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The role of donors in the movement for social justice in Africa

Access to flexible funds, solidarity, nurturing and safe environments, and a willingness to engage for the long term are some of the key needs of movements for change, writes Hakima Abbas.

The recently concluded mid-term elections in the United States, which quite appropriately came on the heels of their Halloween celebrations, scary as they were, starkly highlighted the buckling of western power among the contradictions of liberal democracy and super-capitalism. The reduction of western aid, induced by the ‘global’ financial crisis, will challenge the perceived dependency between the global North and South. And, with the rise of the economic and political clout of so-called ‘emerging’ powers in the South, the globe is expected to see significant, if not permanent, shifts in societal order.

Within these intriguing and uncertain times, those of us struggling to realise just and equitable alternatives and a new order that can dismantle the dynamics of power and privilege, are confronted with a seemingly insurmountable task: resisting land and water grabbing from foreign ‘investors’; confronting our own (within our society and movements) fundamentalisms that divide the economically oppressed and socially marginalised and insist on freedom for some but not all; protecting our natural resources, biodiversity and the rights of mother earth; dismantling systemic power that seeks to maintain and serve a self-interested, neo-colonial elite, etc.

These multiple forms of insidious imperialism and democratic veiling of repression have created a semblance of normalcy and reduced revolutionary fervour to resignation to reform at best. Widespread understanding of the inter-connection of struggle, the centrality of power in oppression, the necessity to fight all forms of oppression, the ownership of one’s own contradictions and a desire to transform these, indeed, simply the imagination to develop a vision of full liberation is wanton throughout our movements.

Nevertheless the recent rise in acts of civil resistance across Africa is indicative of an ongoing powerful force and movement building process. Social movements are driven by a shared vision and propelled through collective action. Movements are not one entity, but are made up of several forces: formal organisations, autonomous formations, intellectual spaces and thought, individuals…Movements are important because they create the potential for sustained change, not only institutionalising reform but consolidating transformation (people-ising change)[1].

A social movement is ‘an organised set of constituents pursuing a common political agenda of change through collective action’.

The characteristics are:

1. A visible constituency base or membership
2. Members collectivised in formal or informal formations
3. Some continuity over time (i.e., a spontaneous uprising or campaign may not be a movement in itself, though it may lead to one)
4. Engagement in collective actions and activities in pursuit of the movement’s political goals
5. Use of a variety of actions and strategies, and
6. Engagement of clear internal or external targets in the change process.
(Adapted by framework and definition created by AWID.)

Meaningful change in Africa has occurred with the active participation of movements in their entirety, with autonomous formations, political parties, organisations etc, working towards a common agenda. Yet, organisations have taken a central stage on the platform for change. The NGO-isation of our movements, accompanied by the pre-requisite ‘professionalisation’ of activism open to the middle-classes with access to formal education and able to operate in Western paradigms of advocacy, has numbed our imagination for transformation. NGOs, somewhat ironically, are registered and legitimised through the State that the movement often seeks to challenge. The requirements and regulations of this legitimacy demand particular structural norms and the desire for ‘sustainability’ demands a relationship with donors (often international) through which further structural norms are institutionalised. In particular, the ever-expanding NGO industrial complex separates and depoliticises service and advocacy while failing to question its own role in weakening African institutions, power and self-determination.

Often international NGOs have been consumed in service delivery that has meant the effective privatisation (and outsourcing) of African essential services, while local and national NGOs are structurally tied to projects and services without the ability to address need. ‘This has also gradually shifted power away from the constituency that movements organised and into the hands of organisations and organisational leadership that is increasingly less connected and accountable to the constituencies they claim to serve.’[2]

Similarly, accountability to donors and the funding sector has shifted the power of constituency to the power of capital; reducing the spirit of volunteerism and autonomy. Yet, the autonomous formations of our movements similarly seem to have lost their mass based character in many countries, relying heavily on individual activists, seemingly unwilling to engage and address our own oppressive contradictions, reactionary and populist forces at the expense of principled positions, and unable to create sustained change, be it institutional or perceptive.

Within our movements we must go beyond the donor driven paradigm of thinking about objectives, projects and programs to thinking about principles of unity and collective action. We must stop believing that a single solution, a silver bullet, will fix all but rather be willing to try and test new approaches and take on the difficult, seemingly intractable issues. A movement needs a political frame or ideology. Though we must study our history and build lessons, it is high time we challenge ourselves to develop new political thought that is grounded in African progressive practice and responds to our needs, putting at the centre the economically, socially and politically oppressed peoples of Africa: farmers, women, workers, informal workers, queers, people living with disabilities, etc.

A movement also needs networks, identity, a conducive political and socio-economic context as well as resources (financial and non-material) to create change. Funders, at all levels, tend to ignore our organic institutions, the village assemblies, the citizen networks etc., which lead in supporting whole communities though not necessarily within a social justice frame. Funding and access to capital has fragmented movements, with individual funders tending to fund specific organisations rather than a movement as a whole. Similarly, organisations focusing on one area tend not to make links across movements for social justice, thus we remain in silos of struggle, unable and, many times unwilling, to make the connections across diversities and in recognition of intersectionality. Due to our over-reliance on organisational structures, and in turn on international or transnational funding, our social justice work has become vulnerable to funding shifts, the fickleness of funding priorities and the empty promises of the aid architecture.

We must begin, as movements for social justice, to see the funding sector as a sight of struggle in itself, expose its links with state and multi-national corporate interests and learn to unify around our common agenda in order to reject agendas and short term fixes that reinforce our dependency and privatise our essential services. The way we engage individual donors is political, the extent to which our movements set the agenda of the funding sector is a yardstick for the power we have taken back.

‘Even in Warembo Ni Yes[3] we had several challenges that we didn't anticipate that we didn't have before we had raised the resources and then once we had raised the money then we started to deal with power in a different way, we started to deal with transparency, accountability and trust issues in an entirely different way because naturally with money comes a lot of fear, a lot of distrust, because people have been exploited, and you are working with people who are coming from different economic backgrounds as well so have very different relationships to money and what that money means. And so, I think that we do need to be careful. I think what worked about Warembo Ni Yes is that the donors who supported us were willing to take a risk and there are not many donors who are willing to take that kind of risk.’[4]

In turn, funders must begin to reflect, if they wish to support the growth of such movements, on what funders need to change in their practice to be able to lend support effectively. In practice, the needs of social movements rarely require large amounts of funds. What is needed is trust, solidarity and flexible access to resources. Therefore, if funders want to support movements, there is a need to change the paradigm of funding, to provide flexible funds, to provide solidarity, nurturing and safe environments, and a willingness to engage for the long-term.

A significant number of African grant-makers are currently surfacing. These grant-makers to varying degree are seeing themselves as part of the movement. However, in their current state, they have done little to go beyond dominant western models and paradigms that reinforce dynamics of power between funder and ‘grantee’ nor have they particularly risen above their role as middle-(wo)men of western funders.

Yet, some have been more successful in supporting activities that many international donors or foundations would not fund, in enabling experimentation, as well as in supporting political mobilisation and rapid solidarity action. African grant-makers could in fact go further by enabling movements to re-inject politics into our activism by supporting explicitly political actions and themselves explore different models and possibilities to create more autonomous funding.

Indeed in order for resources to be disbursed through African grant-makers in a manner that would support our progressive movements for change, our grant-makers themselves would need to be self-determined by: holding stocks and investments that would generate interest for grant-making while creating a large reserve for sustained social justice support; tapping into the philanthropic potential of Africa’s Diaspora and bourgeoisie, in particular targeting young Africans that are potentially divorced from the interests of the political elite having generated their wealth through sectors like the information, communication and technology (ICT) sector; establishing participatory processes that go beyond tokenistic parading of ‘community’ but that sincerely convene economically oppressed and socially marginalised communities to enable them to articulate priorities and determine how resources are spent; facilitating the raising of money by the people for the people by, for instance, providing a revolving loan fund for start-up activist-led resource mobilising activities; sustaining activism through programs that don’t remove people from their movements or priorities, but enable activists to access resources throughout their lives; attempting to shift the dynamics of power between donor and ‘grantee’ as well as within their own institutions and sector.

It is certain that the revolution will not be funded. Transformative progressive change will not be confined or restricted to logframes, results-based programming or project proposals. Our movements will, however, use resources: relying on non-material resources of peoples’ time and energy, contributions and skills, knowledge and experience, thinking and action, while also relying on material resources offered by the community, members and constituency and provided by allies and supporters and even funded by international or African grant-makers.

But, for these resources to be put to the process of social justice change, we will need to begin to ‘understand that our capacity to bring about major social changes is influenced by our capacity for connecting our strategies, for sharing our dreams, for forging alliances and thus going beyond the survival of our organisations [or formation, or even individual leadership (added by author)] by thinking and acting collectively.’[5]


* Hakima Abbas is Fahamu’s executive director.
* The title of this article is borrowed from the anthology [email protected] or comment online at Pambazuka News.


[1]Modern Latin American Revolutions, Eric Selbin
[2] Association for Women in Development
[3] Warembo Ni Yes was a collective of young feminists coming together to create a campaign in support of Kenya’s proposed new constitution based on the gains for women. Kenya’s new constitution was held to referendum in August 2010 and adopted by large majority.
[4] Zawadi Nyong’o quoted in ‘Young Women Making Waves: Warembo Ni Yes in Conversation’ from the forthcoming The Power is Ours publication by Pambazuka Press
[5] Lydia Alpízar Durán, Association for Women in Development