But when given an opportunity to explain what informed his piece, Serunkuma bashed NGOs further, arguing that they don’t understand their origin. Serunkuma, is a theorist. And his theory is that NGOs were born from structural adjustment programs broached by International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank.
An opinion piece published in The Observer on September 1st, 2021 titled, “How NGOs sing us lullabies & drive away in golden Uncle Tom
wagons” authored by Yusuf
Serunkuma, a political theorist seems to have triggered uproar in the NGO
And when Frank Muhereza, the Executive
Director of the Center
for Basic Research (CBR) read the piece at a
public dialogue on the contribution of civil society to Uganda’s national
development on Monday, November 29th, 2021 the expression was
The dialogue was part of the book project that the Center for Basic Research is implementing on civil society's contribution to
national development. Those who spoke argued that Serunkuma’s opinion was
“extreme” and a complete mischaracterization of the NGO sector.
As NGOs reflect on their contribution to national
development, Muhereza said he decided to add reading the article on the
program because it’s “a good reality check.” He said Serunkuma was attempting
to pour cold water on what civil society has been doing in Uganda. Muhereza
described the article as “unilineal, universalizing and totalitarian.”
But when given an opportunity to explain what
informed his piece, Serunkuma bashed NGOs further, arguing that they don’t
understand their origin. Serunkuma, is a theorist. And his theory is that NGOs were born from structural adjustment
programs broached by International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank.
this program, he argues that the former
colonialists we able to hit two birds with one stone by capturing governments
as well as the other section of elites who were not part of the government.
“What our former colonizers were able to achieve
is to capture the noisy elite, give them money and disconnect them from the
pains of their ordinary folks,” he argued. “A guy as smart as Frank (Muhereza),
a man as smart as Nicholas Opiyo (Executive Director of Chapter Four), Godber
Tumushabe (Executive Director of Great Lakes Institute for Strategic Studies),
Sarah Bireete (Executive Director of Center for Constitutional Governance), all
they think they are able
to do is to sit back and offer commentary. This is a structural disconnect.”
It’s not natural that these elites—the brightest
minds—choose to join the NGO
sector when they walk out of universities.
Even if the current crop of leadership in the NGO sector is entirely removed,
Serunkuma argues, more bright minds will be captured because the NGO sector was structured by foreign funders to
//Cue in: “even if the…
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Serunkuma referred to a book by Kenyan law
professor, Makau Mutua on NGOs in East Africa who argued that funders know that
NGOs steal the money they receive and spend most of their time trying to forge
accountability documents and writing minutes of meetings that never happen.
“The givers of the money know but it doesn’t matter to them because this elite
is captured, it’s not on streets mobilizing wananchi to fight the government, which is playing comprador politics,” he
Even when there are tens of thousands of NGOs in
Uganda claiming to be working to improve peoples’ livelihood, things are
getting worse from democracy to human rights, education, and public health, he
argues. Most NGOs if measured on a scale of one to ten against their objectives, he claims, will score zero.
//Cue in: “what has gotten…
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Unless NGOs understand their origin, Serunkuma
warns, they will work for people they claim to represent. But how can they get
better, he didn’t offer alternatives.
Not all NGOs
Muhereza says it’s wrong to lump all civil society
organizations in one basket. He admits that there could be some organizations,
started by individuals with personal motives, that aren’t doing any work.
Muhereza also argues that most times people want tangible a contribution yet most work that is done by NGOs
is not quantifiable.
The book they are curating will show that NGOs’ impactful
work can’t be wished away.
//Cue in: “all civil societies….
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Dr. Mwambutsya Ndebeesa says that the point Sserunkuma is trying to make is,
civil society has been professionalized. Instead of being mass movements that
should influence and counterbalance the power of the state, NGOs, he says are
full of career professionals.
“Serunkuma wants a
civil society that is on the streets, that is in the village mobilizing,
a civil society that is anchored with the people, not this one, which is in offices,” he notes.
//Cue in: “civil society organizations…
Cue in:…down on them.”//
Ndebeesa is also cognizant that the state has not
given space to NGOs to play a more critical role in enlightening and mobilizing
the public. The debate comes at a time when space for organizations working in democracy, governance, and human
rights continue to shrink.
The NGO Bureau suspended 54 NGOs for failure to meet
operational requirements, which
include obtaining work permits,
failure to file annual returns and audited books of accounts, and failure to register with the bureau.
Prominent among these were; Africa Institute for Energy Governance
(AFIEGO), Chapter Four, Great Lakes Institute for Strategic Studies (GLISS), and
Citizens Coalition for Electoral Democracy in Uganda (CCEDU).
Muhereza says one thing that civil society has
been struggling with is to diversify funding sources. Speaking specifically
about the Center
for Basic Research, he says that they
are trying to generate their own resources.
“Most problems begin when NGOs have to depend
on funds, which
Muhereza says. Adding that “Donors
have their own intention, and sometimes you make money when you know you’re going to deliver a program because the donor
says it has to be delivered in a certain way.”