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Unlikely Bedfellows
SADC Barometer Issue 4, Jan 2004, South African Institute of International Affairs
January 31, 2004
By *Gina van Schalkwyk

Few people - from Johannesburg to Blantyre - know about SADC, and even fewer believe it to be the panacea to their social and economic ills. SADC simply is not a household name in the region.

Without the buy-in of citizens, regional integration in SADC is bound to remain an elite driven white elephant where the agenda is determined at the intersection of Western donors and the egos of undemocratic rulers. The media, not for profit non-governmental organisations (NGOs), research organisations, community- based organisations (CBOs), trade unions, faith-based movements and the private sector - collectively referred to as civil society organisations (CSOs) - have an important role to play in ensuring the critical participation of the general public in the process of creating a broader political, economic and social community in Southern Africa. But civil society in the region remains weak, divided and unable to optimise existing channels for participation or to create new ones. And to make matters worse, Southern African political leaders have an innate distrust of civil society and often undermine their ability to play a meaningful and participatory role in regional development.

Civil society can and should act, at both the national and regional level, to strengthen democracy by channelling the varied interests of their constituencies to elected parliamentarians. They can provide support for the democratic systems of government by promoting values of citizenship, governance, accountability and transparency. They have a 'watchdog role', and because of their largely bottom-up approach, they tend to focus on peoplecentred rather than donor- or government-driven development. Yet, in SADC, as in the EU, civil society does not speak with a unified, cross-sectoral voice. This is not surprising considering the disparate levels of development that characterise the region, our weak and young democratic systems, and the legacy of colonial rule and protracted civil conflicts. Nor should civil society necessarily speak with one voice, given that it represents so many different interests outside of the state realm.

There are a number of other issues that manifest in the weakness of CSOs in the region. Apart from the perennial problems associated with resource constraints - financial, managerial and human resources - there are significant internal tensions within civil society.

These are related to, amongst others, the discord between advocacy and service-oriented CSOs: their difference of opinion over strategy is divisive and deeply ingrained. Similarly there is the potential for friction between the professionals (NGOs) and the community (CBOs) where the dominance of either within umbrella structures carries the danger of leading to uniformity and centralisation. Individuals play an important role in defining the relationships between different CSOs at the national and regional level. Personalities also have an impact upon the relationship of the particular CSO they lead and the governance structures of the country and region.

In many sectors, CSOs compete for donor funding and other financial resources. Often the result of unco-ordinated and non-transparent practices by both the donors and the CSOs, this creates an unhealthy and unco-operative environment that fosters duplication and feeds the arsenals of those who oppose further inclusion of civil society in national and regional decision-making. Competition for financial resources is compounded by the general 'funding crisis' resulting from recent world events and the tendency of donors to funnel money through governments (thus potentially compromising the autonomy of CSOs); the 'brain drain' of the sector due to many former social society activists moving into government or international NGOs; a lack of internal democracy; and inappropriate management practices and inadequate planning.

Many of these problems are internal to organisations and countries, and therefore it is essential that CSOs resolve their difficulties at the national level before moving towards structured regional cooperation. However, there are certain benefits in pooling resources to influence both national and regional gover-nance.

Through creating a regional co-ordinating structure (in the form of an umbrella body), CSOs can ensure greater representation at regional gatherings by redistributing funds and resources; they can counterbalance the dominance of South African CSOs and draw on the country's superior resources; and they can overcome some of the restrictions (legal and operating) that they face at the national level.

SADC itself, and the political leadership that it represents, would do well to go beyond paying lip service to the participation of civil society in its policy-making activities. It is not sufficient to include a few lines in its treaty! A big leap in the right direction would be to seriously consider, negotiate and then adopt a memorandum of understanding with the SADC Council of NGOs. Bolstering the private sector desk at the SADC Secretariat in Gaborone, and improving information distribution from the Secretariat would be further requirements. By regarding civil society as partners, rather than a threat, governments can augment their own limited resources in areas as diverse as information gathering and distribution, research, service delivery and lobbying for fairer treatment on the global stage.

* Gina van Schalkwyk recently received her Master of Arts in International Studies (cum laude) from the University of Stellenbosch. She is in charge of the SAIIA’s SADC Barometer project. Her interests extend beyond regional integration to include gender in conflict, post-conflict reconstruction and peace-building in Southern Africa.

The South African Institute of International Affairs is an independent, non-governmental organisation which aims to promote a wider and more informed understanding of international issues among South Africans.

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