Fact Check: Mwenda on civil society, what is it?

Yesterday, on Facebook, I happened on Andrew Mwenda’s post “Whom do Ugandan NGOs represent?” I read it all and I was blown away by Mwenda’s factoid laden Machiavellian analysis of Ugandan non-governmental organisations (NGOs).  He wrote:

“These Western powers promote NGOs claiming they are “civil society”. Yet this is a gross misrepresentation of what civil society is, should be and has always been understood to be.

Historically Civil society was an assembly of voluntarily associations away from the family; and independent of both the state and the market but mediating the relationship between the two. People came together in a voluntary fashion and around a shared interest. They would form an association to aggregate and articulate their interests and place them on the national political agenda. In short, they were membership- based organisations.

This association would be organised around democratic principles. Members would pay subscription and membership fees to fund the organization. At every end of year, the elected leaders would present a report to their members on what they did to realise the objectives of the organisation and account for the organisation’s funds. If members felt the elected officials were not effective in promoting the interests of the organisation, or had misused the organisation’s money, they could elect them out of office and elect new ones. That is what accountability means and that is how it works.”

It baffled me and the conscientious scholar that I am decided to do a quick online search to crosscheck my misgivings. I Googled “What is civil society?” I clicked on a couple of the links from the Google search results and read. Then, I thought, wait a minute. These texts seem similar if not exact to what Mwenda has written as though it were his original work. I went a step further and I subjected the text from Mwenda’s post, here above quoted, to a plagiarism check. The results:

“We have found significant plagiarism in your text.”

Plagiarism Checker by Grammarly

Not only did Mwenda plagiarize, he deliberately took the definitions of civil society out of context of the spirit of the original texts in which he likely took them from and he used them incorrectly. In the original texts from whence he likely plagiarized, NGOs, in some cases referred to as civil society organisations (CSOs) and in some cases referred to as non-profit organisations, are considered among civil society. To imply otherwise as Mwenda seemingly does is a falsehood.

It is incorrect to assert that “Western powers promote NGOs claiming they are civil society,” because it is the norm within popular discourse for NGOs to be referred to as CSOs. And if in a particular space the NGOs are the only type of organisation categorized civil society it isn’t a “gross misrepresentation” to refer to them as such within the context of that space. There is no doubt in my mind that it is understood that NGOs are among organisations considered civil society, among others.

In fact, in some of the definitions Mwenda likely plagiarised, for example:

“Typologies of civil society actors include (World Economic Forum, 2013, p. 7; African Development Bank, 2012, p. 10): Online Groups and activities including social media communities that can be “organised” but do not necessarily have physical, legal or financial structures: and Social Movements of collective action and/or identity, which can be online or physical.”

Rachel Cooper in “What is Civil Society, its role and value in 2018?

This means that even WhatsApp groups are among civil society. That the online petition against the European Union’s resolution on the Uganda East Africa Crude Oil Pipeline (EACOP) is also civil society. It thus falsifies Mwenda’s assertion that civil society, in general, and NGOs, in particular, are necessarily structured the same – as membership organisations, in which members pay fees and with governance organs in which leaders are elected.

Which begs the question, why did Mwenda find the need to misrepresent and demonize NGOs?

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