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Letter from a CSO Apologist to a CSO Skeptic


The basic freedoms of expression, association and assembly have come under unprecedented attack in Tanzania in recent years. New laws have been passed and are being enthusiastically enforced to discourage dissent or views critical or alternative to the official narrative. Journalists have been detained, charged, imprisoned or disappeared and feared dead. Individual citizens have been harassed, arrested, charged and fined for expressing themselves on social media.

Opposition political party activity has been severely curtailed – rallies are banned, leaders are tied up in court on charges of incitement. Apolitical civil society organizations, especially those working in governance and human rights face significant additional scrutiny presumably to encourage their obedience to the government’s agenda.

Given that context, in November 2019, Tanzania’s CSOs gathered for a week to showcase its work and advance a ‘Partnership for Development’ agenda with government. At the start of the gathering, Member of Parliament and 2013 Tutu Fellow, January Makamba, posed 10 questions on Twitter for CSOs to reflect on. What follows is a response by myself to those thoughtful challenges to Tanzania’s civil society. It is probable that the questions and reflections resonate beyond Tanzania’s borders.

Dear Skeptic,

Greetings from the end of Day 5 of CSOWeek 2019. Thank you for the suite of questions you posed during Day 2 of the week's deliberations. They rippled usefully through the gathering and they invite a considered engagement.

I write here as an apologist, not to regret, but to offer an argument in defense of Tanzania’s civil society (and its manifestation in the form of organizations). A skeptic interrogates for the purpose of understanding. A cynic, driven by suspicion, cross-examines with a view to condemning. I trust I can consider you a skeptic rather than a cynic.

My sense is that at the heart of what you are interrogating are questions about the purpose of civil society and of its organizing principles. I preface my responses to your questions with a reflection on each of these.

On purpose: What is civil society? And what is it for?

Civil society is a collective of “free associations that exist as intermediate institutions between citizens and the state, and in which citizens can realise their social freedom and equality.[i]" In other words, civil society comprises of free associations of free citizens for the purpose of goal-oriented collective action.

The late Margaret Thatcher concurred with the voluntary association notion of society more broadly as evidenced by her clarification of her much maligned statement, ‘There is no such thing as society’. In her own defence, she wrote, ‘my meaning, clear at the time but subsequently distorted beyond recognition, was that society was not an abstraction, separate from the men and women who composed it, but a living structure of individuals, families, neighbours and voluntary associations.[ii]" Attempting to analyse civil society organizations by separating and distinguishing them from the society in which they are embedded feels unhelpful.

Civil society is a collective of free associations that exist as intermediate institutions between citizens and the state, and in which citizens can realise their social freedom and equality.

On principles: What are (or ought to be) some organizing principles for Tanzania’s civil society community?

Life 3.0, a thought-provoking book (read Yuval Noah Harari’s review here) that explores ‘being human in the age of artificial intelligence’ proposes a number of principles worth considering. First is the idea of utilitarianism: CSOs should exist to maximize positive social experiences and minimize suffering. Although what constitutes ‘positive experiences’ and ‘suffering’ are hotly debated, CSOs exist to help society optimize a social function (health, wealth and happiness?).

Second is the principle of diversity: a mixed set of CSOs is better than a homogenous monoculture of motive, method and goal. In diversity lies both collective resilience and an appealing aesthetic. Tasty though it might be, imagine eating only pilau for the rest of your life? Its appeal would eventually evaporate, society would fail to maximize 'positive experiences' and, as a result, be worse off.

Third is the principle of autonomy: CSOs should have the freedom to pursue their own goals, unless such pursuit conflicts with an overriding principle. Arguably, autonomy significantly improves the chances that positive social experiences (utilitarianism) will be maximized and in a variety of ways (diversity).

On to your questions.

AFLI note - For the purposes of clarity, January Makamba's questions are italicised and the reponse is in plain text.

1. January - Great #CSOWeek2019 #WikiYaAzaki2019 festivities. I’d like to contribute to the week’s deliberations by posing some few questions with hope that they will further the important agenda of creating a civil/better society in Tanzania.

Thank you for engaging so thoughtfully with #CSOWeek2019 #WikiYaAzaki2019.

2. January - What is the impact of this week’s festivities/conversations in CSOs overall objectives, mandates and functions and how do we measure that impact? And how do we know we have achieved value for money in terms of impact and cost of organising the week?

#CSOWeek2019 cost several hundred million shillings to hold. But the financial value of its real effects, impact and outcomes - new insights, new connections, renewed resolve – is impossible to quantify. Reductionist accounting misses the value of engagement, exchange and learning.

3. January - By making this a Civil Society Organization Week (#CSOWeek) instead of Civil Society Week (#CSWeek) are we not de-emphasising the actual idea and concept of CIVIL SOCIETY and instead put more importance on ORGANISATIONAL agendas and justification for organisational existence?

No. On the contrary #CSOWeek2019 is highlighting the power of collective action mobilised, amplified and channelled by a dynamic ecosystem of diverse organizations. We value both the whole rainforest as well as its individual trees.

4. January - And, as organisations, how do we measure the impact of our work (higher online decibel for our issues? policy change? money received/disbursed?), and who are we accountable to when we fail? Should be there be requirements for democratic governance and transparency within CSOs?

CSOs are actors in the messy endeavour of ‘social engineering’. Where their impact is demonstrably negative, CSOs must be held to account by society. But in the ‘failure’ to achieve intended outcomes lie valuable lessons and insights society.

5. January - If a CSO is 100% funded by foreign money, is it a local CSO? Should CSOs find legitimacy, relevance and usefulness in the amount of money (forex) they bring into the country? How’re the people connected to CSOs agendas if they are just “programming” objects? Where’s agency?

The ‘local-ness’ of a CSO and its attendant legitimacy is a combination of funding sources, economic value-added, staff composition and worldview. Legitimacy should not rest in the 'colour' of the money. But it should not be dismissed out of hand as useless, irrelevant and illegitimate.

The question of citizens’ agency and whether CSOs enhance or diminish it is central, but the assertion that people are just ‘programming’ objects is an overstatement.

6. January - Should CSOs be pragmatic and compromising - in that should they overlook “bad things” with hope to achieve the removal of “worse things” in the long run? And, should they work with “bad people” with hope that they will either turn good or still facilitate a better society?

Great question. To what extent should CSOs make moral and material compromises? Should CSOs work with or against the grain? This link is a useful reference.

7. January - Should there be professional CSO people or should people earn bread in different vocations and advancement of civil society be just a “civic” duty of everyone? Who should set the agenda of what CSOs pursue as important? And through what process should that agenda be set?

Yes. There should be CSO professionals, just as there are medical and legal professionals, all of which started as vocations. There are limits to organic self-organization. And a diverse CSO agenda (including how it is set) produces a resilient society. Monocultures are inherently vulnerable.

8. January - Should CSOs be politically neutral or should they support parties and candidates that are aligned with “their” agendas? Are Tanzanian CSOs [leaders] too elite (timid?) in background, posture, philosophy and interests to agitate for radical, but necessary, policies?

Social progress is an elite project. Truly transformational political, social & economic mobilization is almost invariably elite-led (Julius Nyerere & Nelson Mandela were both 'princes'). That is an unashamedly elitist thing to say, but it does not make it any less true.

9. January - Is writing up policies worth the money if no political incentives exist for their adoption? Should CSOs work for political incentives for better policies? Can partnership exist if goodwill don’t exist? How do CSOs advance goodwill when it’s sometime necessary to condemn govt?

CSOs cannot (or should not) coerce or compel, only convince. The lack of political will is not a permanent condition. Yes, advocacy can help generate political incentives for action and CSOs are good at it (Anti-Slavery, Suffragettes, Civil Rights, the end of Apartheid). It can also overcome ill will.

10. January - Sometimes, CSOs have nasty “political” fights over relevance, prominence, resources, alliances - and rarely about ideas. There’s been allegations of embezzlement and dictatorial leadership. How can CSOs garner moral authority to speak to wrongs that they’re also accused of?

It would have been nice to substantiate the first assertion that the CSOs’ ‘sometimes’ fights are ‘rarely about ideas.’ Just as one swallow does not a spring make, the CSO community’s moral authority does not evaporate when some CSOs forfeit their portion through illegal and/or unsavoury acts.

Yours sincerely,

Apologist, Aidan Eyakuze

The full piece as it was originally posted can be found at Twaweza's LinkedIn page.

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