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Power without responsibility

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An examination of the growing power and tyranny of international human rights organisations

International human rights groups largely founded and financed by the West have increasingly become powerful voices shaping politics in Africa. Their voice is respected by governments and mass media in the West. Given Africa’s dependence on Western aid, our leaders shape our politics around what these groups are saying. This undermines our sovereignty and nascent democratic institutions. It also reflects growing success by Western countries to shape post colonial Africa in their own image.

Human rights groups are often single-issue organisations and seek to make their single issue the only issue on which to judge a country. They are opposed to sovereignty which African countries achieved through hard-won battles of national independence. They claim to represent universal human values that know no boundaries. Yet most of their campaign is actually based on Western values born of a specific historical experience. Meanwhile, these organisations are not answerable to anyone. Their leaders and executives are not elected.

There is no democratic way to hold them accountable for their actions. Thus, the beneficiaries of the activism by human rights groups have no recourse to elections to remove their leaders from office if they did not meet specific expectations. They only have financial accountability to their funders, not political accountability to the beneficiaries of their advocacy. And even here, they account by showing their work i.e. exposing human rights abuses.

The structure of incentives here is to name and shame human rights violators, a factor that encourages them to vilify or even distort.    The beneficiaries of the activism by human rights groups are not members of these organisations. So what they received from them are not political rights but charity. These human rights organisations present themselves as the altruistic self-appointed representative of the marginalised. They deny the principle that governments, even when elected, are actual representatives of the people. Governments and their elected officials are to be checked by these unelected organisations.

More critically, although they seek to influence government policy and lobby their home governments to pressure their client regimes to comply with their demands, these organisations cannot pay the price for their advice. They deny local nuance and context which may shape specific governmental practices. Yet they cannot be held accountable for the consequences of their advocacy and actions. Theirs is power without responsibility.

Human rights groups actually work as vehicles for the agendas of their home governments. Their aim therefore is not to advance the cause of democracy and its two components – contestation and participation. Instead, it is to eliminate participation of the citizen from politics so that they are reintegrated into the political process as wards – passive spectators to be helped and represented by the altruistic human rights group.  In many ways, this development is a recreation of the colonial project.

The Europeans who promoted the colonial project claimed to be working in the best interests of the natives. One of their missions was to introduce commerce and trade in order to liberate natives from poverty. The other was to introduce “civilization” to emancipate natives from the tyranny of custom and the despotism of local chiefs. The third was to introduce Christianity whose aim was to save the natives from satanic worship. The native was not an active participant in this process meant for his own emancipation. He was supposed to be a passive recipient of European altruism. The heroes of the African people under this tutelage were David Livingstone, Henry Morton Stanley and Cecil Rhodes. Hence cities, lakes, rivers and their falls were named after them.

These lofty claims were not without justification. Most of Africa was still poor and backward and not exposed to trade and commerce. Many Africans lived under the tyranny of custom and the despotism of local chiefs and warlords. Some of our religious practices were oppressive to women and children. However, the lofty motives were a smokescreen to disguise the real motive of domination and economic exploitation.

The anti-colonial movement was an attempt to reject this narrative and bring the voice of the African at the center of the debate on his/her future. Western paternalism was exposed as arrogant and brutal. Africans needed to shape their own destiny. The period 1950 to 1990 was the era of this ascendance; the attempt by Africans to define who we are, what we want and how we want to achieve our goals. Our civic rights were to be realised through political struggle, not humanitarian intervention.

The actors and heroes of this effort were to be African revolutionaries mobilising, organising, inspiring and leading the African masses. The names of Livingstone, Stanley and Rhodes gave way to Kwame Nkrumah, Patrice Lumumba, Amilcar Cabral and Ben Bella. Colonialism was in retreat philosophically and literally.

The political and social movements that had emerged during the anti colonial struggle were membership-based organisations – farmers’ cooperatives, political parties, trade unions, student groups, professional and occupational associations – for drivers, lawyers, traders etc. These demanded direct participation in the political process. They rejected the notion that African interests were to be articulated by Europeans. This was the first flowering of democracy in Africa.

Armed struggles of the NRA, RPF, PAIGC, FRELIMO, MPLA, EPLF, TPFL etc carried a similar attitude – Africans remained the main actors. Even in the church, the colonial stranglehold over our souls was challenged by Christian revival movements. Our emancipation was to come from our own political struggles, not from charity by altruistic Europeans. Social and political movements evolved organically from the society and represented the demands and concerns of members.   Beginning in 1980s but especially after 1990, western attempts to re-capture this initiative from Africans gained momentum.

It came in the wake of prolonged failures on the continent and therefore seemed to be justified by immediate necessity. So the workers’ union and the cooperative society has given way to the western-funded NGO; the revolutionary politician has given way to the aid worker. Yet the NGO is disarticulated from the society it serves. It survives by begging from abroad to pursue an agenda designed and developed from elsewhere. The mission of our generation is to resist this neocolonial project dressed in the old language of human rights that seeks to demote us from rights-bearing citizens to mere recipients of international charity – playing the role of spectator in the struggles shaping our destiny.

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Comments (14)Add Comment
I largely disagree
written by Asiimwe, February 10, 2013
I disagree with most of your article. Western NGOs come from a culture where it is difficult to act with impunity. In fact, it is Africa's political class which acts with impunity and exercise power without responsibility. Africans have tried to shape their destiny since independence. Some like Somalia, Congo, Zimbabwe etc have already hit the self-destruct button. Others are racing to that same button. In Uganda, there are many battles (with different missions) going on at different levels, even "a generational gridlock", if you listen to some people. Therefore, you can't say that our generation has a uniform mission. And that mission should not be anti-western NGOs. They are not the problem.
Third Prize
written by Omeros, February 10, 2013
" In fact, it is Africa's political class which acts with impunity and exercise power without responsibility." Indeed, Asiimwe. Indeed. Uganda's politicos want aid without conditions, political power without electoral competition and personal wealth without troubling themselves to earn it. It is they, far less the NGOs, who live out the prerogative of the harlot. Amidst all the talk of a coup to prevent the allegedly tyrannical parliament from attempting to lay its grasping hands on executive powers, I begin to wonder whether ruling party operatives have not in fact decided to implement the Brechtian solution, figuring it to be easier for the government to dissolve the people and elect another.
The one thing all NGO's promote is Laziness
written by Kyeyune, February 11, 2013
The NGO industry has risen to be filled with many of our brightest minds engaged in activities that cannot lift Africa out of the mire we find ourselves in. Our institutions of learning are designing courses to cater for the lucrative market in corporate begging. The effort young Ugandans are putting into preparing proposals, making up damning figures for funding and preparing reports to donors could be better placed in the areas of innovation and manufacturing.
Laziness is being rewarded in our country by inflows from more industrious societies. The mission of our generation is to push our economies to a self sustaining level and one of the key parts in doing this is dedicating our productive efforts to the most productive activities. Begging is not one of those activities.
Right and partly Wrong Analysis
written by Tina, February 11, 2013
Right in the sense that most of the NGO'S spend alot of funds in millions of dollars for workshops & paying salaries in Africa that dime would be better utilised to built Housing Estates,Industries and Proper Infrastructure a good e.g is the OPM cash that was misused.can you imagine a pal of mine got her 1st job after campus with an NGO and was paid 8m i almost died of shock. You are partly wrong in your analysis in that some of the African Leaders have failed to raise to the occasion n you know this they need an independent body inform of NGO'S to monitor their acts. most of the liberation movements e.gNRA,FRELIMO's main aim was to over throw wrong Govts & create an image of being able to handle Soc,Econ & Pol matters which has been a hustle.
Very defensive way of thinking
written by Marvin ya Kuku, February 11, 2013
"Human rights groups actually work as vehicles for the agendas of their home governments." Hahaha wow!
"These human rights organisations present themselves as the altruistic self-appointed representative of the marginalised" wow! The last time I read something this sad was when it was reported some Nigerians alledgedly killed NGO staff who were immunising kids against polio. This chap would fit in nicely in that village. Are you free to deliver some speeches in Nigeria Andrew
I agree with Andrew
written by Denis Musinguzi, February 11, 2013
Andrew, the biggest problem is that the concept of human rights and civil society in Africa has remained intellectually backward, largely by the standards of the West which sees nothing good in Africa and unfortunately even among African intellectuals in part because they have been schooled in Western hypocricy or deliberately toe the distorted Western line for selfish motives. While noble, the concern for human rights has lost ideological innocense since it is used as an imperialist tool for one side of the globe to subjugate the rest. Gullible Africans unfortunately continue to fall prey to foreign ideals that have no resonance with their history and context..
Ilegitimate and Venal Anti-Heros
written by Ocheto, February 13, 2013
Mwenda and his so-called heroes despite having attained independence and self-governance have failed to demonstrate any rudiments of legitimacy. So they dictate, plunder their national coffers and shamelessly the very aid money they the turn around to hypocritically condemn. For being exposed to shame and embarrassment for stealing aid money they turn around and discredit the foreign aid. This is a new historical low in the conduct of international affairs. Ever since the Cold War ended the world has globalised faster than ever before. But only Mwenda and his heroes Aare stuck in the ideologies of colonial struggle. The easy money has been stopped now they have to raise tax rates because the venal tyrants must be comfortable.
True- ish
written by James Kityo, February 14, 2013
Very true. Especially where our African systems have been failed from growing 'organically'. But sometimes our communities have no choice. Beggars always don't have any. And we cannot let them die. If their (Wests') Agenda's are not too demanding, let our people eat the crumbs and survive. There are extents where man can sell his soul for food. From Genesis, Esau and Abel. To Ugandan politics. Are there agenda's really so much out of touch with reality? Maybe not always.
...
written by Jean-Baptiste Ndahumba, February 14, 2013
Ended story, unended story of colonialism...
...
written by Gen Adam Kifaliso, February 14, 2013
Has Winnie left Uganda to join Bad Black in BangKok ? Have not heard from her for long ,could be she went for exortic oriental markets to feed with or on sticks aka chop-sticks , BangKok or bang cocks a very romantic city .
...
written by winnie, February 14, 2013
i agree with you Andrew The UN declarations and Geneva agreements were as a result of World War I & II it was from this this that some NGO'S emerged . therefore some of the agreements and goals advocated for by the the donor countries are not needed/suitable in Africa. its like we are some kind of failures in life besides that what rights does one who has jiggers have if he cant maintain basic hygiene you tell him to vote please.....
Adam
written by winnie, February 14, 2013
Banaage am shopping today is valentine's day you want guys to think that i have no serious guy in my life.please dont steal Musisis' flowers ( the ones planted in tryes) n give one of your stranded women any way you can take her for a guided tour of Kampala she will die of joy esp when she sees Kololo & Garden city.
...
written by Gen Adam Kifaliso, February 15, 2013
Winnie , did you get the flowers I sent you ? Well given your professional it seems you as many flowers as there cabinet ministers in Uganda , well you agree with Andrew on UN , Andrew forgets that UN was founded to ensure peace on earth and find ways of peaceful conflict solving , it is still refining itself that is we have summits that take place in New York which m7 confuses for shopping spree with wife and family . I know now when to trust Andrew , when I See him talking with eyes open like a heifer easing itself then I know Andrew is not spinning but telling the truth .So Winnie let go and for a beer at Mamba pork joint ,come for a beer too, but don't bring your army of off springs ,they wont be allowed in
Ada
written by winnie, February 16, 2013
if they are cutting off heads of guys who like king Andrew i will willingly take mine there to be cut off.There are few men in Ug these days most of them are either in Butabika or Luzira like you . Afande i live in Bugolobi in Luthuli Avenue am sori i dont go to dingy places am used to exotic foods and drinks that you have never heard of. munaage,these days i spent the weekend reading like the king. if i want to eat pork i go to S.Africa for proper pork ribs.

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