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Voices From Africa


Number 5: Sustainable Development Part 1




James Buturo


In the 1990s, democracy and sustainable development have become dominant themes in discussions of development problems in Africa. Although there is no evidence that directly links "greater democracy with better economic management, effective adjustment policies or faster economic growth,"1 donors now share the view that democracy is conducive to improved economic performance, that people's participation in the processes of government ensures a stable environment and that democratic regimes are usually more effective than authoritarian ones at economic management and more responsive to a wider range of interests in formulating and implementing policies. The same donors are keen on sustainable development as an all-embracing development strategy which takes account of a whole range of issues such as population growth, reduction of income inequities, maintenance of ecological balance, the application of appropriate technology and participation of the poor in decision making processes.

In this paper, sustainable development has two interrelated applications. The first one refers to development "that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs."2 The second refers to the ability of local people to continue development programmes even after external financial and organizational support has been withdrawn. In both instances, the lynchpin of the concept is the improvement in the quality of human life while avoiding damage to ecological systems and resources.

In the quest for solutions to the development problems besetting the African continent, the donor community is increasingly regarding NGOs as essential for democracy and empowering people, thereby leading to more effective local development services than those promoted by governments.3

NGOs are seen to be in a better position to empower civil society via people's organizations and to strengthen them to act as a countervailing force to the power of the African state, bureaucracy and the local elites.In this objective, NGOs are expected to foster and support grassroots organizations to become numerous, sizeable, resourceful, democratic and self-reliant.

For the record, we should set straight what many writers on NGOs choose to ignore, when they treat NGOs as if they are homogeneous and without capability, operational, locational and organizational differences.

While this paper will not seek to single out any particular type of NGO vis--vis democracy and sustainable development in Africa, it should be clear to the reader where our reference is directed. The first category of NGOs are the grassroots development membership organizations through which members secure for themselves certain socio-economic interests. They are an attempt at self-reliance at the centre of which are the people themselves, who are the providers and organizers as well as the beneficiaries. They depend on resources generated amongst the members but increasingly, they receive resources from the donor community and governments.

The second category are the southern NGOs. These are sometimes referred to as indigenous, local or national NGOs and are, in the main, financially dependent on the donor community and northern NGOs. African NGOs are in this second category.

The third type are the northern NGOs. Sometimes they are known as international or western NGOs. In comparison with the other types of NGOs, northern NGOs have the resources and lobbying power.

The democratic orientation of NGOs follows their realization that development simply cannot work unless it is sustainable and rooted in democracy.

How NGOs are now having an impact upon and acting as agents of democracy and sustainable development in Africa, and the challenges they face in so doing are discussed in the remainder of this paper.

NGOs, Democracy and Sustainable Development

NGOs have rapidly gained an international reputation. They are being consulted on matters of policy making, planning and implementation at the local, national and international levels. This is because they offer new perspectives as well as a wealth of experience in such areas as grassroots development, environmental protection and the defence of human rights. They have a broad knowledge base and strong commitment to issues relevant to the emancipation of the poor. They have shown more sensitivity and understanding of Africa's severe economic and political crisis than their respective governments and the multilateral institutions. Keeping in mind that Africans at the grassroots level must have the lead in defining their needs and formulating development strategies, NGOs have recommended an action-orientated 'compact' for African development which must be translated into coordinated programmes for long-term solutions.4 Indeed, many NGOs are more active and knowledgeable in the area of development needs of poor countries than are their governments. They have demonstrated an awareness of the fact that conventional development models have not changed the situation of the poorest in Africa and they have been quick to recognize that people are poor because they have no power.

NGOs are increasingly influencing their governments, mobilizing people at the grassroots level by strengthening their institutions and raising their awareness; bringing to the attention of donor countries and the multilateral institutions the harmful effects of some of their policies; calling for equity-led strategies that give priority to achieving broad participatory ownership, control and management of natural resources by people to serve their own needs; and decrying current development strategies which favour the market economy and lead to more debts and reliance on exports and cash crops, whose effects on environmental degradation and overuse of agricultural land are apparent. NGOs are increasingly interested in sustainability and they realize that local development initiatives will be sustainable only when in partnership with a supportive national development system. That is why they are paying more attention to local and national governments which control the resources and policies that have a bearing on grassroots development, in the hope of influencing them in favour of an institutional and policy setting that is supportive of sustainable development policies. This task requires NGOs to have intra- and inter-organizational skills as well as technical competence and close collaboration with each other.

NGOs now see the future development of African countries as achievable through broader participation in the decision making process. They see such participation as informing both national and local development decisions. In conferences, NGOs have made it clear that the absence of full democratic rights in Africa is the main cause of Africa's economic decline. That is why they are advocating human centred development, the democratization of the development process, and are taking the lead in advocating policy and institutional reforms which are supportive of sustainable development and democracy and would stop the downward spiral of economic inequity and ecological destruction.

NGOs have identified the pressing problems facing African countries as being the undemocratic systems of government and the unequal, unsustainable, misguided and inappropriate development strategies. Consequently, they have proposed strategies by which equitable distribution of the benefits of sustainable development could be achieved; these include reforming of the world's trading system, more financial resources to African countries, and a reduction in military expenditure. They are critical of the institutions and policies causing environmental, economic and social degradation. For example, transnational corporations (TNCs) are under attack because of their role in the extraction of natural resources and despoliation of the environment, and international financial institutions are decried for opening up African economies for resource extraction by TNCs.

For NGOs to be able to promote democracy and sustainable development, they are recommended to "network; build up relationships with governments; participate in development planning committees at regional, provincial, district and ward levels; achieve economic self-reliance and mobilize, build up and expand constituencies,"5 otherwise their democratizing potential will be limited. The existence of a dense network of autonomous grassroots development organizations and African NGOs on a substantial scale is essential in order to exert pressure in the interests of the poor and to act as their representatives, as well as a countervailing force to the power of the state, bureaucrats and local elites. NGOs also need to work to strengthen the organizational, technical and managerial capabilities of grassroots organizations so that the latter are able to stand up and press for demands and hold governments accountable for their actions.

By strengthening and developing grassroots organizations' capacities, NGOs will be enabling them to ensure resource management and control which correspond to the specific local context.

Considering the climate in which NGOs must operate, their position on the African scene can sometimes be unenviable. NGOs have to contend with policy, economic and above all, political instability with all their ramifications. In some countries, the rise of political pluralism and the decline of centralized, one-party regimes has been replaced by fragmented special interests which have produced polarization, violence and political paralysis.

As if this were not enough, mutual suspicion and hostility sometimes characterize government-NGO relationships. A confrontational relationship with governments does little to enable NGOs go about their tasks effectively. NGOs may face other threats, too, including disbanding or control. Other permanent threats to NGOs are administrative cooptation, appropriation, harassment and politically-motivated legislation. NGOs have also to contend with vested interests, which include bureaucrats, politicians and rural power elites, many of whom will oppose attempts to transfer power, responsibilities and resources to local institutions. Vested interests which have gained from non-democratic regimes are likely to oppose political and economic reforms.

In such circumstances, governments, as well as vested interests, can constrain NGOs' ability to promote democracy and sustainable development. One way to overcome this is for NGOs to strive to create political space, build coalitions of friends and identify common points with governments, and then use this strength to chip away at the power of the vested interests.

Balance Sheet

The major sources of funding for NGOs continue to be voluntary private sources and governments. Where before African governments were the only major recipients of official aid from donor countries and multilateral institutions, nowadays more aid is being channelled through NGOs, many of which are perceived by the donor community to work more efficiently in participatory development and to operate in those areas which are not accessible to governments. The effect of this re-direction of some of the aid hitherto going to African governments has meant that these governments are being bypassed as implementing agents. This is leading to interesting examples of how governments are trying to 'coordinate' NGOs in the hope that they might be able to 'control' them now that they are recipients of more official funding.

While increasing availability of public funds for NGOs has been welcomed, for it expands their operations, NGOs are concerned that increasing acceptance of such funds could compromise their development goals, with the risk that they will be increasingly seen as agents of governments and multilateral institutions rather than as partners in development. The central challenge facing NGOs is how to maintain their voluntary character while becoming increasingly effective in their work.

NGOs realize that dependence on others for funding may compromise their flexibility to deal with pressing development issues. It may also undermine their ability to speak out against those policies of funders which they see as harmful to the interests of the poor. The other quandary which NGOs face is that while they advocate sustainable development and democracy for those they support, they themselves are, in many instances, neither democratic nor self-reliant.

In highlighting the potential and actual impact of NGOs as promoters of sustainable development, it is important that we do not lose sight of the difficulties NGOs face in achieving their goals. A recent series of studies by the UK's Overseas Development Institute (ODI) in Zimbabwe, India and Bangladesh suggests that NGOs have not been successful in (a) benefiting the poorest households, (b) benefiting women, and (c) ensuring self-sustainability of local NGOs.6,7 These findings serve to remind us that the tasks that NGOs set themselves are not easy to achieve and that a lot more will have to be done within and outside the NGOs if they are to be able to promote development that is balanced between local short-term use of man's environment and the maintenance and enhancement of long-term productivity.

NGOs have yet to make a significant impact both at national and local levels. In part, this inability stems from their lack of leverage. At the local level, they have yet to develop into an effective force which could counter the presence of local elites and influence decisively people's attitudes as well as local development policies.

NGOs have many constituents, namely, donors, beneficiaries, policy makers and the public. These constituents have conflicting expectations. NGOs need to develop mechanisms for multiple accountabilities. Currently such mechanisms do not exist. This serves to constrain NGOs' effectiveness and blunts any claim to democratic credentials.

The political stance of many African NGOs contrasts with that of their Latin American counterparts where NGOs go as far as providing "trained personnel to occupy government positions."8 Many Latin American NGOs have had a history of directly and openly supporting social movements in opposition to military regimes. NGOs in Africa have not taken that high a political profile. For many African NGOs, politics is a forbidden and dangerous area. They argue that the best way for them to fulfil their development roles is to remain apolitical. Yet this is an unrealistic strategy, not least because many NGOs' operational activities are themselves political in that they seek to shift existing inequities in favour of the poor. Instead, they prefer to promote democracy by supporting grassroots organizations with resources, training and information. By their own actions, especially in participatory projects, NGOs have created practical schools of democracy from which members from grassroots organizations are able to follow democratic practices. Nevertheless, the feeling is that NGOs in Africa should do much more to contribute towards a more democratic Africa.


In this paper, I have put forward a view that democracy and sustainable development are two sides of the same coin. The two concepts are underpinned by equality of access to resources, improvement in living conditions and commitment to democratic decision making. Both concepts, in practice, promote the idea of humanity being empowered and self-reliant, free and very much in charge of its destiny, in partnership with others.

The immense development challenges posed by Africa cannot find all the solutions in NGOs. NGOs have great capacity but cannot be the panacea to the challenges. That said, for NGOs' potential and impact to materialize fully, they must have more effective systems of internal monitoring and self-evaluation and must achieve self-sustainability. Somehow, they must acquire the political skills which will see them through the complex socio-economic and political maze of the African situation. Strategically, close collaboration with national governments is essential and, from time to time, NGOs must not hesitate to appeal to multilateral donors who have leverage and could act to protect them against political interference.

The ability of NGOs to promote democracy and sustainable development policies in Africa should be considered in the context of the states' preparedness to accept reforms which permit "devolution of power and responsibility for resource use and management from the centre to the communities." The goodwill of national governments, as well as of the international community, is crucial to NGOs' successes or failures, not least because, in the case of the latter, they have the resources to create a supportive international climate that could reverse the flow of resources from African to northern countries and support better terms of trade and accessible markets. As for national governments, they should show goodwill by creating internal conditions which permit a liberal democratic framework as well as a supportive legal framework. Both macro- and micro-economic policies which are favourable to NGOs would offer a conducive framework within which NGOs would flourish. In their quest for sustainable development and a democratic society, therefore, NGOs must strive to attain this goodwill. It underlies all else.


1. Muir, A., 'Evaluating the Impact of NGOs in Rural Poverty Alleviation: Zimbabwe Country Study,' ODI Working Paper, 52, ODI, 1992.

2. World Commission on Environment and Development, Our Common Future, 1987, p. 8.

3. World Bank, Sub-Saharan Africa: from Crisis to Sustainable Growth, Washington, D.C., World Bank, 1989.

4. US NGOs, 'Perspectives on African Development: Recommendations by US NGOs to the UN Special Session on Africa,' Draft Document, 25 April, Mimeo, 1986.

5. Liamzon, T., 'Trends and Roles for NGOs in the 1990s,' NGO Management, no. 19, October/December, 1990, pp. 30-36.

6. White, S. C., 'Evaluating the Impact of NGOs in Rural Poverty Alleviation: Bangladesh Country Study,' ODI Working Paper, 50, ODI, 1991.

7. Robinson, M. A., 'Evaluating the Impact of NGOs in Rural Poverty Alleviation: India Country Study,' ODI Working Paper, 49, ODI, 1991.

8. Padron, M., 'Non-Governmental Development Organizations: From Development Aid to Development Cooperation,' World Development, Vol. 15, Supplement, 1987, pp. 69-77.

9. Ghai, D., 'Conservation, Livelihood and Democracy: Social Dynamics of Environmental Changes in Africa,' Discussion Paper, no. 22, UNRISD, Geneva, 1990.


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