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Confronting the Elephant in the Room: Civil Society and the Question of Sustainability


Civic Society Organisations (CSOs) refer to citizen organisations often growing over time as part of social, economic and political development of a community. CSOs may include both formal and informal organisations that subscribe to a defined identity, solidarity, provide social services, social protection and support, entertainment, religious and economic, and political formations. In Uganda the nomenclature Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) often refers to Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) and not citizen organisations such as clans, religion, labour, cooperatives, social clubs that are often member based and sharing in specific common values and social identities. There has been a tremendous increase in the number of NGOs in the 1990s-2000s registered with the Ministry of Internal Affairs.

The concept of NGOs is recent in Uganda considering that they really became more active in the country between the 1980s and 2000s following the political conflict and liberation wars of 1979 removing Idi Amin, and 1981-1986 Luwero Triangle War and the recent twenty years of war in Northern Uganda 1986 – 2006 which left a larger part of the country (Central, Northern and Eastern, and the Rwenzori) in desperate need for relief assistance attracting and legitimizing CSO and NGOs work in the country at the time. But this limited legitimacy often begins to wane when these conditions change, people begin to settle down and start asking more serious questions about the validity of the impact of aid and NGOs programmes.

NGOs also come from a history of charity and dependence on the goodwill of well wishers who donate to help those in need. This has enabled a culture and mindset that views NGOs as foreign entities who have come to “help for free”; especially where many of the NGOs actually entered Uganda as famine relief agencies, setting a dangerous precedent. Unfortunately, this relief identity has not been helped by the workshop and seminar culture which uses money to facilitate paid-up-participation through travel, per diems, honoraria, and out of pocket allowances, catering services and other forms of financial gains. The money culture has overtime presented NGOs as the means of accessing some extra income for community leaders through workshops and seminars. These paid up participants seriously undermined the spirit of local responsibility and voluntarism, “bulungi-bwa-nsi”, limiting legitimacy and relevance to availability of money.

Then there is this donor driven development projectisation culture, which promotes upward accountability progressively cutting NGOs from building downward accountability relationship with citizen’s and their formations they are originally set to serve. This means that as soon as a project ends, everything else including the project group come to an end. Moreover, donors have reinforced this by adopting competitive calls for proposals as opposed to consultation with existing citizen’s formations, about the necessary forms of support and the most reliable tools, structures, organisations, and operational culture that would make best use of their limited resources. Competitive bidding destroys community input, undermines opportunity for creativity and innovations and instigates unwanted conflicts and tensions between NGO winners and losers of the bids. This puts the average NGO manager in Uganda, on a short term survival mode rather than a long term well planned sustainable strategy with tangible outcomes and strengthens the capacity of people’s organisation to lead their change processes that addresses their real needs and not short term earnings from donor projects.

To cope with these pressures, NGOs spend most of their valuable time concentrating on self-branding through ordering formation of branded project groups, mounting big signposts often on the way to the airport where donors pass, taking donor representatives to field monitoring visits, and writing well branded politically correct project reports at the cost of building long term viable relationships with their grassroots constituency. Eventually this upward donor project accountability relationship becomes the poison chalice for NGO relevance, legitimacy, and their institutional and programmatic sustainability. Donor dependency runs the risk of transforming NGOs from development innovators to commissioned agents of donor money without any significant attachment to the hopes and aspirations of citizens whom they should be working so closely with and whose life they should really be part of. In effect no attempt is made to become truly civic service organisations.

Because of the above realities, NGOs are often seen by government departments, ministries and security apparatus as agents of foreign interest, meaning every effort is taken by government to regulate and control NGO operations in the name of protecting national security interests. This is done through work permits, immigration control and security risk monitoring, and restrictive legislation. To some extent some NGOs also reinforce a relationship of suspicion, by not involving government and or local community enough in programme development, and in some cases refusing to share performance reports with governments and community leaders. This makes the relationship between NGOs and government more about suspicious control rather than facilitating their creative role in development programming. It also undermines CSO type innovations for institutional sustainability.

The nature and form of sustainability in the CSO sector in Uganda

Sustainability can be defined as the ability to continue with planned programmes, while withstanding both internal and external pressures and achieving set goals. Sustainability should be about building strong institutions that are able to out live external support and are grounded in the realties of the target populations in such away that the community feel they own the said organisations and programmes. It would mean that local capacity is built enough to enable the target community actually find value in continuing with the programmes or modifying relevant institutional structures to deliver such a programme based on locally generated revenue and not external funding. To achieve this, the organisation involved must have a clear ideology that consistently drives the programmatic priorities, and the tenacity required to deal with these pressures from, time to time.

To be sustainable requires that an organisation is dynamic, innovative and creative enough to respond to the competitive demands especially from the target community and the changing dynamics of the social, economic policy and political environment. To achieve this, CSOs would have to develop more rigorous regular monitoring and evaluation of their systems and market in order to inform their decisions and responses to the needs and expectations of ordinary citizens for whom they are set to support. If implemented properly sustainability strategies have the potential of establishing and strengthening CSO relevance in their mandate of taking sides with the poor and excluded persons. It can also be a very useful a tool for expanding a constituency. A sustainable CSO would have a large issue based constituency drawn from member based organizations which can cut across the entire country and not project groups limited to the project geographical area. This means that communities that CSOs support, own the issues, apply the tools and methodologies to build a strong community driven agenda for social, economic and political transformation beyond the project life.

Frankly speaking, there are very few or not a single NGO in Uganda, that can comfortably claim a high degree of institutional or programmatic sustainability. Very few NGOs can also claim to be seriously taking the right steps towards sustainability and there comes the “Elephant in the room” that must be confronted. This is an essential and legitimate question that cannot longer be ignored if NGOs want to remain relevant in the transformational and social justice agenda in Uganda.

Challenges CSOs face in dealing with the sustainability

Attitude of No-Change: CSOs in Uganda urgently require a deep reflection of their willingness to see things differently and to turn the corner in order to remain relevant and become sustainable. Because of this mindset, many CSO staff members are really attracted and retained by salaries and do not want to even be told about new ways of doing business.

The Internal Fear Factor: This is probably one of the biggest challenges CSOs face in dealing with the sustainability question; driven by the fears of the unknown, and the fear of costs of change and likely job uncertainty, many CSOs would rather not rock the boat by trying to change the way business is done. To deal with this fear CSO staff often use the scapegoat of being non-profit making, non-partisan and non-political to explain away the lack of sustainability.

The Comfort Zone Mentality:  This deters many in the CSO community in Uganda from taking risk and trying out new ideas and innovations. It is not uncommon to find many unwilling to think out of the box or even accept to join new innovative thinking and are always happily looking forward to win the next donor project and keep on keeping on.

Managing Staff and Community Expectations: This will come form both staff and the communities that have over the years grown to know and perceive CSOs as a source of free goodies. There would no doubt be some degree of internal and external resistance to any new form of doing business seen to be threatening the status quo of free goodies. The other groups whose expectations have to be managed is government officials and politicians who have been accustomed to commissioning donor projects and claiming at their next campaign rallies that they are the reason such good projects came to their locations.

Donor Funding Modality:  There is no doubt that even if they decide to change from a typical NGO to a social business for instance, CSOs will still require some transitional funding support to enable them cope with institutional changes necessary for success. But such a change process requires a degree of flexibility in the mode of financing which may not necessarily be one easy thing to achieve in the donor community. This is because such a change in funding modality requires change in accountability culture in their foreign embassies and parliaments back home.

What actions are necessary to get to a desired state of CSO sustainability?

CSO must “bite the bullet”: This means getting into a deep reflection on their current state of affairs and look to redefining of CSOs modus operandi, in the Uganda context. This means moving away from project implementers to facilitators of already existing citizen membership based  formations namely; social (cultural, religious, intellectual academics, educationists, dance and drama,  drinking groups, and others social clubs); economic (farmers, processors, transporters, mechanics, vendors, traders, industrial workers, community savings and credits associations, cooperatives, and labor unions); political (political parties and organizations); and linkages to regional and international entities. This is about increasing and consolidating the stake of communities through direct membership contributions with benefits.

Ideological re-orientation: It demands CSOs clarifying what ideology (beliefs, values and principles) drives their mission, ways of working, staff culture, skills, revenue module, game changers and allies etc. The likely change that such an approach would bring is the need to map out already existing citizen formation and what their needs are and how best they can be supported to deliver to their needs guided by an ideological reference point.

Building new internal CSO Capacity and Skills: It requires a revisiting of the capacity building agenda of CSOs and a willingness for development partners to adopt a more flexible funding mechanism that focuses on building CSOs as long term facilitators of social movements rather than implementing short term service delivery and civic education type projects only.

Start generating local revenue: CSOs should start earning income as long as they don’t become entirely profit driven.  This is about adopting a social business approach that does not only earn local revenue but is also integrated with and promotes the growth of informal and formal member based grassroots organizing with a socio-economic benefit. In effect CSOs would be transforming into facilitators of internal local capacity building of citizen formations through social enterprises and information sharing for building consciousness.

What implications arise for DGF, other donors and CSOs themselves

This proposes a change process that requires DGF, other donors, CSOs and the government of Uganda to engage in a very honest deep reflection and transparent dialogue aimed at creating a new form of development agenda for social, economic and political transformation through doing business unusual that is grounded on the people’s ownership, supported by facilitator CSOs.

The central issue here, is to enable the building and enhancing the appreciation of the stake of citizens and their formations in Uganda. This can only be achieved through increasing their capacity to produce and improve livelihoods, protect human rights, and enhancing democratic practice, as a means of achieving social, economic and political transformation for a peaceful, prosperous and happy future.

All stakeholders (DGF, other donors, CSOs and government) would need to be willing to think of a longer term commitment of at least ten year strategic plans for implementation by CSOs other than the usual short term projects. This will also demand of donors the willingness and flexibility to allow for some of the available resources to be used as seed capital for emerging social enterprises and capacity building CSO willing to transform into social enterprises that are based on the already existing needs of their target community.

For CSOs, a sustainability strategy would not only generate local revenue but also deliberately builds a value based constituency that shares the same ideology and mission with the NGO involved. Such a constituency would strengthen the relevance and legitimacy of the NGO involved.

The current DGF programmatic transitional stage, provides very good opportunity for working closely with CSO and community leaders, supporting a revision or envisioning process for CSO partners to set a sustainable social, economic and political transformational agenda.


The writer is the Chief Executive Officer, The Uhuru Institute for Social Development, a social business supporting cooperatives in Uganda. He is also a member of Nafasi Multi-Purpose Cooperative Society Ltd.

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