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Civil domains in African settings: some issues

A discussion paper prepared by David Sogge for the Hivos Africa Consultation

7-9 June 2004, Arusha, Tanzania

SARPN would like to acknowledge HIVOS, as the commissioning agent, for this paper by David Sogge.
It was prepared for the Hivos Africa Consultation held in June 2004 in Arusha, Tanzania.
The author can be contacted at:
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This paper was drawn up at the request of Hivos staff1 as a basis for reflection, discussion and debate, with the hope of enriching interchange among participants in the Arusha Consultation.

As an idea-in-action, "Civil Society" has enjoyed a meteoric career in the past fifteen years. It has given rise to think-tanks, university degree programmes, foreign aid units with large budgets, a cascade of books and articles and many seminars -- some of them bringing together grantmakers and grantees. The roots of this idea and why it has become so prominent today are beyond this paper's scope. Instead the paper seeks merely to review to some issues arising in current debates and thereby offer some talking-points about the idea as applied in African contexts.

If this paper seeks to probe and question received ideas about civil society in African settings, it does so under the inspiration of writings such as those by Amilcar Cabral (1924-1973), one of Africa's leading activist-intellectuals. As a Cape Verdean Foundation bearing his name recently argued:

More than many of his contemporaries, Amilcar Cabral valued the imperative of freedom of thought -- perhaps the first and primordial of the many kinds of independence. Conversely, he deplored as a source of dominance and manipulation the denial of confidence in one's own critical and analytical thinking. For Amilcar Cabral, "To think with our own heads, starting from our own reality" was a principle from which flows the whole process of liberation. With this operative concept, he referred to the capacity to give meaning to our own history. In effect, when we uncritically reproduce categories for interpreting the world, or simply values foreign to us, we deny the need to formulate other meanings more consistent with the reality of our strategic interests.2

The paper is organized in three parts:

  1. Concepts matter, but do they matter in the same way in all places?
  2. Dilemmas, tensions and possibilities on the ground; and
  3. Topics worth probing and debating further.

  1. Thanks are due to Karel Chambille and Ireen Dubel, Hivos staff members in The Hague, for their useful observations on earlier drafts. All shortcomings of this paper rest, however, with the author alone.
  2. Fundaзгo Amilcar Cabral 2003, Simpуsio Internacional Amilcar Cabral, Praia, 9 а 12 de Setembro de 2004 (announcement posted on Internet; translated from the Portuguese).

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