By Salihu Moh. Lukman
George Soros, in his book The Age of Fallibility, made the point that ‘society is suspicious of those who claim to be virtuous and not without justification’. The claim of being virtuous is very conventional and inherent with civil society actors. Whether they live up to this virtuous claim or not, is open to value judgement, subjectivity and like Soros assert, the burden of proof is certainly that of the claimant.
It is quite unfair to come to generalised conclusions regarding assessment of the work of civil society organisations. However, it is very valid to check the extent to which they, through lived reality and based on combination of both impact and demonstrable commitment to improved public welfare, strengthen cultural, social, economic and political life of society. Impact presupposes reference to some standards and values. This could be a problem. In the first place, do we have standards or values? If we do, are they shared or do they in anyway aggregate to some form of expectations? Do these standards or values by whatever estimation determine public perceptions, and more specifically the orientation of the work of civil society actors? Who are these civil society organisations, anyway?
Civil society organisations include trade unions, professional associations, faith-based groups, media organisations, community-based groups and other forms of non-governmental organisations. In the Nigerian context, it is a far cry to claim any known shared standard or value with respect to activities of these organisations. At best, regressive trend in our societal life, which accounts for crashed standards and value system, tend to strengthen the rise of these organisations based on the need to raise the capacity of citizens to address social, economic and political developmental challenges.
A second factor is a combination of declining public and private sector services coupled with inflexible and shrinking employment environment. This made the work of civil society organisations to serve as alternative source for income earning opportunity besides providing services. Thirdly, the existence of repressive and unpopular governments for more than twenty years in the country also serve as impetus for the proliferation of organisations that seek to challenge the legitimacy of policy, programmes and ultimately the existence of these governments.
Key assumption that connotes legitimacy to the existence of civil society organisations is that they are expected to be knowledge driven. Which means that actors, or at least leaders, have requisite skills to investigate problems of society, proffer solutions and develop plan to facilitate buy-in by other segments of society and government. This bears certain presuppositions to the effect that the organisation also has capacity to mobilise the needed resources for its activities and to that extent, it will restrict the scope of mobilisation of resources to implement activity and the operational cost that comes with it.
Regulation would be needed to firstly test the assumption. Secondly, to provide conditions for validating the assumptions. And thirdly to ensure that such conditions are upheld and respected by actors who seek to voluntarily engage in this mode of organising. Unfortunately, given potentials for instituting frameworks that leads to repressive and authoritarian practices, which could emasculate genuine organisations of the people, discussion of regulation as far as matters of civil society organisation is concerned appears to be very unpopular and in some cases offensive, perhaps legitimately so. But for how long should we continue to shy away from open discussions and debate about the need to establish clear and shared national standards regarding the work of civil society organisations, which is what the whole debate about regulation is about?
It is important however that we quickly recognise that the context of the debate is not to suggest the complete absence of standard but basically to highlight the existence of very low regulatory requirement and standard, which is today responsible for a situation that portends legitimacy and accountability problems. Legitimacy here basically refers to question of justification for the existence of these organisations while accountability deals with responsibility of these organisations to be answerable to the citizens or groups they seek to serve.
In terms of legitimacy, the best way to present the argument is to say that there are many civil society organisations that would not be missed by Nigerians if they are to close shop. These organisations are predominantly bureaucracies and have no direct bearing to the people and their activities not designed to primarily meet the immediate needs of the people. Where there is any correlation between these activities and the needs of the people, it could as well be coincidental.
There are of course very ridiculous cases where activities are designed purely based on the availability of funding. This brings us to the problem of accountability. There are two sides to this issue, i. e. financial and programme accountability. The easiest is financial accountability, which is just to ensure proper book keeping and expenditure based on approved budget. The second has to do with structures of debate, consensus, planning, implementation, monitoring and report.
This is the democratic ethos that validates and emphasises the authority of civil society organisations to the struggle for democracy. A very glaring issue here is that the dominance of bureaucracy in the life of any organisation, particularly in situations where such a bureaucracy is the central pillar and perhaps the only existing locus of power and given complete absence of membership, subscription or any form of affiliation, the moral authority and claims to democratic principles is weakened.
With respect to setting or raising standards or values through regulation, it is important that Nigerians, in particular civil society organisations, engage these issues and begin to concretely raise standards. The starting point is basically what can be called advocacy for-self and against self-degeneracy. Advocacy for-self would be to come up with those proposals that would strengthen democratic ethos but Advocacy against self-degeneracy would be to establish basic principles of dos and don’t. The challenge is basically a question of developing the democratic mechanism for enforcement, including that of self-regulation.
Lukman, a public commentator and analyst, writes from Abuja. [email protected]