Uganda’s (Republic of Uganda 2015) move to pass a new law regulating the tens of thousands of Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) in Uganda has generated very interesting and at times polarizing debate amongst NGOs (IRIN 2015). The NGOs that consider themselves advocacy organisations distinguish themselves from service providing NGOs and believe the new law targets them specifically. Among service providing NGOs there is also distinction between those providing humanitarian aid and those providing development aid. Those providing humanitarian aid believe the new law will immensely hinder their work. Advocacy NGOs are perceived more as the watch-dog to Government of Uganda (GoU) to ensure that it provides services; while service providing ones are perceived as complimenting the efforts of GoU in providing services. Advocacy organisations expectedly are more overtly political and more in direct confrontation with the GoU.

The GoU is justifying its need for stricter regulation of NGOs on grounds that NGOs serve interests of ‘outsiders’, sometimes colluding with ‘outsiders’ in order to undermine GoU; that their accountability practices to GoU are wanting; and that they pose a security risk. The GoU has thus assigned Uganda’s Ministry of Internal Affairs – that is in charge of security matters – the role of overseeing NGOs. Eye brows are naturally raised when service providers are considered a security risk. But, are NGOs necessarily different from other actors – corporate business sector, political parties, and GoU? What distinguishes them so that they should be registered and regulated differently by the GoU?

It is often asserted that what distinguishes NGOs is the way in which they work in partnership. This is as opposed to the way in which the corporate sector works in market competition and the way in which the GoU works in bureaucratic hierarchy. This opinion piece attempts to describe the distinct nature of NGOs in Uganda using their claim to work in partnership as the analytical framework.

NGOs operating in Uganda can be classified into two major categories: locally owned and internationally owned.  Ugandan owned NGOs (UNGOs) are owned by persons or institutions that hold Ugandan citizenship and/or registered only with the GoU and no other authority. The internationally owned NGOs (INGOs) are often aid agencies whose owners are persons or institutions with nationalities other than Ugandan and often have multiple registrations – in their home countries and in the countries in which they work.

UNGOs and INGOs usually claim to work in partnership – working in solidarity, with mutual respect, and social affection in their voluntary actions to help the poor. UNGOs claim to work together for and with the poor in their struggle to eradicate poverty and it is from the poor that they proclaim derived mandate to solicit assistance – particularly financial support – for their development efforts. INGOs take hid and enter into partnership with UNGOs often with claims of shared vision and proclaimed shared desires to help poor people.

Ugandan NGO experts, however, note that the nature of partnerships between INGOs and UNGOs often differs according to the different philosophies of INGOs. One such expert, Professor Kwesiga, who in the early 2000s was the Executive Secretary of a UNGO – Development Indigenous Voluntary Associations (DENIVA), provided the following three categories that are useful for appreciating and analysing INGO-UNGO partnerships:

  • INGOs who genuinely believe in empowerment. Believe in genuinely building the capacity of UNGOs and in the process their own capacity in terms of understanding the Ugandan people. Such INGOs are more likely to seek longer-term relationships with UNGOs and are more likely to be willing to enter into agreements in which they provide block funding and are comfortable with general reporting of the UNGO – overall UNGO reports as opposed to separate project reporting.
  • INGOs in pursuit of an identity or increase in visibility. Such INGOs are more likely to seek shorter-term relationships, often a series of unrelated projects, so that the INGO is able to take credit for the success of those projects and to stamp their logos and ‘funded by INGO’ on the physical outputs of the project. In these kinds of relationships the INGOs are more likely to earmark their funding and to be fairly rigid in their reporting requirements – interested only in reports for projects that the INGO funded and not the overall report of the UNGO
  • INGOs which use UNGOs to implement INGO programmes. In these cases the relationship is defined in crisp contractual terms – the INGO contracts or sub-contracts UNGOs in a context of “we pay you our money to deliver the goods”. The deliverables are clearly defined and it is often the case that the INGO takes full credit for the positive outputs.

Kwesiga’s three NGO partnership categories imply:

  • INGO-UNGO partnerships are premised on provision of funding by INGOs to UNGOs.
  • Different INGOs set different conditionalities on their partnerships with UNGOs.
  • Trust levels and power relations in NGO partnerships differ as determined by INGOs.

Trust means: “to believe in the honesty and worth of someone”, according to the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English. Writing about cooperation, scholars (Harriss 2000), indeed, assert that what distinguishes partnership and cooperation in general, from other forms of organisation – market (competition) and bureaucracy (hierarchy), is the existence of trust as the control mechanism in partnerships and in cooperation.  Even though trust exists in other kinds of relationships it is not normally viewed as the control mechanism of those relationships.  NGO partnerships connote that their “way of organising is more social, being dependent upon the existence of affectivity in relationships, mutual interests and reputations (or solidarity) and upon voluntary action, rather than on guidance by a formal structure of authority”(Harriss 2000)  – INGOs and UNGOs seemingly nurturing and gaining trust based on past performance (reputation).

Trust can be gained characteristically, for example, as ascribed in accordance to ones ethnicity (Harriss 2000), in which case certain groups of people are perceived as more trustworthy than another group of people. There is, for example, a dominant factoid that Ugandans are more corrupt than other peoples of the world – as judged by our public sector. Transparency International (TI) defines corruption as: “the abuse of entrusted power for private gain.” According to TI’s corruption perception index, Uganda is ranked among the most corrupt nations in the world – that is to say Uganda’s public servants abuse the power entrusted to them by Ugandans.

It is perhaps because of Uganda’s characteristically ascribed high level of corruption, that these days there rarely is a relationship between a UNGO and an INGO which is organised primarily on the basis of trust. Within INGO-UNGO partnership relationships there are often differential power relations and cultural differences – donor-recipient relationships prevail – what the donors want/decide is what rules. The dominant approach of project based development which is prevalent in Uganda is especially incompatible with partnership because it imposes rigidities on the INGO-UNGO partnerships. It is the norm, for example, that INGOs insist upon the financial accountability of their partners but do not usually open themselves up to the same level of financial investigation by UNGOs. There is rarely easily accessible ‘information accountability’ allowing UNGOs to check how financial information about them is used in the home countries of their partners – the INGOs.

Differential power relations and cultural differences among INGOs and UNGOs are often glossed over in the language of trust and partnership.  Insufficient discussion or non discussion of power relations within NGO partnerships leaves tensions within the partnerships to simmer and to the detriment of achieving genuine partnership.  It is thus tempting to agree with the school of thought that views ‘power’ as the more appropriate concept that should be utilised to explore NGO partnership relationships as opposed to using the concept of trust. Donor-recipient power relationships no doubt form the bedrock on which conditionalities that INGOs attached to their financial donations to UNGOs, for example. In most cases, moreover, INGO conditionalities to UNGOs do not take into consideration the good reputations of UNGOs – they are often based on a premise of mistrust.

Works Cited

Harriss, John. “Working together: the principles and practice of co-operation and partnership.” In Managing development – understanding inter-organizational relationships, by Dorcas Robinson, Tom Hewit and John Harriss, 225-242. London: SAGE Publications Ltd, 2000.

IRIN. NGOs alarmed by ‘draconian’ Uganda bill. 10 July 2015. (accessed September 12, 2015).

Republic of Uganda. The NGO Bill, 2015. Bill, Kampala: Government of Uganda, 2015.


  1. An example to contextualise this debate: “On Thursday last week, a group of officers attached to URSB and some police officers stormed Tumushabe’s offices. During the exercise, the officers and investigators asked for financial statements, as well as expenditure reports… Tumushabe says the financial reports were not ready by the time the officers visited the premises, however he will cooperate with them and send the required documents to clear his name.” Read more


  2. My personal opinion is that the bottom line is the motive behind “The NGO Bill.”

    I hope that after reading and or listening to what is detailed in the links below, you will agree with me that some neutral body needs to make laws that require NGOs to be transparent and hold them accountable in case such as these:


    • In Uganda not-for-profit organisations can either register with the NGO Board and be defined NGO or register with the Uganda Registration Bureau as Company’s Limited by Guarantee or trusts. So why are NGOs not taking the latter option which is more neutral and more competent that the NGO Board? Is a question that fascinates me too.


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