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Civil Society and Government: Complementary, not Competing Forces

Civil societies and governments are complementary forces when a society defines a path towards human progress. In the early nineties, as a teenager, I observed the political transition in many African countries. A dialogue that could have chartered a pathway for homegrown ingredients for democracy, erupted into colourful protests. With violence, demands, marches and eventually, constitutional changes, there were gains which also created losses. The model of winner takes all that we have been so accustomed to continues to be pervasive in our societies.

Civil society’s voice became audible in the context of challenges to governments. Austerity measures squeezed that voice, as the challenges of unfunded constitutional reforms and structural adjustments became the foremost consideration. Politics became a gateway for many with or without ideas. As such, we missed the opportunity to re-imagine the mechanics of how we could reaffirm our commitment to transformation through better jobs, improved agriculture, industrialisation and creative spaces for dialogue. As such civil society helped to create better conditions of employment through trade unions and access to antiretroviral treatment to name a few. These represent isolated important victories which need to be connected to a broader outcome. 

What if the framework rested upon the ability to define human progress. The Sustainable Development Goals provide a global framework. The process of translating them into local goals should be a point of convergence between civil societies and governments. How might this convergence direct resources to address challenges that appear invisible to the majority of citizens?

In Kenya, African Prisons Project (APP) found a way to collaborate with government without bending to it. APP has worked closely with the Government of Kenya since February 2012, mainly through the Kenya Prisons Service but also though relationships with other players in the judicial system. Providing a framework for government and civil society to agree on the end goal was a joint responsibility for two parties. Peter Ouko, APP Ambassador, refers to the investment made in infrastructure development in Kenyan prisons, including construction of the state of the art library at Lang'ata Women Prison, refurbishment and stocking of the Kamiti Prison library and the construction of a legal aid clinic in Lang'ata Prison and Naivasha Prisons. Inmates and wardens learn about the legal profession as students in an environment designed to park away those that bend or break the law. APP, by working with the government, has taken a unique holistic approach in its prison work, incorporating both the officers and inmates in its programs, an approach that aims at securing access to justice for all.

What if the solution was to define end goals between government and civil society? While some might argue that these goals have been defined, I would argue that they are not until the resources to achieve them are. Civil society organisations and governments seek funding from similar sources. They have an opportunity to work together to convince more of Africa’s middle class that we have a responsibility to invest in the communities that shape us.

In the absence of a common definition, people build their names and reputations off relentlessly pushing for the resolution of certain issues. The resulting victory becomes too closely associated with an individual, ignoring other contributors and effectively preventing the codification of pathways to addressing the issue.

A case in point were the successful 2016 elections in Ghana. A peaceful transition with limited civil society’s acknowledgment. There is a post-election billboard that might capture the issue. A large print of two hands shaking with the caption “Ghana won”. Although true, it failed to recognise that the victory would have been impossible without a vibrant and non-partisan civil society, working with government partners, to ensure a peaceful transfer of power. While the victory is important, the focus should be on institutionalising the partnership. This idea may fly in the face of our ingrained beliefs about the nature of competition. If we conceive of government and civil society as competing forces, it impedes the kinds of partnerships that can transform society.

The solution then is to establish a common goal that moves us beyond the old paradigm of winners and losers. To move forward towards human progress, governments and civil society working together is the alternative that lays criticisms to rest while charting an inclusive pathway along the value chain of the defined end goal.

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Carl Manlan