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Silences in NGO discourse: The role and future of NGOs in Africa

Issa Shivji


SARPN acknowledges Fahamu as a source of this document:
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This paper examines critically the role and future of the NGO in Africa in the light of its self-perception as a non-governmental, non-political, non-partisan, non-ideological, non-academic, non-theoretical, non-profit association of well-intentioned individuals dedicated to changing the world to make it a better place for the poor, marginalised and downcast. The paper argues that the role of NGOs in Africa cannot be understood without clear characterisation of the current historical moment.

On a canvass of broad strokes, I depict Africa at the crossroads of the defeat of the national project and the rehabilitation of the imperial project. Faced with an avalanche of diatribe about the ‘end of history’, I find it necessary, albeit briefly, to reiterate the history of Africa’s enslavement: from the first contacts with the Europeans five centuries ago, through the slave trade, to colonialism, and now globalisation. The aim of this historical detour is to demonstrate the fundamental antithesis between the national and the imperial projects, so as to identify correctly the place and role of NGOs within them.

I locate the rise, prominence and privileging of the NGO sector in the womb of the neoliberal offensive. Its aims are ideological, economic and political. I argue that NGO discourse, or more correctly, non-discourse, is predicated on the philosophical and political premises of the neoliberal or globalisation paradigm. It is in this context that I will discuss the ‘five silences’, or blind spots, in NGO discourse. I then draw out the implications of these silences for the contemporary and future roles of the NGO sector in Africa.

Before I begin, I must make two confessions. First, my paper is undoubtedly critical, sometimes ruthlessly so, but not cynical. Second, this criticism is also self-criticism, since the author has been involved in NGO activism for some 15 years. Finally, I must make clear that I do not doubt the noble motivations and good intentions of NGO leaders and activists. But we do not judge the outcome of a process by the intentions of its authors. We aim to analyse the objective effects of actions, regardless of their intentions.

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