8 Jun 2010

Placards to powerpoint? What are the incentives for and against citizens' agency in #Tanzania?

Geir Sundet of DFID's Accountability in Tanzania (AcT) programme made a presentation last week in which he argued that there was a trend of civil society in Tanzania becoming bureaucratised. In his words, "civic engagement moved from demonstrations to conference tables" and "from placards to powerpoint presentations".

He told a story to demonstrate his point, which I will paraphrase here:
An informal group of people with a shared interest forms to address a particular problem they face, a positive example of citizens taking action. But then someone in the group raises the point that there are donors that might be willing to give some money to a group like theirs, and the whole focus of their group shifts away from the original issue and towards chasing money. Gradually the group starts employing professional people who can write good proposals and account for any funds the group receives, and the activities the group engages in shift from informal and dynamic community mobilisation and lobbying to rigid and structured projects that suits donors but doesn't work so well in practice.
I can't argue with the suggestion that civil society in Tanzania is indeed too bureaucratised, too projectised, and perhaps even too civil (though I would prefer not to go that far). Nor do I dispute the related points that accountability is political not technical - I have previously argued that even service delivery work is more political than is usually acknowledged. And I would agree that working with the formal side of the policy-making process has rarely been effective for civil society in Tanzania - NGOs' engagement effectively becomes much like donor agencies, with marginally more legitimacy but without the technical capacity and without the influence gained by holding the purse strings. My experience with that kind of work is that most of what you do achieve (not much) is brought about by convincing a donor representative to make your argument for you, which is hardly the kind of accountability we're looking for.

But the point I dispute here is the idea that somehow civil society has shifted away from more activist methods - from "placards to powerpoint" - initially for the simple reason that I have seen very little evidence of the placards existing in the first place. When Dar es Salaam's water supply utility was privatised, the only placards to be seen were at a demonstration that took place within an NGO's office compound. Similar privatisations in other countries that attracted huge protests. The recent World Economic Forum event in Dar es Salaam saw protests, but these were led by South African activists and pretty much ignored by Tanzanians. And here at Daraja we recently conducted a survey of attitudes towards local governance (report expected shortly) in which 80% of respondents said that they would never attend a demonstration or protest march. In short, Tanzania doesn't have a culture of public protest, and I think this needs a little more analysis.

Geir did make the point that bureaucratised civil society organisations close down space that more demand-focussed citizens' groups cannot then fill. And perhaps this is the more accurate analysis - that civil society has become co-opted into the formal policy-making arena, therefore effectively preventing more genuine citizens groups from emerging. I'm just not sure that local groups would fill this space even if was available to them.

Let's not forget that the incentives for individual citizens taking action against, for example, local petty corruption, are pretty strongly against such action. "Let he who is without sin cast the first stone," but where is that person? Anyone who profits in any way from bending the rules (whose brother used a faked form four leaving certificate to gain entry to teacher training, or who bribed a public official to speed up the process of getting a business license or birth certificate, for example) is likely to be unwilling to publicly criticise powerful others. And even if a "clean" person stands up and makes their voice heard they are taking a risk, since the perpetrators of petty corruption are usually also those with the power to make that citizen's life difficult.

Of course, this challenge does not undermine the bigger point, that civil society would have more impact if it moved away from trying to influence change through formal consultational channels and focussed more on finding safe and effective ways for citizens to make their voice heard through the political process.

But it does mean that trying to promote citizens' agency is a bigger challenge than reorganising donor funding to change civil society's incentives. If donor funding for NGOs working on accountability was taken away, for example, this wouldn't necessarily encourage more local groups to take more local actions. It might lead to very little. Instead, it requires finding new ways of creating channels for citizens to make their voice heard without putting themselves and their livelihoods at risk.

What are the incentives for and against citizens' agency? And what can we do to change them?