Mmegi Newspaper of 5th February 2009 reports that Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) have expressed fear that the Government seems determined to take away their autonomy and silence them. NGOs, and indeed the wider civil society, have a critical role to play in socio-economic and political transformation of societies.
Their role is even more critical in developing societies where they are expected to enhance social responsibility and promote accountability and transparency.
In fact, with the vaunted concept of minimalist state, NGOs have become a defining feature of progressive societies. The global shift towards a knowledge society has shifted attention to non-formal ways of learning which can be provided by informal organizations closest to citizens. Yet I have in the past chided some NGOs for being somewhat useless and hapless. In the article titled ‘Botswana: The Case of an African Miracle turned disaster (Sunday Standard, 13-19 May 2007) I argued that ‘instead of seeking to empower their congregations to speak and act for the good of the country, the church in Botswana has embarrassingly chosen to promote submission to secular authority, only too happy to sing conservative hymns and collect contributions in the form of money and other material gifts for their (mostly) expatriate pastors’.
Whereas my analysis was limited to the church, it is, in fact, a common scenario among most NGOs which have essentially breached that original mandates to serve the voiceless. Characteristically, most NGOs are single-issue focused which naturally should allow them to be more dedicated. Their independence and impartiality gives them high standing in terms of uncompromised moral and professional authority. Yet most NGOs in Botswana cannot justify their existence beyond the simple conjecture that a democracy permits associational autonomy. Most are similar to the government in many respects.
They have become bureaucratic and insensitive. They have inexplicably distanced themselves from the people perhaps in their endeavor to please the government and safeguard government’s financial support. Instead of muscling in on the territory of the state, they timidly expect the government to create space for them, finance and even provide them with operational guidelines. Instead of being driven by issues the public consider to be worthy causes, they have unashamedly become appendages of the government. Whereas is it generally agreed that NGOs cannot function without a certain level of support and policing from the government, a majority of NGOs in Botswana have allowed themselves to be co-opted by the government especially because they are almost wholly funded by the government.
It is therefore ridiculous that they should be clamoring for independence and be worried about being silenced when they are already silent of their own will. Perhaps the big question is how the government could support NGOs without being seen to be interfering in their life and activities. Obviously the government is expected to provide a conducive environment for the effective operations of NGOs but most importantly, NGOs should justify their relevance as key stakeholders in development. They must be seen to be adding value rather than simply existing as disjointed, clueless and irrelevant busy bodies. They must come clean about their operations more especially that some NGOs are suspected of being engaged in criminal activities or being used by criminals to further their own agendas.
The Government of Botswana has often chastised NGOs for being controlled by foreign individuals with hidden agendas and wishing to dictate terms to the government. For instance, during the official opening of the CIVICUS Fifth World Assembly in Gaborone, Botswana, in March 2004, the then state president remarked that “some NGOs encroach on the very well being as well as independent identity of the developing world through rigid and self-serving interpretations of what supposedly constitutes international norms” (Botswana Daily News, online edition; March 23, 2004). The state also castigated NGOs for being long arms of external states with agendas that threaten the livelihoods of the people they claim to represent. Perhaps in their endeavor to raise funds for survival, they care less about who they sleep with. This is not helped by the fact that their mother bodies such as Botswana Christian Council, BOCONGO, BOCOBONET and so forth hardly audit their member organizations. As long as member organizations pay their annual subscriptions, they seem to be entitled to do as they please and in some cases, their activities, actions and inactions blight their reputation, legitimacy and erstwhile trust among the public.
They are no longer a favourite among the underprivileged members of the society. They show limited interest in local and national issues. They present themselves as affiliates of a government that derives maximum pleasure from harassing and abusing its own people. NGOs are expected to stake their own claim to the provision of services to citizens especially where government intervention is limited. Yet, most of them lack creativity and innovativeness. The services they provide are sub-standard and in some extreme instances their services are worse than those provided by our over-burdened and uncaring government.
In fact it can be argued with some measure of certainty that most NGOs are simply overcrowding the government and thus, giving the entire family of the civil society a bad name. By being so doing, they are precisely playing into the hands of an authoritarian regime. Thus, it is difficult to see how local NGOs could escape the stringent sanctions by a government intent on full control of the public and private arena.
In fact, it seems long overdue bearing in mind that government has for sometimes been committing public monies to finance NGO causes that have yet to give the public value for money. Charity begins at home. NGOs should put their house in order if they want to keep clear of government legitimate harassment. They must audit their lives and activities.
Mother organizations should probe their member organizations and where necessary they must terminate membership of such member organizations whose activities are questionable from a legal and moral perspective as well as those that exist by name only.
Essentially, they must discipline themselves, preserve their operational space by being seen and heard and mostly importantly, they must restore their legitimacy and relevance by being proactive and accountable to their constituents and the public at large. Need they be reminded that President Khama’s administration has no mercy for cry babies? This self-regulation and meaningful engagement with the government could deny the government a legitimate excuse to abuse NGOs.
I repeat what I wrote in 2007 that ‘this is the time to make a roll call and perhaps assess whether the various institutions of the civil society in Botswana can live up to the expectations of their individual members [and the society at large] beyond mere advocacy for paid maternity leave and parking space for staff.
It is an opportune time for them to rise to the occasion, grow in stature and become vocal on major national issues [or risk state censure and or the wrath of a jilted public]. It is an imperative clarion call’.