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Southern Africa Report Archive

Alexander Costy writes of a state, in Mozambique, so lean that it threatens to disappear altogether - at least in the important rural district he recently studied. And into the resultant vacuum rush the various NGOs whose activity he chronicles in his article.

vol 11 no 4

Who governs?: NGOs in rural Mozambique
Alexander Costy

Printable Version
Southern Africa Report

SAR, Vol 11, No 4, July 1996
Page 17



Alexander Costy, a graduate student at the University of Toronto, is presently conducting research on Mozambique's tranisition to peace.

A recent United Nations Research Institute for Social Development (UNRISD) document on War-Torn Societies described postwar transitions in the following terms: "The historical time span from war to peace is a long period in which both seem to co-exist, where peace has come to some areas but not to others, where conflict lingers and remains an omnipresent threat and occasionally flares up again. Reconstruction and rebuilding take place throughout this period." (UNRISD, Rebuilding War-Torn Societies. Geneva: 1995. p. 5)

Indeed, a troubling combination of normality and insecurity seems to have settled across the districts and localities between the Rio Save and the Zambezi in the province of Sofala. On the one hand, there are readily visible signs of peace: Dozens of new primary schools and rural clinics have been built under the UNHCR's (Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) Quick Impact Projects (QUIPs) recovery programme, and extensive demining and road rehabilitation have restored links between town and country. Furthermore, with demobilisation, repatriation and the elections behind them, it would seem that Sofala's inhabitants now stand ready for the next step toward political recovery: state decentralisation and the democratisation of local politics. On the other hand, however, one senses that an unfinished war is still being waged in the province. As a Renamo stronghold during the conflict, some areas of Sofala Province continue to be contested by government and elements of the former rebel movement. A pressing problem of "dual administration" prevails, whereby officially unrecognised Renamo authorities claim effective control over substantial tracts of territory, to the exclusion of the state, making access by government workers difficult and, on occasion, dangerous.

A prominent feature of this postwar landscape is the impressive array of international and (to a lesser extent) national non- governmental organisations engaged in Sofala's recovery process. There is no question that NGOs have helped in countless ways to lay the foundations for peace in the province. Yet they may also be sustaining "lingering" local conflicts and, to some extent, impeding political reconciliation in a way that can ultimately subvert prospects for decentralised democracy. In what follows, and with a cautious eye on current plans for decentralisation and the holding of local elections, I take this opportunity to offer a few "first impressions" about some untended political side-effects of humanitarian intervention in Sofala's troubled districts.

Marginalising local government

At the height of the emergency period between 1991 and 1994, the NGO roster in Sofala included some of the biggest names in humanitarian assistance, like World Vision, the Lutheran Federation and Médécins sans Frontières, as well as a wide variety of smaller European, American and South African groups. Today, in this transitory phase from "relief-to-development," while some have withdrawn, others are seeking to stay, either by applying for extensions to emergency project funding, or by bidding for longer-term development contracts. In early 1996, at least twenty international NGOs and six prominent national organisations were active in Sofala, many with operations in two or more districts. In their ongoing support for resettlement and demobilisation, political re- integration and decentralization, NGOs provide essential services: from food distribution to infrastructure rehabilitation, health, education, water and sanitation, demining, agricultural extension and vocational training. Given their relative organisational strength and economic weight, NGOs have had significant impact on Sofala's recovery, not only in material terms, but also politically.

In the national capital, NGOs must contend with ministries, donor governments and multi-lateral agencies. In the field, they are anything but small fry. By local standards, the NGOs working in Sofala are powerful organisations. Detailed budgetary information is difficult to come by. What is clear, however, is that with individual annual budgets of U.S.$200,000 and up, even modest NGO projects are able to mobilise human and material resources which, for the moment at least, far exceed those of local authorities.

As a result, NGOs are strongly positioned to act effectively to produce results in key relief and development sectors. Though they are formally bound to fulfil basic project requirements negotiated with the government, NGOs in practice enjoy a wide margin of discretion in deciding the modalities and timing of their interventions in the districts, and often leave little room for government input in day-to-day operations. Frequently, agencies run "closed shops" which do not conform to government criteria or priorities for the region. One US-based food relief group which is now expanding into agricultural extension work explained that they welcomed the presence of Department of Agriculture officials "in so far as they are willing to participate in the training programmes we operate," admitting that they run a "separate programme in the province." In the health sector, too, NGOs are notorious for running alternative systems, staffing newly built clinics with medical workers whose professional qualifications are not recognised by provincial health authorities.

In the districts, considerable facing-off occurs between local administrations and NGO workers. Much of it revolves around the nuts-and-bolts issues of access to food and fuel supplies, vehicles and power generators, and other coveted assets of international assistance which, from the perspective of local communities, are strongly associated not only with welfare, but also with power and prestige. Typically, control over the allocation and use of these resources remains overwhelmingly in the hands of NGO personnel for the duration of the project. Local officials complain of being cut off from access to vehicles and other resources, which they see as having been formally assigned to them, and thus being denied the chance to improve their working standards and performance. Perhaps not without reason, NGO workers are wary of officials' personal or political motives when requests are made for car keys or food supplies.

But a more fundamental issue arises. At a time when district authorities are preparing to take on new administrative functions and responsibilities under the 1993 Municipalities Law, they are feeling increasingly marginalised. This stems partly from the officials' infrequent contacts with their superiors in the provincial capital. Indeed, local officials have few opportunities to leave their district for consultations in Beira and, unhappily, few city bureaucrats are willing to endure the penury of long travel and poor accommodation associated with evaluation tours in most districts. NGO workers, by contrast, move continuously between city and field bases, and maintain daily radio contact with Beira. Recent interviews with Caia and Gorongosa officials point to further erosion of already weak links between provincial and local levels of government, to a reinforcement of suspicions, and a sense of alienation that is potentially damaging to intergovernmental relations.

Increasingly, marginalisation also appears to define the relationship between district authorities and the community. Where it can, government routinely takes credit for the material benefits which NGOs bring to communities in the form of credits, clinics, wells and new bridges or schools. But inhabitants are well aware of the overwhelming economic superiority of the outside agencies operating in their midst. NGOs easily become the primary food or wage providers in a district, in some cases employing dozens of local labourers, extensionists, technical and logistics personnel, drivers and guards. As a result, wages and food quotas become inflated to the point where district authorities are unable to compete. By contrast to NGOs which so efficiently vaccinate, rehabilitate, build and employ, local government is seen to have little to offer on its own. Once again, on the eve of decentralisation, district administrations are being drained in advance, not only of valuable human resources, but also of the popular legitimacy and support upon which, paradoxically, they must increasingly depend.

Entering the political fray

Many NGOs deliberately intervene in Renamo-dominated areas with the explicit objective of facilitating their political "integration" into the reconstruction and pacification process. As politically "neutral" actors they have been able to intervene where government cannot. Indeed, NGOs have played a crucial role in making inroads into areas previously inaccessible to government workers, such as the remote communities of Maringue, Moanza and Cheringoma districts. Given recent history, NGOs are simply more acceptable in Renamo-controlled areas than agents of the former enemy and most observers, including the government itself, are quick to recognize this.

But can NGOs remain neutral in a politicised environment? In the experience of a Diario correspondent who covers the troubled districts: "NGOs must adopt a totally political attitude. In a certain way they must be supportive of Renamo, not because they support it politically, but in order to better integrate themselves with the local community. They draw up programmes which, in one way or another, support Renamo. This is strictly in order for NGOs to achieve their own technical objectives. The international NGO in Moanza has had to do this in order to expand the health service throughout the area. In Cheringoma, too, the NGOs have had to cater to the desires of the (Renamo) political leadership in order to work with the community." Not surprisingly, similar claims have been made by Renamo elements located in government controlled areas, who view NGOs as supporting government policy to their detriment.

Despite their technical emphasis, then, an implicit politicisation of NGOs can occur in the more troubled districts. Moreover, in districts where political power and administrative control are under dispute, the situation is more complex than simply making peace with the "powers that be." NGO interventions become the object of political flare-ups between the government and Renamo, and foreign agencies are quickly blamed for taking sides. NGOs must thus cater to both sides simultaneously. In the words of one field director: "When they enter these districts, they contact the administration. But if they do not open up to Renamo, they will create tensions. Renamo may prevent the population from participating in the project or responding to it."

On paper, the policy of NGOs to intervene in disputed districts reflects their desire to promote reconciliation, by "integrating" opposing political factions and their constituencies into a single, nationwide process of reconstruction and development. In practice, however, this is clearly problematic. True, NGOs in many cases possess the financial clout to affect the local environment, but they do not appear to be able to neutralize it politically. Instead, they can be absorbed into it, and become part of the local or provincial power equation. For local leaders in exceptionally distressed areas like these, and for the community at large, the material and political stakes involved in relief and development projects are extremely high. In their struggle for popular support, Renamo leaders and government cadres alike jump at every opportunity to claim credit for themselves or vilify the opponent. Many of these opportunities, apparently, are supplied by NGO activities. NGOs engaging in a policy of equitable treatment seem to be treading the fine line between a desired political reconciliation and the unintended reproduction of local conflicts among wartime protagonists.

Anointing the new prophets

Beyond the political side-effects of what are primarily technical relief and development operations, some NGOs in Sofala are engaged in the business of "changing attitudes and perceptions" about the recent past, and "discussing alternatives" about the future. In Beira, this consists of organising political seminars and workshops to strengthen local civil society, mainly by encouraging self-help and promoting a new form of inclusive, pluralised politics. These projects, financed by foreign groups and implemented by local ones like KULIMA and ADESSO, draw representatives from a wide cross section of Beira's emerging, youthful middle class: the political parties, the professions and the local media and social and cultural leaders. Discussion topics draw from the important development issues of the day: the role of individuals and local groups in a democratic society, decentralisation, reconciliation and empowerment. Special attention is given to the problems of demobilisation, and to the prospects and challenges faced by women, children, the youth, the elderly, by emergent NGOs and small business, by the press and political parties.

For now, these political initiatives are held mainly in the city. But a principle objective for KULIMA in the coming months is to bring civil society to the countryside, ". . . to the districts in order to do the same type of work we have been doing here in the city. The districts have been destroyed. We can help by creating carpenters' associations and potters' associations. So through information seminars and courses we will be able to contribute." ADESSO's director explains. "We talk a lot about civil society here in Africa because our society is disturbed and confused. The basis of all these ills is in the formal (government) structures." Like KULIMA, his group is poised for action in the countryside, awaiting only the funds to begin "to promote the civil society, educate the people around the province to have a culture of production."

For the districts, these short statements have some serious implications. District administrators can expect the influx of NGOs to continue. This may be a good sign, but not necessarily. It may continue to reproduce some of the problems already discussed. True, these problems will not now be posed so much by direct international intervention as by enthusiastic national non- governmental agencies from Beira. Statements by groups like ADESSO, KULIMA and others betray a certain city smugness about the lessons that rural communities must now learn and the ethics they must adopt, and an unsettling confidence in the civilising effect of their own organisational structures and philosophies. Paradoxically, zealous city talk about rural empowerment and mobilisation is not unlike the rhetoric employed by the now discredited grupos dinamizadores, and could well receive a similarly ambivalent response from peasants.

Post-war transitions, continues the UNRISD study, are moments of confusion about the relative powers and responsibilities of governments and of the many humanitarian actors which arrive on the scene. There is ambiguity over the relationship "between the international community, and what remains of state and local authorities, and remains of civil society." The challenge is to address the question of "what should and can be the relative role, responsibility and authority of external and local actors in defining appropriate policies and measures to sustain peace and rebuild war-torn countries."

This challenge is especially salient for the people of Sofala. Having moved from war to peace and then to multi-party democracy, the province now readies itself for a difficult but exciting experiment in local democracy. District administrations have been severely weakened by years of fighting, population movements, and more recently, the overwhelming burden of international humanitarian assistance. If the local elections are to mean anything, the new equation must make ample room for local administrators to find legitimacy and confidence among their constituents, to become more closely involved with the problems and concerns of the communities which they will serve, to provide a greater measure of political and economic security in their districts and to offer tangible services and local development policy guidance. This means that NGO interventions, national or international, technical or more explicitly political, must take a back seat in local political and economic life. Continuing to ignore or bypass local governments, or to throw their weight around in local politics as they appear presently to do, may damage the democratisation process.

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