Civil society organisations (CSOs) are key players in development and democratisation processes of a country.
Sunday View by Maxwell Saungweme
CSOs broadly have three main functions in development and democratisation of a country and these are: articulating citizens’ interests and demands; defending citizens’ rights; and providing goods and services directly to the need, without recourse to state organisations.
Each of the three functions is critical for the mobilisation of citizens towards various activities and processes in the development of a country.
Articulating citizens’ interests and demands is an important function.
When state policies and programmes of government do not address adequately the needs of the poor and vulnerable sections of the community, CSOs come in and represent the interest of these groups without fear or favour.
Defending citizens’ rights is an important function in nations riddled with conflict and political crisis.
Defending rights involves CSOs performing monitoring and watchdog functions to make the state and its functionaries accountable.
Admittedly, performing these functions brings CSOs into conflict with government and donors, but genuine CSOs are measured by their ability not to relinquish their functions for the sake of mollifying the government and donors.
CSOs become a danger to democracy and development when they participate in what Joerg Forbrig refers to as vices that render CSOs to be dysfunctional and hinder them from making positive contribution to democracy and development.
Political co-option is one of the documented vices of civil society. Co-option of CSOs is a strong instrument used by political parties to promote the political actors’ own anchorage on communities, thereby increasing their legitimacy.
The co-option of CSOs is not only done by ruling political parties but also opposition parties.
Political co-option increases the chances of the CSOs’ survival in a politically polarised environment as co-opted CSOs will receive political favours and preference by the political actors and some donors. However, political co-option defeats the whole purpose of an organisation posing as a CSO.
Co-option limits their impartiality and ability to play a watchdog role and defend and articulate citizen’s interests.
CSOs are formed not to be annexes of government, but to articulate citizens’ interest, defend their rights and provide services where governments are falling short without recourse to state agencies.
The state of Zimbabwe’s civil society today is a sad one as some sections of the CSOs have negated their core principles and main functions and have agreed to be co-opted into the country’s coalition government.
This political co-option of sections of Zimbabwe’s CSOs is not only causing discord in the country’s civil society but also making the CSOs dysfunctional at a juncture where CSOs have to provide leadership, represent the suffering masses and articulate and represent their rights and interests boldly in the face of a coalition government whose actions and policies have alienated the majority of Zimbabweans.
It is unsettling that the coalition government through its police force has in the past eight weeks increased their clampdown on CSOs who are working in human rights and voter education.
The same coalition government, through its police, is also gagging freedom of expression by banning the use of shortwave radios.
It then defies logic that instead of CSOs uniting, some are actually entertaining supporting Copac in a process that is totally flawed and leaves out the poor.
CSOs in Zimbabwe should know that being politically co-opted is dangerous for democracy and development and weakens their ability to operate as civil society and as such, should choose between leaving civil society and openly joining political parties.