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The Africa CSO Sustainability Index: A Comparative Analysis of Government/Civil Society Relations

Established in 2009, the annual CSO Sustainability Index for Sub-Saharan Africa (Africa CSOSI) relies on local CSO practitioners to assess the sustainability of the CSO sector in 23 selected African countries, based on seven dimensions: advocacy, financial viability, infrastructure, legal environment, organizational capacity, public image, and service provision. This event, entitled “A Comparative Analysis of Government/Civil Society Relations” will explore the report’s findings for the year 2011.

Date & Time

Sep. 20, 2012
9:30am – 11:30am ET


5th Floor, Woodrow Wilson Center
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Michael Curtis, Acting Deputy Assistant Administrator for Africa, USAID

Lisa Slifer-Mbacke, Technical Director, Management Systems International

John Harbeson, Professor of Political Science Emeritus, City College of New York

Professorial lecturer for the African Studies Program, Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies   

Arthur Larok, Country Director, ActionAid Uganda

Stephan E. Klingelhofer, Senior Vice President, International Center for Not-for-Profit Law

Steve McDonald, Director, Africa Program and Project on Leadership and Building State Capacity, Wilson Center

What is the Africa’s Civil Society Organization Sustainability Index (CSOSI)?

The Civil Society Sustainability Index (CSOSI) for sub-Saharan Africa has been measuring the viability of civil society in 23 African countries since 2009. During the event Michael Curtis, Acting Deputy Assistant Administrator for Africa at the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), stated that civil society organizations (CSOs) “play a critical role in their countries’ development and accountable governance.” However, he also acknowledged that African CSOs often face great challenges when they try to fill the gap in service delivery left by their governments. Given these challenges, Curtis said that the CSOSI helps USAID “assess, in a reliable way over time, the viability of civil society organizations writ large and fine-tune our programming to more effectively support them.”

Lisa Slifer-Mbacke of Management Systems International (MSI) explained that the CSOSI is based on a criterion of seven variables which include the legal environment, organizational capacity, service provision, financial viability, infrastructure, advocacy and public image. The scores range from 1.0 to 7.0 – with 1.0 being the highest level and 7.0 the lowest level. Furthermore, countries are categorized into three tiers according to their methodology. The “Sustainability Impeded” tier refers to countries with scores ranging from 5.1 to 7.0. Countries in the “Sustainability Evolving” have scores ranging from 3.1 to 5.0 and the “Sustainability Enhanced” is a designation for countries with the marks from 1.0 to 3.0. The CSOSI assessment is done by a locally-convened panel of CSOs that rank each variable, write a report and send the findings to the Editorial Committee in the U.S. With regards to government/CSOs relationship, Slifer-Mbacke stated that “two trends are apparent over the last three years: partnerships and polarization.” In some cases, CSOs and governments are cooperating and in others their relationship is tense, especially during election season.

Case Studies:

  1. Ethiopia: Worst Case of Government/ Civil Society Relation.

John Harbeson, Professor Emeritus of Political Science at City College of New York and Professorial Lecturer for the African Studies Program at Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), presented the situation of CSOs in Ethiopia. Harbeson posited that the overall CSOSI of Ethiopia should be lower than the actual 5.6 score registered by USAID. His computations revealed that Ethiopia should receive 6.4. According to Harbeson, two reasons explain the tense relationship between the Government and civil society. The first relates to the nature of the Ethiopian state. He stated that “Ethiopia’s history is that of an empire… and the problem of the state is how to transform this state from an empire into a modern state.” The model of governance chosen by the state was not wholly accepted by the people, which fostered a sentiment of illegitimacy. The state then assumed somewhat of an authoritarian posture. The second reason is owed to the country’s economic conditions. He asserted that “development at the grassroots is very low compared to the development at the state level.” The 2009 Civil Society Act (CSA) constrains foreign and local funding of CSOs and prohibits their entry into the political sphere. The Government partners with CSOs only when the latter support the former’s policies. Harbeson concluded that “overall, the authoritarian environment underlying tight CSA restrictions and controls, intensifies negative effects on CSO sustainability.”

  1. Uganda: Repression and Cooperation

Arthur Larok, Country Director of ActionAid Uganda characterized the relationship in Uganda between the Government and civil society as one under construction. At present, it can be understood by using what he identified as the “pendulum theory of State behavior” with each oscillation of the pendulum veering between repression and cooperation. Larok mentioned that “there is extreme evidence of cooperation at the national level, but extreme repression at the district level.” The pendulum swings towards cooperation when CSOs supplement the Government’s delivery of services. Conversely, the pendulum swings towards repression when CSOs are viewed as “politically incorrect.” In this instance, the Government uses different tactics to delegitimize CSOs by branding them as supporters of homosexuality for example. Larok asserted that the CSOSI is an important tool because it helps Ugandan CSOs focus on areas in need of improvement. He said that the Index is an evidence-based instrument that can be used “for engagement in the NGO Policy reform process and in the resurgent spirit of dialogue between CSOs and the Government at national and district levels.”

  1. Kenya: An Illustration of Practical Evolution

Stephan E. Klingelhofer, Senior Vice President of the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law (ICNL) outlined the process of collaboration between the Government and CSOs from 2006 to 2012 in Kenya. In 2006, the Parliament passed a “sessional paper” regarding the NGO Coordination Act of 1990.  Klingelhofer stated that this paper “found many problems with the current regulations and recommended a thorough review.” The Government tasked the NGO Coordinating Board with conducting the mandated review. The Board partnered with civil society representatives (the CSO Reference Group), the Charity Commission, and the ICNL to conduct the lead the assessment evaluation. Klingelhofer pointed out that communication decreased between the Board and the CSO Reference Group, because the NGO draft laws that they prepared represented divergent views. Consequently, the CSO Reference Group drafted a new law, the Public Benefit Organization Bill (PBO Bill) and introduced it to the Parliament. This episode pushed the Board to reopen the lines of communication with the CSO Reference Group. As a joint-working group, the two entities amended the PBO Bill and introduced a single piece of legislation that was acceptable to both parties. As Klingelhofer noted, Kenya’s case shows that “collaboration between government and CSOs is rarely a “straight line.”

CSOSI: Valuable Measurement Instrument

The panel discussants asserted that the CSOSI is an effective instrument for African countries and the U.S. They recognized that despite serious challenges under which they operate, African CSOs play a vital role in their communities. Through the case studies, it was demonstrated that CSOs/government relations vary across countries depending on the government’s willingness to work with CSOs.


Hosted By

Africa Program

The Africa Program works to address the most critical issues facing Africa and U.S.-Africa relations, build mutually beneficial U.S.-Africa relations, and enhance knowledge and understanding about Africa in the United States. The Program achieves its mission through in-depth research and analyses, including our Africa Up Close blog, public discussion, working groups, and briefings that bring together policymakers, practitioners, and subject matter experts to analyze and offer practical options for tackling key challenges in Africa and in U.S.-Africa relations.    Read more

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