Department of Political Science
Ebonyi State University
The objective of this paper is to highlight the role of civil society in poverty reduction in Africa, and to explore the opportunities a strong civil society participation in government’s poverty reduction programme hold for poverty eradication in Africa. The paper will begin by making a conceptual and theoretical exploration of the civil society. Then, it will attempt to analyze poverty reduction strategies in Africa using Nigeria as a case study. Finally, the paper will explore ways through which the civil society can contribute to the poverty reduction programmes in Africa.
One of the most striking features of the past two decades is the deterioration in the living standards of the citizens of many poor countries of the world, where the horrors of mass starvation have haunted the television screens of the comfortable world. The last century ended with very little optimism that the problem of poverty could be quickly remedied. In fact, there was little consensus among social scientists, politicians and lay people about the nature, causes or likely course of poverty. However, in its Millennium Summit in 2000, the United Nations General Assembly opened up a new course, by adopting the Millennium Development Goals – a time-bound set of objectives to overcome some basic human deprivations.
The first among the Eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 2000, is the eradication of poverty. In order to achieve this goal, all 189 member states of the United Nations pledged to reduce by half the proportion of people living on less than one US dollar a day by the year 2015. It is estimated that half of the population in sub-Saharan Africa lives in poverty while over 40 percent of sub-Saharah Africans live on less than one dollar a day (UN 2003:3). Thus, poverty is no doubt, one of the greatest challenges facing African countries today.
Since the 1990s, special efforts are being made to develop viable strategies that can pull Africa out of the poverty trap, and ensure the continent’s economic prosperity. This has led many African countries to develop poverty reduction strategies, which they are now persuading the World Bank, IMF and other International Financial Institutions to provide concessional financing.
Indeed, poverty reduction cannot be achieved by the state alone. But incidentally, the experience in some African countries such as Nigeria is that poverty reduction programmes are being initiated and implemented mainly by state, with the civil society contributing little or nothing to the process. It is a common knowledge edge that the civil society constitutes a major component of the entire society. Certainly the civil society has a lot of role to play in the struggle to eradicate poverty in Africa. This paper is therefore an attempt to explore the roles the civil society could play in the poverty reduction process. The following section will provide a conceptual and theoretical framework for the study.
Conceptualizing Civil Society
Despite its wide usage by social scientists since the last decade, the civil society as a concept still lacks universal definition. The absence of an acceptable definition of civil society dates back to the origin of the concept. Different writers have explored the complexity of the concept, showing different dimensions of civil society such as material, organisational, and ideological. Attempts to define civil society have been made by scholars in the Greek, Roman, Liberal, and Marxist paradigms (Ibeanu 2000). In the Greek paradigm, Socrates, Plato and Aristotle made the most notable contributions. They maintained-that the ‘civil’ form of the society is born when men erect a superstructure of political authority as a means of checking the excesses of the state and obtaining security and protection for all.
By the late 18th century, liberal philosophers began to distinguish a discrete form of civil society with ‘a quite different rationale. They defined civil society as a means of defense against potential abuse of power by political leaders especially given the unprecedented concentration of power at the apex of the modern polity (Keane, 1988). Liberal philosophers assumed that the best way to counter the corrupting influences of power and wealth and to revive a sense of public spirit was to encourage the creation and strengthening of citizen associations. Perhaps the most articulate exponent of civil society in the liberal era is Alexis de’ Tocqueville, whose Democracy in America (1988) drew attention to new types of state despotism implicit in democratic rule. According to de Tocqueville (in Bratton, 1994:54), the state should be overseen and checked by the “independent eye of society”, made up of “a plurality of interacting, self-organized and constantly vigilant civil associations” whose functions were to nurture basic rights, to advocate popular claims, and to educate citizens in the democratic art of tolerance and accommodation.
The liberal conceptualization of civil society was disputed by G.W.F. Hegel, who interpreted civil society from a historicist approach. Hegel clearly differentiated civil society from the state, but assumes that civil society is a creation of the State. He argued that civil society was created by the state essentially for the interest of attaining purely moral purposes such as private property ownership, provision of public services and administering of the Law (Ibeanu, 2000). For Hegel, the relationship between the state and civil society is one of superiority and inferiority as well as co-operation.
Drawing from the Hegelian method, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels conceived civil society as rooted in the material condition of life. According to Bratton (1994), Marx and Engels saw civil society as a set of commodity production and exchange institutions that titled contrac.ual relations in favour of capitalist entrepreneurs. As the realm of economic relations, Marx and Engels believe that civil society is coterminous with socio-economic base, as opposed to the state, which was mere political and juridical superstructure (Keane, 1988). Thus, Marx and Engels reversed Hegel’s depiction of State-Society relations, seeing the state as subordinate in its relations with civil society, especially as the interests of the dominant class condition its performance.
Antonio Gramsci, a leading civil society theorist in the twentieth century, used Marxist framework to interpret civil society but he incidentally arrived at quite a different conclusion. Gramsci did not assume that the distinction between the state and civil society mirrored that between political and economic life, nor did he consign civil society to the base, instead Gramsci located the civil society in the Superstructure (Bobbio, 1988). Gramsci formulated a scheme in which the superstructure is divided between two major entities: the state, which rules directly through the coercive and juridical instruments of domination; and the civil society, which promotes ethical values among the populace through the exercise of ideological and cultural hegemony. The state embodies force, while the civil society manufactures consent.
Gramsci directed attention to the superstructure, especially in the non-state activity, which he broadly conceived to occur not only within explicitly political institutions (such as interest groups and political parties) but also within socio-cultural institutions that disseminate values in the society and nurture public opinion (such as families, schools, churches, and Mass Media). As opposed to Marx, Gramsci granted primacy to ideological factors within the superstructure. For him, ideas and values no longer serve simply to justify an existing power structure but are formative forces capable of disrupting and redistributing power itself. In this sense, civil society is at the height of ideological realm and potentially forms the source of hegemonic or counter hegemonic ideas.
Contemporary definitions of civil society have been guided by earlier interpretations. Modern Civil Society theorists (Such as Whaites, 2000; Kasfir. 1998; Jorgensen, 1996; Harbeson, 1994; Singh, 1993; Wood, 1991; Keane, 1988; Bobbio. 1988; Bayart, 1986; Stephan, 1978; and Ekeh, 1975) draw substantially from the works of earlier political theorists. These scholars have tried to articulate diverse intellectual traditions of the past into a coherent definitional notion of civil society. As a result, three core definitions of civil society were developed. The first uses civil society to denote a certain degree of common awareness and consciousness, which unites a society. The second sees civil society as an arena where manifold social movements and civil organizations from all classes attempt to mobilize themselves and advance their interests. The third conceive civil society as all voluntarily constituted social relations, institutions, and organizations that are not reducible to the administrative grasp of the State.
Civil Society and Poverty Reduction in Africa: A Framework for Analysis
Generally, the role of the civil society in the Africa’s poverty reduction programme can be hinged on the theory of civil society. Civil society covers all voluntarily constituted social relations, institutions, and organisations that are not reducible to the administrative grasp of the state (Singh 1993:23). It also depicts organized activities by groups and/or individuals either performing certain services or trying to influence and improve the whole society (Jorgensen 1996:36). The major architects of modern civil society theory such as Hegel, de Tocqueville, and Gramsci, like their predecessors Plato and Aristotle, believe that the society is constituted by three spheres: the state, the civil society and the market (Ibeanu 2000). Each of the spheres differs from the others in terms of their social functions, types of organisation, and financial resources.
In brief, their fundamental functions are for the state, to make and enforce laws; for the market, to provide avenue for exchange of goods and services; and for the civil society, to be a meeting-place for debate and common endeavour. In each of the three sectors, it may be said that organisational forms have evolved fitting into the specific conditions of the sector. The government and its agencies are the organizational form of the state. The firm or corporation is the organizational form of the market. The corresponding organizational form of the civil society is the non-governmental organizations (NGOs). NGOs offer citizens the ‘opportunity to take part in the affairs of the society or even to change and improve the society as a whole or at least a part of it. In the course of their activities, NGOs interact with the state and the market. Thus, the activities of the three spheres of state, civil society, arid market are sometimes overlapping. In a well-functioning society, the three spheres supplement each other, working together, and not against each other.
It has been widely argued that more legitimate and effective states are more likely to allow the development of strong civil society (Jorgensen 1996:37). However, in Africa, the reverse seems to be the case. The weakness, retreat, or collapse of the state in many parts of Africa has given rise to the awakening and strengthening of the civil society. Today, the challenges of development in most African countries are being increasingly placed in the hands of the civil society organisations and local communities themselves. The informal economy has grown dramatically throughout Africa, and it has become the major source of income for urban and rural dwellers alike, since the formal economy absorbs only a fraction of the employable population (Pillay 1998:8).
The state in Africa has proved to be increasingly ineffective at a number of levels, such as in dealing with socio-economic development, crime, or even with routine matters such as customs control. In Chad, Liberia and Sudan, there are no longer single national authorities, but competing powers, divided along religious, ethnic, and other lines. In Uganda, although the state has increased its popularity, it has been reported that large sections of the society have no real contact with the state (Pillay 1998). Entire communities exist outside the ambit of the state. They have built their own houses, organised their own sanitation, and operate their own informal economy. They pay little or no taxes, and receive little or nothing in return.
Given Uganda’s adoption of neo-liberalism, with its emphasis on the free market with minimal state intervention, the state has hands-off provision of social welfare services to the people. Also, it is unlikely that it will have such communities in its developmentvision – at least not in the foreseeable future. The same case applies to most other African countries that have also adopted the neo-liberal path. The civil society is therefore very prominent in Africa because of the adequate representation it gives to the poor and the marginalized. The weakness of the state in Africa has left-vacuums of power, which are readily and easily filled by the dominant social groups. These groups have therefore tended to use the state power they have captured to pursue their interest, most times at the expense of the other groups in the society. The civil society in many cases assumes the responsibility of providing solace to disadvantaged social groups who suffer neglect in the hands of the state. For these groups, the civil society serves as a buffer against the state’s insensitivity and neglect. Civil society organisations have therefore, tried to mobilize the people to engage in self-help services in various fields throughout the continent, especially where government or business has failed.
In recent times, civil society organisations have been very significant in many African countries, because of their efforts to fill the gaps created by the state’s weakness, retreat, or collapse. The civil society in many African countries has taken advantage of the shrinkage of the state’s social and welfare services to engage in the provision of services such as micro-credit, childcare and reproductive health, legal aid, education, and political mobilization. Africa civil groups are also promoting the issue of ‘participation’ and ‘capacity building’ as the major issues that governments in the continent should address. The civil society organisations have also pursued the goal of democratization of governance with vigour. These organisations do not see democratic governance as an end in itself. Rather, they explicitly link democracy and good governance with the overall goal of eradicating poverty through effective development initiatives that build the capacity of beneficiaries to participate in the formulation and implementation of public programmes.
The foregoing points to the fact that the civil society in Africa possesses enormous resources and goodwill. These resources and opportunities need to be recognized and utilized in the struggle to alleviate poverty and hunger in Africa. Since it is now a common knowledge that many states in Africa are failing in their responsibility to the people, especially the poor and the disadvantaged, and that the civil society have provided an alternative platform, it is therefore, important to incorporate and support the civil society in the fight against poverty. Obviously, this vital ingredient is still lacking in the poverty reduction strategies of many African countries.
Poverty Reduction Strategies in Africa: The Case of Nigeria
Using poverty indicators such as illiteracy, access to safe water, and the number of poor people, Nigeria ranks below many African countries like Kenya, Ghana, and Zambia (see Table 1). Nigeria’s GNP per capita is low, while purchasing power continues to decline with high inflation and increasing income inequality (Table 1).Given the enormity of the problem posed by poverty in Nigeria, the federal government launched a Poverty Assessment in 1994 in partnership with the World Bank, UNICEF, and the Overseas Development Administration. The results of the assessment (completed in 1995) were discussed at federal, state, and local government levels.
|Social Indicators: Nigeria and Selected Countries (percent, unless otherwise indicated)|
|GNP per capita, 1995 (US$)||260||660||390||280||400||980||620|
|Total Fertility Rate||6.0||6.5||5.3||4.9||6.0||2.9||2.0|
|Access to Safe Water, 1993 Urban Rural||40 52 20||83 100 75||56 93 39||49 61 21||59 76 43||42 65 32||71 84 61|
|Gross Primary Enrollment, 1993 Female||84 81||69 58||74 67||97 93||104 99||115 113||121 116|
|Pupil/Teacher Ratios Primary Secondary||39 20||37 43||29 17||31 17||44 28||23 16||22 15|
|Illiteracy Rate, 1995 Female||49 61||50 62||40 49||31 42||27 35||22 36||22 36|
|Population Below Relative Poverty Line, 1992-96||34||40||32||41||68||17||11|
Source: World Bank Economic and Social Database
Soon after, the National Planning Commission was given the task of developing a strategy for poverty relief by setting up a Poverty Alleviation Programme Development Committee. The Committee came out with a draft national strategy – the Community Action Programme for Poverty Alleviation (CAPPA), for federal government’s consideration (Federal Office of Statistics 1999:3). After due consideration, the federal government adopted the draft national strategy, but renamed it as Poverty Alleviation Programme (PAP).
In January 2001, the federal government phased out the Poverty Alleviation Programme, and replaced it with the National Poverty Eradication Programme (NAPEP). The main objectives of NAPEP include the following:
- To provide a rational poverty eduction framework that lays emphasis on appropriate and sustainable institutional arrangement.
- To provide inter-ministerial and inter-agency co-operation.
- To provide technology acquisition and development particularly for agriculture andindustry.
- To provide capacity building for existing skills acquisition and training centres.
- To provide agricultural and industrial extension services to rural areas.
- To institutional development for marketing agricultural and industrial products.
- To provide integrated schemes for youth empowerment, development of infrastructures, provision of social welfare services and exploitation of natural resources.
- To provide a pro-active and affirmative actions deliberately targeted at women, youth, farmers, and the disabled.
To achieve a coordinated implementation and monitoring of the programme, its activities were classified into four schemes, namely:
- Youth Empowerment Scheme (YES)
- Rural Infrastructure Development Scheme (RID)
- Social Welfare Services Scheme (SOWESS)
- National Resources Development Scheme (NRDCS)
The National Poverty Eradication Council (NAPEC) is the supreme organ concerned with the formulation and execution of the poverty eradication programme. The council is constituted by the President as Chairman. Other members of the council include the Vice-President, the Secretary to the Federal Government, 13 federal Ministers, the Chief Economic Adviser to the President, and the National Coordinator of NAPEP. The functions of NAPEC include:-
- To formulate and review all policies and strategies of the government designed to alleviate and eradicate poverty.
- To set annual targets for institutions and agencies of government mandated toundertake poverty eradication programmes.
- To mobilize and allocate resources for approved programmes.
- To establish the legislative and constitutional framework for the successful
- implementation of the programme.
- To approve and establish the proper administrative instruments necessary to ensure the implementation of the poverty alleviation programme.
The role of the civil society in Nigeria’s National Poverty Eradication Programmeis not significant. The programme did not make any provision for civil society participation in the policy formulation and implementation structures. All the members of the National Poverty Eradication Council (NAPEC), which is the highest policy formulation and implementation organ of the programme, are drawn from the government at the federal level. This negates the role the civil society can play in the entire process.
Poverty Reduction in Africa: The Role of the Civil Society
The contribution of civil society to poverty reduction in Africa can be summarized as follows:
The poor and the socially disadvantaged groups are usually much less able to exercise influence over public policy and resource allocation. Attempts to promote local involvement in decision making have generally focused on institutional innovations such as democratic decentralization. But such innovations will only be effective in the poverty eradication process if grassroots organisations and social movements can organize the poor and articulate their demands at local and higher levels.
Civil society organisations can play a prominent role in mobilizing the poor to participate more fully in the poverty reduction programmes in particular and public affairsin general. Wealthy and socially dominant groups are better able to organize themselves by the virtue of superior resources and social status, are able to exert considerable influence over public policy. Civil society organisations can mobilize the poor to form and support intermediary organisations to articulate and represent their interests in an effective manner.
- Transparency and Information
Civil society organisations can contribute to poverty reduction programmes in Africa by improving transparency and increasing the availability of information about the making and implementation of the poverty reduction policies. Activities from the civil society to promote this goal include the discovery, publication and dissemination of information about items of legislation, legal provisions, public expenditure allocations, the implementation of policy and programmes, and special enquires. Such information may be directly published and circulated by groups within civil society, or distributed through new or existing media outlets or networks. Civil society groups may also seek to mobilize citizens to pressure governments into implementing existing legislation and by taking action to indict public officials who are involved in malfeasance. Efforts to enhance transparency may contribute to poverty reduction by helping citizens monitor the delivery of development resources and check the appropriation of resources by bureaucrats and local elites. This suggests a more activist role for civil society, in which civic actors back up information and dissemination activities with mobilization and public advocacy.
- Enhancing State Performance
The quality and effectiveness of public service and expenditure are central to successful poverty reduction programme. Civil society organisations can contribute here by working directly with government in shaping, financing and delivering public services in a variety of ways. These can take the form of state-civil society partnerships in which civil society organisations work closely with state institutions in designing and providing health and educational services, by mobilizing funds from among client groups and other sources, by providing services directly, and by monitoring quality and coverage. In some cases, this can create the basis for synergy, in which state institutions acquire greater legitimacy and improve their performance by developing responsive working relationship with civil society that draw on the reservoirs of social capital built up in local communities. Effective state-civil society partnerships in Africa arise in the context of a particular set of institutional and political conditions, which may be context-specific and not easily replicable. These conditions and the type of groups that can form such partnerships require more detailed comparative investigation to determine the circumstances under which the synergy can be fostered.
Any successful strategy to reduce poverty in Africa must consider the role the civil society can play in the process. Poverty reduction in Africa requires a strong and focused emphasis on economic growth, better access for the poor to social services and adequate infrastructure, as well as targeted interventions to protect the poorest or the most vulnerable in the society. These are areas the civil society can make enormous contributions. To achieve economic growth and reduce poverty, there must be prudent fiscal and monetary policies with incentives to create more and wider sources of growth, and to support the development of the private sector as the catalyst of growth. Thegovernment needs to focus efforts on policy aspects of improving the quality of human resources and rely more on the informal and formal private sector to increase capital investment.
Some vulnerable groups cannot benefit from broad-based growth and improved services. Targeting specific groups and will help the government to avoid spreading public resources too thinly over the entire population. In delivering some services and resources to reach poor areas and communities, the government could rely on the existing networks of the community-based organisations and other civil society organisations to ensure effectiveness and sustainability.
There is a growing consensus that a new approach to poverty reduction in Africa is
needed. A rapidly growing economy is essential. So too is broad participation in the
growth process, which will ensure reductions in poverty. Participation in planning and
implementation of poverty reduction programmes can be widened and deepened through
decentralization, and fashioning a new arrangement with civil society organizations and the
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