Dan Hammett is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Geography. In April 2016, he was awarded SIID seedcorn funding to support a project exploring nascent civil society in post-genocide Rwanda.
In recent years international development policies – and both bi- and multi-lateral donors – have placed increased emphasis on the role of civil society to contribute to development and democratisation. Parallel to this growing interest, we have seen the numbers of NGOs increase rapidly – with estimates suggesting that there are 10 million NGOs globally (www.theglobaljournal.net), and that in addition to 40,000 major international NGOs there are between 1 and 2 million national NGOs in India, and over a quarter of a million NGOs in Russia (ngo.in). We have also witnessed a growing proportion of development aid being directed through NGOS and CSOs – in 2014, 20% of the UK’s Department for International Development’s aid budget was directed through CSOs.
Despite this emphasis on the positive role of CSOs in promoting development, questions and constraints remain over the role, functions and remit of civil society in many contexts. In 2015 the Ugandan government introduced a new NGO Act focussed upon monitoring and directing civil society activities in specific directions, while the introduction of the Protection of State Information Bill in South Africa in 2013 has been widely condemned as a tool for closing down investigative journalism and a critical component within civil society. Meanwhile, advocates of civil society continue to push for a stronger role for such organisations in promoting transparency, accountability, and the development of an active citizenry.
Against the backdrop of such debates, the NGO RCN Justice & Démocratie is working – through a Sida-funded project – to work with partner CSOs in Rwanda to develop and strengthen civil society in a post-genocide context. In May 2016, I travelled to Rwanda to assistRCN in delivering the first of three stages of dialogues and training for CSOs working on justice and rights issues. Over the preceding year, I had worked with key staff at RCN to develop a training tool and activities for the training sessions ready for three provincial level dialogues with senior CSO representatives. These dialogues aimed at developing greater understanding of the possible roles and activities of civil society, capacity building and networking, and the sharing of experiences between CSOs.
During these dialogues, over 70 participants reflected on the idea and role of civil society in a post-genocide context. While these discussions highlighted the important role and space of civil society in Rwanda, these discussions underlined the heterogeneity of the civil society landscape. Conversations identified differing approaches to the question of what the relationship between civil society and the state should be, of what topics and activities civil society actors should engage with, as well as a desire for greater recognition from the state of civil society as a potential development partner, and the importance of this sector for entrenching a stable and strong society.
With these dialogues taking place in the days after the World Economic Forum on Africa was held in Kigali, it is interesting to reflect on the connections between economic and social development. With the major streets in Kigali festooned with banners advertising the economic development successes of Rwanda, including its ranking as the second easiest place to do business in Africa, my mind turns to the UN Special Rapporteur’s reflections on democratisation and human rights in Rwanda in 2014. As they outline, there is a vast disparity in the length of time and bureaucracy involved in establishing a business as compared to a civil society organisation in Rwanda. They continue to suggest that streamlining the process for registering civil society organisations (as well as measures to improve the independence of CSOs from the state and freedoms of peaceful assembly) could yield social, economic and political benefits. Such a view echoes Friedman’s (2010) argument that a strong civil society is integral to a stable society and thus is both a sign of and facilitator for economic growth and development. In Rwanda, the civil society sector is growing but, as these dialogues demonstrated, the full potential of this sector to promote social and economic development has yet to be realised.