Civil Society, Democratisation and Foreign Aid in Africa

This research project entailed a comparative study of the contribution of civil society organisations to democratisation in Africa. Drawing primarily on empirical case studies of civil society organisations in South Africa and Uganda, and related material from Ghana, the research examined their ability to influence government policy and legislation through tangible shifts in policy and legislative priorities and their implementation, and to widen the opportunities available to citizens to participate in public affairs, promoting a culture of accountability and challenging the power of the state to dominate decision-making.

The research also assessed the impact of foreign aid on the political efficacy and internal governance of civil society organisations to determine the extent to which these attributes were shaped by external support.


The research consisted of two phases of work. The first entailed investigations into the nature and characteristics of civil society organisations in the three countries, with analyses of the external and domestic policy environments based on questionnaire surveys, interviews and a review of the secondary literature. The studies of the domestic policy environment examined the state, the political regime and the prevailing economic policy context, to ascertain how these factors shape the nature and functioning of civil society organisations. The analysis of the external policy environment focused on the role of foreign aid donors, with a particular emphasis on democracy assistance programmes and support for civil society, based on detailed interviews with leading aid donors and a review of relevant documentation.

At the core of the research were detailed case studies of 12 leading civil society organisations and their impact on public policy and legislation in South Africa and Uganda. Many of these are considered by aid donors to play a leading role in the processes of democratisation, but are not representative of civil society as a whole or a broader set of development activities. All are formally constituted and some are legally registered with their respective governments.

Most are ‘peak associations’ representing networks of organisations with a common purpose and membership. All bar one case study focus on organisations in receipt of foreign aid (although the one exception is meant to receive support indirectly through a government grant). Three case study organisations in each country were selected to facilitate paired comparisons, namely trade union federations, business associations and women’s organisations. The others were chosen for the insights they might reveal for particular types of organisation and their capacity to contribute to democratisation through governance work, protection of human rights and promoting citizen voice.


Despite the acknowledged importance of policy engagement, the study finds that few civil society organisations demonstrate a consistent level of direct involvement in the policy process and fewer still make a significant difference to policy outcomes. Organisations that are closely linked to political parties and the state through ideological affinities or material resources have the greatest ability to exert policy influence, although official patronage does not guarantee successful engagement in the absence of strong organisational capacity.

Donor funding for civil society policy advocacy has not made a major impact, though well-organised and substantially funded NGOs have made a significant contribution in some circumstances. Foreign aid can facilitate access to the policy process and strengthen capacity where there are opportunities for engagement and strong organisations already in place but it is not the most critical determinant of successful policy engagement. Rather it is the character of a particular organisation’s internal governance in galvanising the citizen’s voice and its specific relationship to the state and the political realm that are the most decisive factors in achieving policy influence.

The contribution of civil society organisations to democracy is not limited to their capacity to influence public policy; they also foster voice and participation, which in turn are functions of internal governance practices. Their capacity to offer citizens a say in decisions and to enhance pluralism may be as important as their ability to influence policy and demand accountability from state actors.

Specific research findings are as follows:

  • Aid donors can provide a valuable source of support to African civil society organisations (CSOs) with limited access to material resources and vulnerable to government control and repression.
  • The main objective of donors is to strengthen the institutions of formal democracy and instil the values of economic liberalism. Civil society assistance is primarily geared towards the creation of intermediary institutions supportive of political pluralism and a market-based economy.
  • Democracy assistance programmes primarily benefit a small number of urban-based organisations with a middle class leadership. Organisations in rural areas representing poor people, or those with a mass membership, receive more limited assistance.
  • Most CSOs working to promote democracy in Africa, especially those lacking a mass membership or the capacity to generate internal resources, are heavily dependent on foreign funding. Financial dependence can erode their credibility and autonomy in the absence of mechanisms to ensure internal accountability and strengthen resource mobilisation.
  • CSOs in Africa have limited capacity to influence government policy and effect changes in legislation. Donor assistance strengthens the influence of organisations with privileged access to policymakers by virtue of their political acceptability and support for official policy priorities.
  • CSOs successfully influence public policy when they have a secure resource base, supportive legislation subjects them to minimal regulation, and when opportunities are created for structured consultation and dialogue.

Policy-relevant lessons are:

  • Aid donors should review the range of CSOs targeted through democracy assistance programmes in Africa to ensure that organisations in rural areas and those with a mass membership receive adequate support.
  • Periodic assistance to individual organisations should gradually be replaced by long-term programme support and grants to strengthen capacity for policy analysis and advocacy.
  • Problems of financial dependence, limited accountability, and erosion of autonomy could be mitigated by adopting strategies to identify and institutionalise local sources of funding from membership dues, indigenous philanthropy, and internally-generated sources of income.
  • Aid donors should seek to promote a more supportive policy environment for CSOs by encouraging governments to remove restrictive controls and simplify registration procedures.
  • Donors can help to create opportunities for structured policy dialogue with government for a more representative set of membership-based organisations and grassroots coalitions. These measures would contribute to democratisation by widening the scope for independent citizen action in the public policy process.

Project details

start date
16 February 1997
end date
16 February 2000


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