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Alexander Costy provides a nice spin on the question of Mozambican NGOs and the state of "civil society" in that country. He concludes by saying: "In consequence, it is by no means clear to me just how the notion of civil society - and the developmental model built-up around it - fits into Mozambican reality. The same is true for Mozambican NGOs, whose preoccupation with competitiveness and organizational entrepreneurship (however much imposed by financial constraints upon them), somehow misses the point as to kind of developmental work that needs most urgently to be done."

vol 10 no 5

Donor dollars and Mozambique NGOs
Alexander Costy

Printable Version
Southern Africa Report

SAR, Vol 10, No 5, July 1995
Page 15



Alexander Costy, who has just returned from three months in Mozambique, is doing graduate work in International Relations at the University of Toronto and is an associate of the Millennium Research Group.

During a recent visit to Maputo I was struck by the extent and high-profile of the international presence in Mozambique. Less visible, but perhaps more significant to Mozambique than the dazzling display of international assistance, however, is the rising tide of national NGOs now sweeping the capital. The precious few cars at their disposal are unmarked and weathered, but they represent an emerging civil element which testifies to the many profound changes in Mozambique and to a strong optimism about the future.

Numbers are difficult to come by, but an estimated 120 national NGOs are active in Mozambique today. Some, like the Organizaçao da Mulher Moçambicana (OMM) and the Organizaçao da Juventude Moçambicana (OJM) are carry-overs of the mass organizations (ODMs) set up by the formerly marxist FRELIMO government in the post-independence period. Others are remnants of the old agricultural co-operative system or surviving state-sponsored professional associations. The vast majority of them, however, sprang to life after 1990 with the introduction of a new constitution allowing, for the first time, for free association among citizens. At the same time, the shift from a managed to a market economy has significantly reduced the scope of government spending, while the outbreak of peace in 1992 and first-time multiparty elections in 1994 have created a new space for social action. Today, national NGOs cover a wide range of social, educational and, to a lesser extent, technical fields connected with humanitarian and developmental objectives. Their activities span the range from public health, family planning and AIDS prevention to rural development, primary education and professional training. Their growth in the past five years has been such that a secondary service industry has mushroomed up around them, offering strategic advice, legal counsel and access to office space and equipment.

I recently attended a two-day conference hosted by the Centre for African Studies (CAS) at Maputo's Eduardo Mondlane University, where about thirty national NGO leaders convened to discuss their purpose and identity within the emerging civil society in Mozambique. For many, it was a first-time opportunity to exchange ideas and discuss strategies for the future. The encounter ended on an optimistic note with a closing speech by CAS director Isabel Casimiro, who concluded that national NGOs reflect the vitality of this new phase in Mozambican history, and that they should prepare for interesting and challenging times ahead.

My own impression from the conference and from subsequent discussions with NGO officials was less bright, however. As I will discuss below, NGOs here appear caught in an increasingly awkward position between international donors and the community they wish to serve, especially in the rural sector. Generally, they also unduly defensive towards the government, and they tend to compete amongst themselves rather than to work together. Such problems will weigh heavily both on their capacity to face future development challenges in Mozambique, and on the prospects for their own survival.

The partnership problem

As noted, recent political changes have created a favourable context for the emergence of a community of national NGOs in Mozambique. But this community's organizational form, philosophy and development strategies are shaped overwhelmingly by the 180 or so international agencies, NGOs and bilateral donors which flooded the country at the turn of the decade. A key strategy among donor organizations during the Emergency period was to sponsor the formation of national NGOs as "partners," or intermediaries between themselves and the communities they wished to serve. This was meant to involve Mozambicans in the relief effort, and to bypass the political and bureaucratic obstacles of government by opening-up direct channels for the delivery of goods and services to recipient communities. National groups were involved in facilitating or executing the emergency assistance programme, providing valuable logistical and communications support. Many agree that the relief effort and subsequent electoral process were well served by such close cooperation between national and international organizations.

Now, with the emergency officially over, long-term rural development is the order of the day, and many national NGOs are looking to change their orientation accordingly. However, the initial partnership framework remains intact in the post-emergency phase, and, as things now stand, national NGOs are 90 to 100 percent dependent on foreign financial support for their prospective development activities. The relative availability of money from abroad is matched by the virtual non-existence of local funding sources: government spending is restricted and the domestic private sector extremely weak. Moreover, the increasing impoverishment of most Mozambicans excludes the possibility of reliable income coming through membership fees or service charges. This framework of dependency prevents the local NGO community from building essential national alliances which would strengthen their operational capacity, broaden their scope for independent decision-making and enhance their sustainability. More seriously, it threatens to fragment, rather than unify, national efforts towards development.

Partnership with the community?

In a rare public utterance on this problem - published in the new national weekly Savana - one reader bluntly noted that the only difference between yesterday's mass democratic organizations (ODMs) and today's NGOs is in their political (and economic) masters. Leadership in the social sphere has been transferred from the state to international doadores (donors), and, he adds, there is no sign, that the new breed represents broader societal interests any more than did the old. In fact, the Mozambican population was not actively involved in this shift. Unlike the Western interest groups and social associations after which they are modelled, Mozambican NGOs did not emerge historically from the spontaneous organization of voluntary social interests. They thus suffer from the lack of a strong popular base.

Today, NGOs are unclear about how to deal with this "representation deficit," which goes to the very heart of their organizational identity, inhibits their work in the field, and ultimately threatens their purpose within the development process. Some facets of the problem are readily apparent. The majority of national NGOs are located in the capital, the seat of international donors, while 70 percent of Mozambicans live in small rural communities scattered across the countryside. Because of their own short history and the "hurry-up" nature of the emergency and electoral work they have primarily been engaged in to date, NGOs have had no opportunity to cultivate meaningful links with rural communities. National NGO officials are urban recruits with a mainly administrative background, apt in dealing with donors, but with little first hand knowledge of socio-economic forms of organization in remote areas. Moreover, they belong predominantly to the ethnicity of the South, and are schooled in Portuguese, an official language which, according to this year's government estimates, three quarters of the population do not speak.

Narrowing the gap between national NGOs and the community was a central survival strategy discussed at the CAS conference. Within the current funding framework, rural intervention is primarily project based. Running an internationally financed project is therefore essential for immediate survival. An increasingly popular funding strategy for groups like AMRU and MBEU (focusing on rural women), ADCR (on integrated rural development) and AMODEFA (on family planning) is to conduct brief, on-site "socio-economic" studies in order to involve local communities in determining social needs in selected districts of the country. These studies, it is hoped, will generate representative, needs-based projects for proposal, or, as one NGO official candidly told me, "for sale" to international donors.

Thus projects are conceived within a competitive logic, with an eye on increasingly smaller slices of the international project-funding pie. Yet this type of "project writing" is of extremely limited representational value. Studies typically involve contracting an economist or sociologist to conduct field-work for a period of up to six weeks, hardly the time needed to lay the ground-work for long term partnerships. At the same time, the limited time-frame of most project funding also provides little sustained incentive to become firmly rooted in remote communities.

In sum, by engaging in a project-funding race, national NGOs risk establishing little more than a cosmetic representational link with rural communities. Yet, in truth, they may have little choice: the economic situation is extreme, and not likely to improve any time soon. Meanwhile the current framework, which incites them essentially to put development up "for sale" for the sake of self-sustainment, keeps them closer to international donors than to their potential social base.

Partnership among equals?

Many NGOs do similar kinds of work. For example, five national organizations, including Forum Mulher and Mulheid, work alongside the veteran OMM on women's issues. The Associaçao Amigos da Criança, the Associaçao de Apoio a Criança da Rua, KANINBO, and GYANANA all work with children. Many other groups, like MOCIZA and AAIM, MBEU and ADCR, take an integrated approach to development, and carry out multi-sector activities ranging from education and agriculture to maternal and child health and community development.

The NGO community as whole could fight such overlap and consequent fragmentation of their efforts by setting-up frameworks for collaboration within specific areas of action. This is especially true in the more technical spheres of development like nursing, teaching and on-site professional training, where national NGOs suffer from a scarcity of resources and qualified personnel. And, as it happens, many NGO leaders agree with this point in principle: coordinating facilities like KULIMA and LINK have emerged to promote dialogue and information sharing, for example. But the desire to coordinate is tempered by a general fear of encroachment or not a little bad faith, while, more generally, a competitive atmosphere prevails. NGOs (no doubt understandably) are eager to build their institutional autonomy and make a name for themselves in this new era or opportunity. As a result, practical coordination strategies, such as joint planning and project-sharing, technical cooperation, personnel exchanges, joint-training and the common use of limited transport and communications materials, are slow to be seriously considered.

Such measures would, of course, help to overcome the technical and material shortcomings which weaken the position of national NGOs, and enable them to begin to face the enormity and complexity of the development work at hand. Any loss of autonomy among equals would also be made up for by a new collective autonomy vis-à-vis international donors. Unfortunately, here again it is their dire financial circumstances that dictates outcomes, encouraging national NGOs to respect the incentives and constraints of a development framework which privileges vertical links over constructive horizontal ones. Groups already partnered with international agencies and NGOs tend to value that relationship more than potential links with similarly focused indigenous groups, while those on the outside mainly aspire to get into the international linkage game. Apart from discouraging a more coordinated development effort, this competitive dynamic also reinforces the conditions that have given rise financial dependence in the first place.

Partnership with government?

The model for national development presently being implemented in Mozambique reflects a powerful international trend in current developmental and humanitarian thinking. This model focuses on developing the "civil society," and is decidedly non-governmental, even anti-governmental: direct government to government transfers are on the wane, while the idea of channelling assistance through large, transnational NGOs and international agencies is rapidly gaining currency. Domestically, this translates into a dramatic reduction in state intervention in key areas, and into a parallel increase in the participation of non-state institutions, said by proponents of this model to be more sensitive to development needs because of their relative proximity to citizens.

This model speaks powerfully to NGO leaders in Mozambique, because it is set against a historical background of strong, often repressive state intervention in society. Thus, despite recent constitutional changes, elections and a commitment to social and economic freedoms, government continues to carry the burden of past mistakes. Today, the idea of an active state quickly conjures up old ghosts and is regarded, to borrow the words of one NGO director, as a "passé form of governance." And, indeed, the Mozambican government does have grave limitations, not least an archaic bureaucracy and a serious lack of technical and organizational capacity. Information-gathering in the field also needs to be improved seriously, and corruption has increased exponentially in recent years. Besides, like any government, it has its own political interests, thus opening up plenty of room for conflict with NGO objectives. Moreover, as former civil servants, many national NGO officials know the shortcomings of government well!

Yet it should also be emphasized that the state has been engaged in integrated development work for over two decades, making it the single most experienced entity in the country, both in terms of its successes and its mistakes. It is in a unique position to lend valuable institutional support to the long-term humanitarian and development objectives of NGOs.

If the national NGO community presently enjoys the favour of international donors, government possesses by far the widest available administrative reach in the countryside. It also has vast technical superiority in key development areas such as education, health and agriculture. Cooperation could be fruitful. Joint programming would reduce potential overlaps and enhance the distribution of development efforts across the national territory. Urban-based NGOs could "piggy-back" on existing government structures and networks in remote rural areas, thus extending their own reach and experience while reinforcing the central development programme. Joint gathering of demographic and statistical information from the field would mutually enhance the capacity to properly assess ongoing rural projects and plan future ones. The list of potential benefits from cooperation goes on and on, and, as many development-watchers here will attest, the perils of non-cooperation with government are just as numerous.

During the CAS conference, a National Planning Commission official invited NGO leaders to participate in creating a dialogue. The reaction was cool. In the present economic climate, the immediate benefits of present links to donors far outweigh the distant advantages of partnership with government. International donors are perceived as more reliable, and inspire less suspicion. Here too, the temptation for emerging NGOs to go it alone and strike a strong public image on the basis of which to solicit new international funding is strong. So is the desire to work autonomously and at first hand in the field. Yet as one well informed observer once suggested, "It may be personally more satisfying to work with a handful of peasants . . . but it helps more people to strengthen government structures" (Joseph Hanlon, Mozambique: Who Calls the Shots?, 1989). Indeed, international partners may come and go as they please, but the government is permanently tied to the country and its people. In the end, both the government and NGOs share a strong stake in building their capacity and legitimacy within the community.

A word on civil society

I was surprised to hear the term "civil society" so frequently repeated during the CAS conference and in my later talks with Mozambican NGO officials. Maybe this was naive of me, because civil society is the natural habitat of NGOs, and they have every interest in nurturing and preserving it. Yet, like many interested observers, I am not entirely sure what it means. The civil society debate in Europe and North America is far from settled. But there is general agreement that the term refers to a modern form of social organization meant to buffer the individual's welfare from the excesses or failures of states and markets. Indeed, the civil society, and the complex web of civic organizations, local associations, interest groups, lobbies, political parties, unions and professional communities which make it up, presupposes a social environment in which people are educated enough, healthy enough and economically secure enough to identify and forcefully articulate their interests in an organized manner.

Perhaps my surprise at the widespread use of this concept in Mozambique sprang from the fact that this latter picture was not at all what I saw around me in Maputo, much less in the provincial centres and rural districts I visited during my short stay. I feel obliged to emphasize here that Mozambique is among the most impoverished and indebted countries in the world, and registers some of the lowest of human development indicators. Over a quarter of children die before the age of five. Up to 70 percent of rural households live in extreme poverty, and the adult literacy rate is 33 percent (16 percent for women). Prices in Maputo have risen to the point where over half the monthly minimum wage is absorbed by transportation costs to and from the workplace. Crime and rural banditry have risen exponentially, contributing to a severe sense of insecurity around the country. Meanwhile, there is virtually no local production, and government has been truncated by two decades of war and external interference. It is a country in which children crippled by disease or mutilated by land mines crawl begging on restaurant floors, and where villagers scramble after the rainfall to collect water from roadside ditches. Mozambicans, in short, are in no strong position to organize.

In consequence, it is by no means clear to me just how the notion of civil society - and the developmental model built-up around it - fits into Mozambican reality. The same is true for Mozambican NGOs, whose preoccupation with competitiveness and organizational entrepreneurship (however much imposed by financial constraints upon them), somehow misses the point as to kind of developmental work that needs most urgently to be done.

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