Monday January 29, 2007
Literary Discourse
In Focus
WSF: It was a meeting of NGOs, not the masses

By Tajudeen Abdul-Raheem

The World Social Forum that ended in Nairobi last week was one of those ‘once in a life time’ events.

It is an all comers forum. For instance, the Gay and Lesbian lobby in Africa was there alongside Maoists, anarchists, peasant movements, trade unionists, radical scholars, grassroots movements, Stalinists, Trotskyites, Leninists, Fanonists, Cabralists, Castroists, Nkrumahists, Negritudinists, revolutionaries and reformers and gender activists, among others.

The reactionaries will say: All lunatics are in town. It should be no surprise if there were many Africans since it took place in the continent, but so marginalised are we that one is happy to see Africans at such meetings even when they happen here! If you want to gauge the state of global revolutionary consciousness, frustrations, challenges and opportunities of the global forces for change and transformation, the WSF is the place to be.

Exposing Africa’s weakness

But the gatherings always frustrate me for many reasons. One, they show up Africa’s weaknesses whether they are held outside or inside the continent. One of the critical areas is our level of participation and preparedness. Many African participants, even many from Kenya, were sponsored by foreign paymasters or organisations funded by outsiders.

They become prisoners of their sponsors and must attend events organised or supported by their sponsors who need to put their ‘partners’ on display and the latter, in turn, need to show their loyalty to their masters.

Two, even when these meetings are in Africa, participation of local groups and citizens is constrained by three factors: Fees for participation, language of discourse and location. Local activists and sympathisers organised protests before fees for Kenyan participants were waived.

Foreign donor agenda

Three, we go to the events without adequate preparation about our agenda and line up behind other people’s. This time, however, there were a number of attempts to forge a Pan-African agenda before the summit consultations. One was the Pan-African Youth Forum working closely with the Youth Commission of the WSF.

But the truth remains that many youths came on the platform of one donor or the other, and mostly not African.

This dependence on foreigners, financially and ideologically, is so pervasive that it can no longer be ignored. There are signs that an increasing number of Africans are not only outraged, but also ashamed by it and looking for ways of freeing our activism from the clutches of donor funding and donor-driven agenda.

These issues were frankly and honestly discussed at many forums before and during the summit. They include the African NGO/CSO Summit convened by the Harare-based Mwengo and UN Habitat; African campaigners meetings convened by the UN Millennium Campaign Africa Office, Pan-Africa Programme of Oxfam, Africa Secretariat of the Global Call to Action Against Poverty, Africa Policy Office and the Youth Alternatives Platform.

Dependence on foreigners raises a lot of disturbing issues about the state of Africa’s NGOs and CSOs and their capacity to contribute lasting changes in the social, economic and political conditions of Africans. The first is a question of legitimacy. Who do these NGOs represent? Who are they accountable to? To whom do they owe their loyalty: Donors or the African people?

Anti-government posture wrong

The second is the anti-government posture of the NGOs. They take money from foreign governments or agencies such as DfID, USaid, Danida and Sida allegedly as independent CSOs. But why should foreigners be helping us to be independent of our own governments? How are their own citizens independent of them?

The same African NGOs that queue to suck up to all kinds of foreign governments raise eyebrows and shout ‘autonomy’, ‘sell out’ if any of their members has close financial or political links with their own governments.

In effect, the autonomy they assert is one of being sovereign against their own government and subservience to any foreigner. Where governments are illegitimate or have a bad governance record, this may hold for some time, but in the long run it delegitimises the NGOs concerned.

NGO’s lack accountability

The third issue is the constant conflation of NGOs to mean CSOs, which should not be the case. Genuine CSOs include trade unions, guild and professional associations, self-help groups, village or town associations, faith charities or interest groups. Their most distinctive character is that they are voluntary, membership-based and generate funds from their members.

How many of our busybody, noise-making NGOs qualify in this sense? It is a situation where even those who have members who do not fund activities cannot demand accountability. It is similar to our governments being dependent on aid and yet we demand that they be accountable to us?

Stinking corruption

The worst excesses of the dependence on foreign sponsors are the scams in many NGOs about ‘creative accounting’, per diem wrangles, multiple claims, bogus ticket refunds, multiple accounting, budgeting and reporting for similar proposals from the same organisation among other unsavoury practices.

It should worry us that African participation in the first World Social Forum in the continent was more of a gathering of NGOs than of social and political movements and peoples’ organisations who can make change possible. Many have become gatekeepers or commissioned agents between the masses and their oppressors, occupying space for the poor when most no longer belong to that class or share their vision in seeking solutions to their problems.

The writer is the deputy director for Africa for the UN Millennium Campaign

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