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Between resilience and resistance: promoting progressive culture in Africa

Julie Ferguson and Karel Chambille

HIVOS, 2004

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Executive Summary

In June 2004, Hivos invited a motivated group of partners, researchers, development practitioners and staff members to Arusha Tanzania, to reflect on the challenges and opportunities facing Africa in terms of civil society building (CSB), from the perspective of economic development, challenges of politics, and social mobilisation. The consultation came forth from a need to re-identify the most pressing issues confronting civil society actors in Africa today, and to explore how Hivos should respond.

Two major motives framed the discussions: first, economic aspects, in view of the underlying structural poverty in Africa, the root cause of many social inequalities. Pro-poor development needs to be given far greater priority. The informal sector is the primary locus of entrepreneurship and economic activity in Africa. Nonetheless, public representation and policy focus mostly on the formal private sector, and are therefore irrelevant to the majority of the population. Public engagement can help lead to broader awareness in terms of rights, policies and opportunities. Only in this way can Africa’s poor access the tools and opportunities to improve their lives. Processes of public advocacy need to be rooted in constituencies – through a long-term focus and an inclusive process. Real change needs to come from within; external agencies can facilitate discussion or provide the platform to achieve this.

Though globalisation has a dramatic effect on African economic and socio-cultural structures, it can be addressed proactively by African policymakers, the private sector and CSOs if they join efforts to pursue their often mutual interests.

To stimulate a more inclusive and thriving economic climate in Africa, the state must make pro-poor economic development its priority. The formal private sector must become more competitive and realistic in view of its opportunities and restrictions, and national markets and economies need to shake off their dependence mentality to catalyse positive change from within.

The second major motive pertains to social mobilisation and civil society building in Africa, in response to political challenges and political exclusion across the continent. There is a need for unity in opposition, even between opposing forces to make a fist against oppression. Change agents need a clear vision for the future direction of the state, even before the battle is fought. This should be supported by the understanding that the removal of inequality does not automatically lead to democracy.

Social mobilisation is not an easy task in areas of poverty and oppression. It requires a vast amount of patience, courage and creativity, drawing from locally appropriate knowledge and experiences. NGOs can play a role in facilitating debate and access to information, but depend on the inclusion of local leaders and communities, and vernacular associational life. Ultimately it is through such inclusive strategies that social movements and civil society can be mobilised to influence policies and fundamentally address inequality and injustice.

Sustainable change in the form of policy formulation and implementation means that advocacy needs to move a step further, to develop social pressure through public engagement and collective action. Active involvement of the media is critical. Further, CSOs need to develop a better understanding of policies in order to monitor their implementation and impact. Sustainable inclusion depends on proactive and creative responses, as well as inclusive coalitions and a culture of accountability.

The changing political arena is forcing Hivos and its partners to address many new challenges. Concern for accountability and internal democracy in NGOs and social movements has always been prevalent, but donor and development agencies are being called upon more urgently to deliver concrete results, in face of broad claims that development efforts have failed. Hivos and its partners should resist populist demands for short-term strategies and quick results. Rather, a clear recommendation is that Hivos should stick to what it is good at – and capitalise on this in a strategic and sensible manner, with a long-term focus on promoting progressive development in Africa.

The consultation addressed a vast range of issues and challenges, and concluded that much can be achieved if Hivos and its partners invest in expertise, build linkages, and foster knowledge sharing. In the long term, mobilising diverse actors and fostering the diversity and energy of African civil society has the potential to contribute to solutions for the almost insurmountable problems that confront Africa today.



In June 2004, 31 people from 11 different countries joined forces to reflect on the particular challenges and opportunities facing Africa in terms of civil society building (CSB), from the perspective of politics, economics and social mobilisation.

The meeting, set in Arusha, Tanzania, and hosted by Hivos, came forth from a need to explore, on the one hand, the relevance of the concept of civil society for Africa, and to understand what makes African civil society specific. On the other hand, African realities emphasise the need to identify what needs to be done to tackle the most pressing challenges. The discussions were set against the backdrop of negative economic trends, issues of gender inequality, the Aids pandemic and democratic strains across the African continent. At the same time the political climate in donor countries is changing as domestic concerns increasingly dominate the political agenda. This does not leave Hivos unaffected: public support and funding for development cooperation are no longer self-evident in the Netherlands. All in all, whilst the urgency of Hivos’ policy priorities and actions are increasing, so are the challenges to continue providing support in the manner its partners are accustomed to.

As such, the Arusha consultation was convened to help Hivos improve the quality of its work, developing more relevant responses for sustainable and emancipatory development in Africa1. The energy and experience brought together by a variety of people – outspoken leaders of Hivos partner organisations, outside resource people and Hivos staff focusing on Africa – catalysed inspiring discourse, which we hope will contribute positively to the endeavours of all participants.

Civil Society in Africa

A great deal of discussion has taken place over the past 15 years around the concept of “Civil Society”, presented increasingly as the pre-eminent model to promote more social inclusion, fair access to material and immaterial empowerment and development processes in general. NGOs and social movements created an alternative framework for development, providing the backbone of a vocal and vibrant ‘civil society’ – autonomous, endogenous, finding its identity in relation to the state, based on shared interests.

However, faced with the enormous economic, political and social adversities which continue to affect the African people, it is clear that civil society is in no way a magical formula for development. Over time its limitations become clearer, both in theory as well as in practice. On the conceptual level, we have been forced to acknowledge the importance of understanding the context we are looking at: civil society cannot be used as a one-size-fits-all concept.


Practical concerns include issues of accountability and internal democracy in NGOs and social movements. These have always been prevalent on the sidelines of the debate, but have become more urgent now that donor and development agencies are increasingly being called upon to deliver concrete results. Broad claims are made that development efforts have failed, NGOs and the civil society are under increasing attack. Furthermore, in the wake of earth-shattering events such as the Rwanda genocide, crises in Sierra Leone and Liberia, ‘9-11’ followed by the ‘War on Terrorism’, and failing efforts at democratisation in Zimbabwe and now perhaps Uganda, people have been mollified into submission and are increasingly hesitant to form social movements and claim their rights as civil society. In fact, it is increasingly acknowledged, “where states are weak and poorly institutionalised, space for emancipatory associational life will tend to be unfavourable. Citizens find open activism risky, and they are not always well positioned to leverage meaningful change in official policy and behaviour. But where there are robust state institutions, the environment can be enabling of emancipatory agendas”2.

Nonetheless, alternative civil domains are still emerging in many conflict-ridden or underprivileged areas, pulled by determined individuals, organised citizens and opposition parties, to tackle the adverse social costs and suffering by pushing the margins of their social manoeuvrability. How do they do this? What challenges need to be overcome?

Contextualising the discussion

All in all, the questions pertaining to Africa’s development are not new, but the continent has changed. Perspectives leading to new avenues for development in Africa have emerged. Drawing from the experiences of a diverse group of practitioners, researchers, political advocates and lobbyists, this report is an attempt to address these questions and identify these perspectives. An ambitious aim, and although this report in no way claims to provide all the answers, we hope to tickle your mind and catalyse meaningful debate, bringing forth innovative strategies, new energy, and refreshed hope, to ensure the bleak picture is overshadowed by positive developments, leading towards a bright, African future.

About this report

This report is based on the discussions in the Arusha consultation. The structure of the document follows the logic of the meeting. The first two chapters explore Africa’s economic and political context. This is followed by a conceptual intermezzo reflecting on the use of the concept of Civil Society in African contexts (further in-depth reflections are provided by David Sogge in his paper Civil Domains in African settings; some issues, written in preparation for the Arusha meeting3). The third chapter addresses two aspects of African civil society: the development of emancipatory social movements, and civil society influencing national and international policies. The next chapter illustrates some trends in Dutch development cooperation, and the challenges they provide for Hivos. The final chapter comprises recommendations and conclusions.

In the document the terms NGO (non-governmental organisation) and CSO (civil society organisation) are used interchangeably.


  1. The findings of the Arusha Consultation will be used in the formulation of a new Hivos policy on Civil Society Building.

  2. David Sogge, 2004, Civil Domains in African Settings: Some Issues (unpublished), p.20.

  3. see also

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