The proposed Non-Government Organisations Bill 2015 is an unwise move for a ruling party government seeking re-election in less than a year! Internal Affairs minister Aronda Nyakairima’s argument that the growth of NGOs has led to subversive methods of work and activities, which he claims undermine accountability and transparency in the sector, is somewhat unsustainable. True, not all NGOs and civil society organisations are civil or representative; a few seek to promote dubious causes while many lack effective accountability but this does not justify demonising all of them.
Policy makers operate not in a political vacuum but in the context of the political debates in their society. Societal pressures and preferences influence policies but they are aggregated and made effective through different channels, including NGO advocacy. The agenda of politics is anchored not just in traditional political concerns but also in the proliferation of economic, social, cultural and ecological questions. The environment, pollution, drugs, human rights and terrorism are among an increasing number of policy issues that require stakeholder cooperation for their effective resolution.
The politics of any country can best be understood by ascertaining what groups lobby government and what debate on policy has been in the media. That is what makes the Fourth Estate a crucial pivot in democratic and good governance. In pluralistic democracies interested groups or parties influence public policy through interest groups that organise themselves in the form of NGOs and political parties. Different policy domains contain different actors. The simple concept of power does not explain policy outcomes. The contribution of civil society to public policy is crucial to good governance, which itself is pivotal to stability.
NGOs are useful catalytic agents facilitating the movement for deeper democracy. They have grown to facilitate local communities to organise themselves to procure services, access entitlements and promote universal human rights. Their experiences and practices have influenced wider debate about public policy-making and delivery. They have tried to apply their proven success models elsewhere to situations peculiar to this country. In recent times, a plethora of NGOs, advocacy networks and citizens’ groups have played a significant role in policy formulation through mobilising, organising and exercising political power across national boundaries and there is nothing sinful about that.
As alternative democratic mechanisms that consider development as a bottom-up approach, NGOs have advocated a nationwide transformation in the developmental planning process in order to expand positive outcomes for greater numbers of people at the local levels. Their evolution reflects a multi-layered transformation not only in filling the gaps of state failure but also in articulating and acting through an alternative democratic discourse and providing alternative policy analyses. NGO activities have been the sources of alternative policy research and expertise.
What is subversive about the cross-fertilisation of ideas and strategies between government departments, NGOs and research institutions that have developed into a vibrant dynamic of providing a clear set of alternative policy goals and action strategies in pursuit of an alternative democratic order? Why should civil society organisations not sponsor, for elective office, candidates who will promote their legitimate interests? Is it representation of civil society in democratic expansion that has annoyed the State so much that it must undermine its own 30-year claims of building democracy by contriving a Bill to deconstruct their activities or it is their general call for reform from the grassroots upwards that has miffed the State?
Mr Baligidde, a former diplomat, is Director of Uganda Martyrs University Rubaga Campus. email@example.com