Civil Society in West Africa: Challenges and Opportunities

by Nana Asantewa Afadzinu, Executive Director, West Africa Civil Society Institute

West Africa has a vibrant civil society. From the colonial era through the nationalist period, and the era of military dictatorship and authoritarianism, to the 1990s when the wave of democracy swept through West Africa, to the current milieu of social movements and uprisings; from Occupy Nigeria to Y’en Marre in Senegal, to Balai Citoyen in Burkina Faso, through Gambia Has Decided and Occupy Ghana, citizens have organised and pushed to make their voices heard on political, social and economic issues. With technology, online activism has also gained currency within civil society, and citizens engage actively using this mode.

The contribution of civil society to development in West Africa has been immense, yet the sector faces several challenges. Organised civil society, especially NGOs, are dependent on external donor funding. With the economic recession of 2008 and the coming into power of far-right populist governments in donor countries, the official development assistance agenda of these countries has shifted from human rights, good governance and social justice, to counter-terrorism, security and trade. This has affected philanthropy too.

Coupled with the upgrade of countries like Ghana to the level of lower middle-income countries, aid has dwindled significantly and so has support to civil society organisations. In West African countries, indigenous philanthropy has not been developed and nascent attempts do not fund social justice issues. Governments also do not fund the development work of civil society. As a result, many vibrant organisations that actively contribute to development in the region are struggling to survive.

Authoritarian governments in the region have been emboldened and are clamping down on citizens’ freedom of expression, assembly and association. The CIVICUS Monitor, an online tool that tracks civic space dynamics across the world, shows that no country in West Africa has an open civic space. Only Ghana and Senegal have a narrowed space. All the other counties have obstructed civic space, with Mauritania and Liberia having repressed space for civic engagement.

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Women’s organisations, particularly, face an additional constraint to civic space engagement as they continue to face opposition in some countries in terms of eradicating human rights abuses such as female genital mutilation and child marriage.

Keeping up the pace with technological advancement to enhance civil society’s work and contribution to development is difficult, as internet access remains challenging and in some countries, is controlled by the government.

It is not all doom and gloom though.

After years of activism, citizens have now become politically sensitive and more interested in making their voices heard. With the advent of social movements, the experience and expertise of non-governmental organisations and the agility of online activism, greater impact could be made where there is strategic collaboration among these different constituencies to address issues.

West Africa is the only region in Africa where the regional economic body, ECOWAS, has given official recognition to civil society as an equal partner in development, and makes an effort to engage the sector in policy formulation, implementation and monitoring at the regional level. Much more needs to be done to cascade this to the national level, but the opportunity exists and must be acknowledged.

The reduction in aid has also enabled the conversation between civil society and governments in some countries, such as Ghana, on domestic resource mobilisation. Attention is being turned inwards to resource West Africa’s development, and this must be encouraged.

In spite of the challenges with internet access, an opportunity exists currently to engage mobile technology as many of the countries have a high percentage of mobile technology penetration.

There is hope yet.

Nana Afadzinu currently serves as the Executive Director of the West Africa Civil Society Institute (WACSI). She was the Regional Policy Advisor for IBIS West Africa until September 2010, and served as the Country Coordinator for OSIWA-Nigeria from January 2006-2008.

This is the sixth NGO analysis of my #NGOs4Africa Campaign.

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