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intensified struggle for democracy in Zimbabwe
What options for NGOs/Civil Society?
October 13, 2002
Zimbabwe is currently facing an enormous governance, economic
and social crisis that is seriously threatening to destroy much
of what Zimbabweans have achieved since our national independence
22years ago. There is a serious concern shared among development
actors that sustainable development can not be achieved under these
conditions. The environment within which NGOs/Civil Society groups
are operating is becoming increasingly restrictive.
of NGOs in some Developing countries is that their Governments view
them with great suspicion. In some African countries NGOs are accused
of supporting the opposition or that they have a different development
agenda which is contradicting the seating Government's priorities
etc. This is however debatable.
reasons for this suspicion are, the relationship between some governments
and their NGOs can be described as unhealthy. Zimbabwe is not an
exception. One must start by acknowledging that Zimbabwe is going
through an unprecedented national crisis.
This new reality
must provide an opportunity for Zimbabweans to appraise the relationship
between the Government and the NGO/Civil Society sector.
The 13th September,
2002 notice issued by the Zimbabwean government in which it requires
all NGO/Civic Society groups operating in the country to register
under the PVO ACT  highlights the complex relationship that
exists between government and the NGOs/Civil Society sector. To
start with, the PVO Act has always been a very contentious piece
of legislation since passed into law in 1997. NGOs/Civil Society
activists have described this Act as undemocratic and completely
inadequate as a basis for creating an enabling framework for Government-NGOs/Civil
Society dialogue and cooperation.
The real motive
behind the PVO Act is for government to achieve total control of
NGOs/Civil Society groups. We have seen this happening with other
critical sectors like the students, workers, the judiciary, the
media, political parties, all of which have been affected by specially
designed legislation intended to stifle their work.
There is no
reason why NGOs/Civil Society groups should assume that they could
be an exception unless they are deciding to play a more passive
role in the face of an unprecedented national crisis.
groups seem to be the last frontier in Government's effort to completely
silence the voices of dissent. When they are invited to register
as in the 13th September notice, NGOs Civil Society groups must
realise that they are moving into a well calculated strategy and
they need to do their own calculations as well.
It is no wonder
that many NGOs/Civil Society groups have opted to register as Trusts.
A casual glance at the NGOs/Civil Society scenario seems to indicate
that organisations within this sector are not the same. On one hand
we have organisations that are very traditional in the way they
view their service delivery role and are satisfied with a purely
welfarist approach. Most of these are already registered under the
current [but contentious] PVO Act.
On the other
hand, we have a new generation of NGOs/civic groups who see their
role as going beyond 'feeling the gap' in government's service delivery
to questions of sustainability of some of the traditional development
strategies. Many of these organisations have moved into asking certain
uncomfortable questions of government. Such questions as participation,
control, public policy, human rights, governance, and public sector
accountability result in government becoming suspicious of the intentions
of NGOs/Civil Society groups.
Of course some
of these questions have put Government priorities in bad light.
NGOs/Civil Society groups should have no apologies to make about
that. These questions are also about issues of governance, which
are clear legitimate concerns for citizens to raise. NGOs/Civil
Society groups must challenge the assumption that only government
can decide and prioritise areas of interventions in national development
programmes. Development programmes can not be divorced from issues
of good governance. NGOs/Civil Society groups must therefore assume
a greater and more critical role in the light of the Zimbabwean
It is important
to point out that the current socio-political economic and legal
framework is highly polarised characterised by government's political
values of patronage and paternalism. NGOs/Civil Society organisations
need to be aware of this reality as they also can play a critical
role in resolving our national crisis. The Current PVO Act has sufficient
instruments to enable government to 'invade' [in order to restrict
and control] NGOs/Civil Society groups and all indications are that
the decision has been made to move in that direction. The recent
government notice requiring NGOs to register or shut down should
be seen as the first signal and NGOs/Civil Society groups can ignore
this development at their peril.
But what options
does this sector have given these latest developments? There is
a strong legal opinion that says that NGOs/Civil Society groups
have a strong case against the government notice if they take the
challenge to the courts of law. Fair enough but experience also
shows that when this current government is determined to act, they
either manipulate or change the laws that are getting in the way
of their determined actions.
So, legal action
based on certain provisions of the constitution may be necessary
for the record but this is still highly inadequate.
Added to the
legal route, political arguments could be raised using the public
platform to get government to consider reversing its decisions.
This is an area that seems to have been exhausted already by other
affected sectors. NGOs/Civil Society groups are well equipped to
play a critical role in terms of lobbying and advocacy work to expand
and consolidate the already increasingly shrinking democratic space
in our country. NGOs/Civic groups also have a legitimate constituency
whose livelihood is already threatened by lack of a democratic and
tolerant culture in our country.
should be given a high profile and NGOs/Civil Society must take
responsibility to ensure that they invest in time, energy and resources
in this new site of struggle for the sake of democracy in our country.
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