideas
should be shared and debated in the public domain. The danger is that
this will remain a two-way debate between lawyers when there are so
many out there with good ideas. More views from diverse angles will
only make it healthy. An idea shared is an idea gained – there
is no loss. I rest my case.
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