Since civil society organisations (CSOs) contribute to democracy, it is only fair and right to ask the question: Who are Malawian CSOs accountable to and who do they represent?
There is no doubt that a vibrant and autonomous civil society is often associated with democracy and good governance. CSOs have played and continue to play the role of conveying the interests and issues of different groups to authority. CSOs have in many times criticised, censored and supported the government but also confirmed the government’s legitimacy, accountability and transparency.
The difference between the political elite and CSOs in Malawi is that despite the flaws with our democracy, Members of Parliament we have are elected by the people they represent. They, therefore, have some sort of legitimacy to claim to be speaking on behalf of their constituents. On the other hand, CSOs are unique in that their members and supporters can join them on a completely voluntary basis. They are not elected and consist of interested members and associated citizens. In the process, Malawian CSOs offer the opportunity for participation and give a voice to the voiceless. Since CSOs bring together people of the same interests and of different backgrounds, values and cultures and bridge different social groups, they represent a good basis for democratic culture and democracy, at least on paper.
While it is appreciated that CSOs represent a linkage between government and the public and give an opportunity for citizens to communicate their message to the government, one cannot take this role for granted. Time and time again, it is important to challenge these CSOs to renew their relevance and to ascertain whose interests they are representing. One way to do that is to ask relevant questions including who they are accountable to. There is an unquestionable trust that these CSOs represent citizens and agendas beyond self-interest, that they have good intentions and that there is no need for the civil society to be accountable. This thinking is both undemocratic and wrong.
It is fine that these CSOs are the ones who demand answers from the government and make government accountable but it is not morally right that these same CSOs should not be measured by the same standards. The growth of CSOs and their increasing role in the day-to-day affairs of ordinary Malawians require CSOs to be accountable. In the interest of transparency and democratic values, CSOs should be clear on whom do they represent; who appoints them; to whom are they accountable. After all, those holding others to account should themselves be accountable and what are they accountable for.
Majority of these CSOs claim do not raise funds without claiming that the ultimate beneficiaries of their citizens are Malawians. In other words, they raise these funds on behalf of others and those others have the right to know. Most of the CSOs do claim to represent a certain interest group or section of Malawian society. Based on the fact that representation and accountability are closely connected, it is only fair to question the accountability mechanisms of the CSOs in Malawi.
Corruption, theft and mismanagement are not the exclusive ability of politicians; these tendencies have also been observed within the CSOs sector in Malawi and abroad. Greed and nepotism as well as abuses of human rights occur in CSOs. The idea that because a sector has the term “civil” in its description, it is therefore perfect is utter nonsense.
To prevent CSOs from abusing their positions, it is important that CSOs should be accountable. It is necessary to be critical of civil society and to call them to account. They represent a link between the public and the government; as such, they cannot run away from being publicly accountable themselves. How do we explain the fact that in certain sectors, it is the same names of CSO activists who revolve and keep on creating new CSOs to do the same things their former CSO was doing? How do you explain the tendency of “Life Executive Directors” in the sector? There is no substitute for accountability. CSOs cannot continue to demand accountability from others and yet their own accountability is questionable. Who are they accountable to?
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