Report    08th Oct, 2018

Civil Society Influence on Political and Public Policy Reform in Uganda

The role of civil society in political reform is based on ‘the idea of a positive, universalist view of the desirability of civil society as part of the political project of building and strengthening democracy around the world’ (Lewis, 2001). In Uganda, increased international financing for governance and political reform blended with an appreciation of the role of civic actors in this process have been foremost factors in accelerating the advance of CSO work around politics and public policy.

by Emmanuel Kitamirike

This paper examines the contextual factors impacting on civil society influence on politics and public policy reform in Uganda and explores the entry points that can be leveraged to strengthen this influence. Two typologies of organisations are considered: the ‘old’ and ‘new’ civil societies. The ‘old civil societies’3 have historically been part of Uganda’s socio-economic and political processes and are active to date. In this paper, ‘old civil societies’ refer to those associations or groups4 that are based on acquaintances such as religious, cultural, professional or economic identities. Examples include, but are not limited to, the churches and the Islamic groups, co-operatives, trade unions, cultural groups and community solidarity associations.5 On the other hand, the term ‘new civil societies’ is applied here to mean the growing community of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) working in different sectors of development, including service delivery as well as advocacy for rights, public policy and political reform.

In terms of distinction, old civil societies typically involve the ‘grievers’ themselves or the people who are directly affected by or have a direct interest in an issue establishing themselves into an association to coordinate their interests. On the other hand, new civil societies may be formed by individuals who are concerned about a problem but are not necessarily affected by it directly. In addition, old civil societies are usually membership organisations, but this is not necessarily the case with new civil societies.

Civil society in Uganda has experienced exponential growth over the last two decades, thanks to the plethora of new civil societies engaged in humanitarian and development programming. The National NGO Bureau reports more than 13,000 registered NGOs,6 but this figure tends to exclude several groups at local level and the old civil societies that are not registered as NGOs. The precise number of CSOs working in Uganda is not known, given that the formal registration frameworks do not capture all organisations that can be clustered as civil society. Most of the registered organisations are engaged in charitable activities relating to the delivery of public goods and services in areas such as health, education and economic empowerment. However, several organisations have taken up advocacy for rights, public policy and political reform. This paper focuses on organisations engaged in activities targeted towards political or public policy reform.

The role of civil society in political reform is based on ‘the idea of a positive, universalist view of the desirability of civil society as part of the political project of building and strengthening democracy around the world’ (Lewis, 2001). In Uganda, increased international financing for governance and political reform blended with an appreciation of the role of civic actors in this process have been foremost factors in accelerating the advance of CSO work around politics and public policy.

However, civil society engagement with political affairs is not a new phenomenon in Uganda: the old civil societies, particularly the church and trade unions, are reported to have been influential power actors in the pre- and post-independence periods (Okuku, 2002). And to date, business associations such as Kampala City Traders Association (KACITA) remain key actors in negotiating trade and taxation policies, while cultural and religious groups have stood out on several matters relating to land and specific rights-related legislation such as the 2009-2015 campaign around the Marriage and Divorce Bill and the Anti-Homosexuality Act (2014).

Existing literature on political reform presents unlimited examples of civil society influence in political change processes around the world. Widely documented socio- political movements, such as the 1989 revolutions that brought an end to communism and ushered in pluralism in Eastern Europe, included a highly acknowledged role of civil society.7 And so was the role of civil society in other liberation movements, such as the independence processes in Bangladesh (Lewis, 2001). The Arab Spring, which started in 2010 and led to the collapse of authoritarian regimes from Tunisia and Egypt to Yemen, have been defined as civil resistance (Abbott, 2018). These uprisings demonstrate the power of civic action in disrupting the existing political order. In Africa, voluntary and associational groups, such as the churches, organised labour, professional associations and grass- roots movements, are praised as being among the most vocal opponents of authoritarian regimes on the continent (Okuku, 2002).

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