Civil Society Work Should be Political, but not Partisan

Greepon global director, Lauren O’Donnell addresses delegates to the ongoing UNWTO who attended the tree planting exercise at Livingstone’s Victoria Park National Heritage site
Greepon global director, Lauren O’Donnell addresses delegates to the ongoing UNWTO who attended the tree planting exercise at Livingstone’s Victoria Park National Heritage site

By Prince J. Ndoyi MMD Youth

I want to comment on the civil society trends in Zambia over the recent past vis-à-vis democratic activism and partisanship politics.
There is a false and disturbing notion that civil society should not engage in political discourse.

In the recent past, the relationship between government and a section of non-government organisations (NGOs) and the clergy has been getting sour with some political commentators accusing the latter of engaging in politics and going beyond their mandate.

However, such accusations lay bare to reveal a dire misconception of what constitutes politics and the fundamental role civil society should and has historically played in political processes world over.

The ignorant ones believe CSOs and NGOs should instead focus on delivering social services on behalf of government. It is common among government officials to describe the role of civil society as ‘supplementing’ government efforts. They believe civil society’s work is to drill boreholes, build schools, distribute mosquito nets and CONDOMS, and provide agricultural inputs, among others.

Yes, many NGOs continue to provide such services even when they are aware of the inadequacies, yet CSOs look beyond provision of services. True, such hardware from civil society is necessary, but not sufficient to heal the causes of poverty in a sustainable manner.

We believe an independent Civil Society is a product of an active democracy but here’s the paradox: We can’t have democracy without partisanship. In Zambia today partisanship overwhelms everything, and this has made it increasingly difficult for democracy to function.

We need political parties. But their rabid partisanship could destroy Zambia’s democracy. We’re trapped in a frightening “doom loop” of mutual distrust. We are not in the politics of causes but rather in a politics that of persons.

We note with sadness that the swath majority of CSOs in Zambia largely act like others are in government while the others are in opposition. They are like two extremes of the same coin.

Some that seem pro-government act like they are an extension of government itself or rather a little more like a QUASI govt department and these support everything. And for some they behave like a complete opposition political party seeking to form govt, these are against anything bearing a government face.

This shouldn’t be the case, civil society must identify the peoples agenda and run with it. And political parties in government and opposition alike must seek to identify themselves with the different civil society agenda, and follow through. But the opposite is true, civil society seemingly have began to champion the politicians agenda, and the politicians agenda is most often too narrow and simplistic. Because its usually centered on votes and strategic interests, and in most cases shifting positions bares no dire consequences but forms part of the political discourse in most young or infant democracies.

Suffice to say the two; both Politicians and Civil society/Non governmental organisation(s) appear to have formed a cartel around their own agenda, leaving the people alone in the cold.

Under such a political environment, civil society leaders aligned to either parties can trade roads and bridges over whisky cocktails at after-hours parties.

Its no wonder the Zambian voter is confused. It turns out, when it comes to political outcomes, most people are not making rational decisions based on the real impact they will have on their life, in part because they just don’t know anything. Civil society is no longer playing its original role thereby leaving a huge gap in our democracy.

So much of politics, not surprisingly, turns out to be about expressive behavior rather than instrumental behavior — in other words, people making decisions based on momentary feeling and not on some sound understanding of how those decisions will impact or hurt their life in the long run. And so if you think about people using the democratic levers that they have available to them to express themselves, rather than to make instrumental choices, you’re probably more often than not going to be closer to the actual psychology of what they’re up to.

Is the average Zambian voter informed enough to even have what we might call a policy preferences? In Zambia today, how do choices get framed? How do opinions get formed? Sadly most Zambian Voters don’t have anything like coherent preferences. Most people pay little attention to politics; when they vote, if they vote at all, they do so irrationally and for contradictory reasons.

To be clear, we are becoming good at picking leaders who appear to be on our side, who play the right rhetorical games while civil society watches on like a vulture preying on the idle carcass.

Even voters who pay close attention to politics are prone — in fact, more prone — to biased or blinkered decision-making. The reason is simple: Most people make political decisions on the basis of social identities and partisan loyalties, not an honest examination of reality.

We believe the people are doing the best they can. They just don’t have a lot of information, and so they substitute guesses and views of the world that make them feel comfortable. People are looking for ways to make sense of what is a very complicated reality out there. It’s hard for those of us who get paid to think about it all the time to make sense of it, and it’s worse off very hard for people with a lot of other demands in their lives.

Zambia today is in desperate need of ideologically astute civil society organisations and NGOs whose programming is informed by the understanding that POVERTY is not only about individual deficiencies, but also a consequence of abuse and misuse of power by those in authority right from the household, community, nation and beyond.

For example, when power is abused, we see domestic violence in homes, resources allocated for less vital priorities, corruption, nepotism, inequality, failure to deliver services, self-aggrandisement, failed institutions, failed political parties, and unaccountable leadership, among other evils. There is no perfect society, but even in a near perfect society, these discussions are condoned and encouraged for purposes of counter checking one another. This we believe can make us collectively end poverty leaving no one behind.

Democracy is a sum total of both state and non state actors. Therefore ending poverty will only be possible unless those with power especially the politicians use it to better society and not for selfish interests. And people facing oppression and injustice are able to organise and use their power individually or collectively to hold their leaders accountable.

CSO’s approach is, therefore, to check, monitor, and restrain abuse and misuse of power by political leaders, corporates and public officials in order to promote an accountable leadership that is responsive to the aspirations of the citizens.

A number of civil society actors are increasingly finding it difficult to engage in policy processes because a section of political leaders both some in government and some in opposition perceive them as enemies. This has unfortunately made civil society work to undertake their activities difficult for fear of being identified with either parties. Closing them on policy processes, can arbitrary prevent them from organising themselves thereby widening the gap between the State and the citizens.

With the advent of the ongoing political dialogue process and the many agreed agenda items that form it as agreed by the politicians themselves, like constitutional reforms, judicial law reforms,electoral process Act, Societies Act, Public Order Act, the Penal Code Act, Press and Media laws reforms among others. It can only be hoped to see a united civil society in the interest of the Zambian people.
Leaving partisan politics for politicians themselves.

Therefore it is also expected that in a country like ours that upholds the principles of democracy and good governance, we must protect civil society from attacks as the contrary shows intolerance of dissenting views propagated by sections of political actors who seek to control peoples’ dissent for their selfish interests.

As a young democrat and politician my advise to those in government is that they should make deliberate efforts to redress any attempts to blackmail and delegitimise civil society as agents of foreign forces.

In conclusion, government and opposition parties needs to recognise that society building is a shared responsibility and must facilitate civil society as an essential development partner.


  1. Poorly written article, get to the point! Few people will read this through, and why is condom in capital letters?

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