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NGO Debate: “You’re Doing Nothing, We are Doing Impactful Work”

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.
30 Nov 2021 16:43
A recent article by Yusuf Serunkuma bashing NGOs triggered uproar in the sector. That uproar is still palpable

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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 sector.

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 still visible.

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. 

With 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 capture elites.   

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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 argued.   

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.  

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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.   

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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.   

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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).   

Improve   

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 are external,” 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.”   

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