This paper summarises the findings of a comparative research project on 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 examines 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 assesses the impact of foreign aid on the political efficacy and internal governance of civil society organisations to determine the extent to which these attributes are shaped by external support.
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.