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Democrats and donors: Studying democratisation in Africa

Donors, NGOs, and the Liberal Agenda in Africa Tim Kelsall and Jim Igoe, eds. Forthcoming, 2004.

Sara Rich Dorman1

SARPN acknowledges permission from Tim Kelsall, Jim Igoe and Sara Rich Dorman for permission to post this article on the SARPN website.
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Since the late 1980s, political scientists, donors, and development workers in East and Southern Africa have devoted much time and resources to the question of ‘democratization’. Yet, it is not clear how this concept of ‘democratization’ has helped us to understand African politics or if donor support for ‘democratization’ has been successful. There are both methodological and conceptual problems with the way democratization is used to explain processes as varied as the de-racialization of South Africa, the post-civil war effort to rebuild Mozambique, and the different patterns of change to multi-party politics in Kenya, Zambia and Malawi.

Many accounts of these processes of democratizations are ahistorical, or decontextualised from the historical and cultural situations. Secondly, institutions which are thought to enable democratizations – like churches and NGOs – are poorly understood and little studied. Assumptions, rather than empirical evidence, dominate. Such partial understandings of the societies and institutions under observation leads to inappropriate policy responses by bilateral and multi-lateral donors eager to support ‘democratization’.

In this paper, I explore the ways in which the development industry has adopted and used political science concepts of ‘democratization’ and ‘civil society’ and the problems inherent with this process. I focus on the role of local or ‘indigenous’ NGOs as recipients of donor aid and potential agents of democratization. In order to understand why NGOs are assumed to contribute to a process of ‘democratization’ we need to examine both what donors think NGOs are, and their relationship with the state, as well as how this plays out in practice. In particular, we need to examine the changes that have resulted from the increased resources made available to the NGO sector. A case study of a prominent Zimbabwean Human Rights NGO, ZimRights, will be used to illustrate the problems caused by growth and expansion. First however, I want to examine the methodology and conceptualization of ‘democracy’ as used by donors.


  1. This chapter is based on material included in my DPhil thesis “Inclusion and Exclusion: NGOs and Politics in Zimbabwe” (Oxford, 2001). The argument benefited from presentation to Development Studies MPhil Core Course at Queen Elizabeth House, Oxford in 1999 and 2002, and on-going discussions with Tim Kelsall, Gavin Williams, Tina West and Tom Young.

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