Posted: March 27, 2020

This CDA Insights post is based on our recently-published Reality Check 11: Civil Society in Uganda, a deep dive into analysing the public discourse on Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) in Uganda and their evolution over the last 30 years. The study finds the current CSO landscape lacking in impact, and proposes ways in which the ecosystem can be reformed for CSOs to best achieve their objectives.


What civil society is versus how we have come to understand it today 

The public discourse features a lot of confusion as to what “civil society” actually is. Often, and especially in the context of development, Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) are somewhat simplistically thought of as encompassing merely professional Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs), termed “new” civil society. However, this simplification misses the important contribution of grassroots, community-driven and member-based organisations to the civil society landscape. These are not usually thought of as NGOs, but they do exist outside of the state and business environment, performing activities that shape development processes at the local, national and international levels. Such organisations include trade unions, churches and other faith-based organisations, private sector associations, cultural and sports clubs, and more. These constitute what is often termed “old” civil society. 

This misconception is prevalent in development circles, arguably in large part because of the modus operandi of development and donor organisations. NGOs “speak their language”: they have well-defined goals, “best practices”, “champion causes”. This language resonates with donor organisations. If CSOs fail to operate within this framework, they have problems securing donor funding, and ultimately often fail. Thus, even grassroots organisations must adapt their operations and language in order to attract foreign funding and survive.

Civil society’s influence of Ugandan politics 

The rise of professional NGOs in Uganda can be traced back to the post-civil war international community-driven market liberalisation and structural adjustment era. This was itself a result of the contemporary championing of the idea of development through neoliberal economic policy. Enthusiastically backed by donor organisations, the purpose of NGOs at that time was to operate alongside government, closing the gap in public service provision caused by public sector retrenchment1. By the mid-2000s, there were as many (if not more) NGOs as there were government agencies. Meanwhile, old civil society experienced a steady decline.  

Herein lies the central challenge that civil society faces in influencing policy in Uganda. By nature, NGOs are not grassroots, member-based organisations. Instead, they are often elite-based and supply-pushed organisations, meaning that they adopt the action agenda and operational structure necessary for them to secure donor funding and ensure survival. They are pushed by their funders to supply social, sometimes political, services such as health, education, or advocacy on electoral processes, corruption, etc. However by catering to donor interests, Uganda’s civil society has experienced mission drift. It has lost the broad-based community support it needs to produce exactly those outcomes that donor organisations seek. By contrast, “old” CSOs had historically been successful in achieving their aims: in the late 1940s and 1950s, Parent Teacher Associations were formed as accountability structures to ensure the quality of educational service provision, while the Catholic and Anglican churches began expanding their activities to provide education and health services to their communities. 

Looking ahead

To ensure that civil society has the effects that both CSOs themselves and donors seek, international organisations must recast their idea of what constitutes civil society. Promisingly, the dogmatic era of development through liberalisation and state retrenchment is waning. This opens up space for old civil society to re-emerge. Though donor organisations have in the past struggled to interact effectively with traditional civil society, the opportunity now exists to link up traditionally donor-supported NGOs with “old” CSOs in the pursuit of common goals. Merging the broad-based support that old civil society commands with the professionalism and “donor-speak” that NGOs bring may be a more organic, and ultimately effective, way to drive change. There are already emerging examples of such hybrid organisations. Watoto Church Ministries, for instance, is an old civil society organisation with large-scale community support. However, its programme that takes care of HIV/AIDS orphans and vulnerable women closely resembles a modern NGO model. 

Having widened their definition of “civil society”, donors should begin funding old CSOs as well. To remain compatible with donor organisations’ modes of operation, this can be done for example by tying funding to specific projects. This will have the two-sided advantage of ensuring CSO accountability, while allowing them the financial capacity to expand membership and thereby affect greater policy influence. 

Importantly, both donors and CSOs must seek to engage with at least the moderate voices in government. Though civil society has the legal right to exist and operate freely, a number of legislations (such as the 2013 Public Order Management Act) have been used to restrict their freedoms in practice. Interacting with moderate government actors can begin building the bridges necessary for civil society to ultimately be viewed as a partner, not an opponent, of government. Only when such buy-in is achieved can civil society truly be effective in its advocacy work.  


[1] See for example the World Bank report (2004): Making Services Work for the Poor, which made the case that governance should be improved from the bottom up; NGOs were seen as a vital vehicle to achieve this goal.

Feature image: flickr user Rod Waddington