Role of NGOs in East African Community
Recently, an expatriate working with East African Community(EAC) asked me whether non-governmental organizations are good for the East African Community or bad? To me, it did sound like a hard question, but that is in fact the underlying issue of all the debates relating to the evolving relationship between the EAC and NGOs during the past decade.Substantial efforts have been made to address this question, even at the highest level of regional and national governance. A panel of eminent persons on EAC-civil society relations was established to make reports and recommendations on the issues that affect all member states. At a recent summit, regional leaders welcomed the positive contributions of civil society organizations, including NGOs, to the work of the EAC. They also encouraged continued dialog between civil society groups and member states.Yet, the question of NGO involvement continues to raise the anxiety of many in Africa’s most successful regional economic bloc. In my response to the expatriate, I made it clear that there is a general consensus about the need for continued dialog and interaction between EAC member states and NGOs. At the same time, there are different expectations and preferences about how to manage and develop this dialog further.
Discussions need to held regularly with representatives of member states, NGOs and related agencies, regarding current practices of NGO engagement in the work of the EAC and future expectations. While confirming the existence of clear differences on various issues between member states and NGOs, it was heartening to note that there was sufficient common ground to develop more meaningful, constructive and workable partnerships and interaction between both sides at the Arusha based organization.From the onset, the two groups agreed on the fundamental, intergovernmental nature of the EAC. They also agreed that further measures for increased interaction could be envisaged. The most important measures I have identified that need to addressed at EAC between member states and NGOs are what experts define as the “confidence deficit.”It is clear this deficit exists at the heart of the relationship between the five countries and NGOs. This has raised a question pertaining to NGO accountability, especially in connection with their involvement to the work of the EAC.In both Kenya and Uganda, there has been new legislations that are seen as an attempt by state to curtail the NGOs work and make them bow down to state demands.This is particularly relevant in light of the fact that NGOs have greatly proliferated and become more visible, while remaining relatively unregulated in East African region.
In Kenya alone, there were more than 10,000 registered NGOs according to NGO regulator in the country.The Kenyan government last year said that a lack of international standards of NGO accountability has allowed far less credible organizations to undermine the effectiveness of credible NGOs. There was a legitimate concern by Nairobi government over the question of NGO accountability, one underlying factor behind the confidence deficit.Member states generally appear to be open to increased consultation with NGOs as long as there are clear parameters that are understood and respected by all. NGOs are valued for their expertise in a variety of areas, their role as partners in implementing various development programs, and their capacity to provide early warning in cases of potential conflicts.Many NGOs also emphasize the importance of accountability. Accountability is viewed to be integral to establishing meaningful dialog between member states and NGOs and one of those in Uganda Debt Network(UDN) that has played a key role in enhancing accountability in Uganda. Questioning NGO accountability should not be viewed as an unfriendly attempt to disengage. Instead, it reflects a growing recognition of the increased role of civil society groups, including NGOs, in shaping public policy across the East African region. Such a role, however, needs to be accompanied by accountability.The notion of NGO accountability needs to be defined and developed. This is not an easy task because of the multiplicity of actors with whom the NGOs engage. However, several areas certainly need to be addressed in this regard.
There should be a standard for NGOs, integrity and performance. The participation in the work of the EAC should be granted to organizations that truly have expertise in the area being discussed.The idea of a code of conduct for NGOs is also worth further exploration. The code of conduct can be an instrument to ensure that NGOs commit themselves to the aims of the East African Community Charter and act in a manner that respects the intergovernmental character of the EAC.There should be a level playing field for NGO involvement, in that the NGOs attending EAC meetings are truly representative of the regional’s population. Understandably, EAC countries sometimes view NGO involvement as another channel to push Western Countries agendas.However, I must commend the EAC and its partners for the several initiatives that have been identified to address this imbalance, including optimizing the use of information and communication technology.These are just some of the initiatives being looked at. This is a healthy process towards a realistic framework for balancing interests and respecting the different roles of member states and NGOs within the EAC. This is also a positive sign of the growing maturity of the East African Community in welcoming the role and contributions of civil society groups.Overall, NGOs may not be able to claim to be the representatives of certain defined groups of people, but they can definitely give a voice to a wide range of opinions that emerge from various segments of the East African society.