The Herald (Harare)

Zimbabwe: Africa - the Next 20 Years Part II

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It is equally reasonable to predict that over the next 20 years, two factors bringing change to social, political and human relationships across Africa will be the continuing growth of civil society organisations and the political presence of women.

Gender mainstreaming in government is being promoted by some governments, most recently in Liberia under the leadership of president Ellen Sirleaf Johnson.

Women's organisations in Ghana have successfully lobbied the government to pass strong legislation on domestic violence, and are following through by building partnerships among private and public institutions to enforce the provisions.

But there are also many negative societal forces. Violence against women in war has increased.

Trafficking of women and children still receives a low priority in government budgets. For their part civil society organisations have expanded their agenda and range of action, moving from cities out into the rural areas.

Local human rights groups now seek to build more cooperative relationships with governments, rather than simply confronting them.

There is also some evidence to show that civil society has begun to persuade Africa's legislatures and its justice and court systems to assert more independence from the executive branch.

Nearly 10 years ago the UN set the Millennium Development Goals, a group of development goals to be achieved by 2015. Now two years away, it is agreed that achieving these goals in Africa is impossible in all but in one or two countries with respect to one or two goals.

Once more, promises and optimism have to give way to reality. This time it took less than a decade.

This limited achievement has made clear that sustainable development in Africa calls for strategies to address more directly, concurrently and comprehensively all the ongoing major causes of underdevelopment and human rights abuses, notably governance, civil conflicts, corruption, arms, drugs and human trafficking, not to mention other obstacles to social order such as the abysmal conditions of Africa's prisons, its inadequate criminal justice systems, identity politics, failing education and healthcare systems, poor provisions for sanitation and clean water, the prevalence of HIV/Aids and other contagious diseases, as well as the many violations of other civil and political rights that undermine fair, non-violent political process.

Africa's governments and civil society organisations are now confronting this basket-case scenario more systematically. In the process they are finding forces for change but also major obstacles, all of which have to be addressed if Africa's youth is to look forward to a better tomorrow.

The forces for change:

Calls for systemic economic and political change today in Africa appeal to different ideologies and motivations, notably those of human rights, development, pan-Africanism, anti-neocolonialism and nationalism.

The ambiguities of these languages were recently captured in the following words by an NGO leader from Liberia: "Human rights and development discourses today are laced with all kinds of hypocrisy, conditionality, selective enforcement and notions of "Do as I say, not as I do!"'

European governments and their big brother, United States, see themselves as the defenders and enforcers of human rights standards and often talk to the rest of the world in very condescending terms.

Nevertheless it is the language of rights to which local groups turn to legitimise their agenda in both domestic and international fora.

Local civic and human rights organisations increasingly look to the promotion of rights as a step towards the political and economic mobilisation of communities.

However, outside the meetings of the African Union, most African governments eschew the language of rights, entitlements and empowerment, especially when they talk about their domestic affairs.

Rarely is the language of rights to be seen in Africa's primary and secondary school textbooks or even in its university curricula.

Governments prefer to use the language of nationalism, while the languages of pan-Africanism and anti-neocolonialism are heard largely within the domains of Africa's intellectuals and some politicians.

Moving beyond language and ideology, if we look for evidence of work for future change, it is to be found in the growth of civil society, the expansion of electronic communications, new attention to education, and the changing partnerships among local and the international political and economic actors.

There are certainly many other forces influencing the economic future of Africa, but these merit closer attention as they represent more recent and potent forces of change.

The Growth of Civil Society:

Over the last 20 years there are two sectors that have grown more rapidly than any other in Africa: civil society and women's organisations in particular, and electronic communications.

The growth of both fields has been hugely facilitated by international expertise, resources and networking.

The resulting local civil society groups seek to serve needy poor urban and rural communities in many sectors, notably education, healthcare, legal advocacy and lobbying, as well as with respect to safe water, sanitation and personal security.

These tasks, however, require specialised knowledge and planning skills as well as the ability to generate the income needed for their sustainability which local groups do not often possess.

Local groups are also entering a new stage as they face local strong criticism to the effect that they, based as the most successful tend to be, in the main cities, are more accountable to their international funders than to the local constituencies they serve.

The growth of civil society remains uneven. Religious organisations, for example, continue to enjoy strong popular appeal and to provide substantial social services, but show little growth in terms of agency in the society at large.

Labour unions have also struggled over the last 20 years. Universities remain largely under the control of government and thus only nominally within the civil society sector.

Similarly the media in Africa has to function within varying degrees of government control. Its growth has also been limited. Nevertheless, overall, the size, competence and influence of civil society are growing steadily across Africa.

Expansion of Electronic Communications:

There have long been iconic photographic images of herd boys in Africa watching their handful of goats.

Today, far from any major town, we can see such a herd boy with his five goats and his stick in one hand, but now with a cell-phone in the other.

Taxis in Africa rely on the cell-phone for business. Community radios rely on call-ins from cell phone users. Within the last decade, cell phones have permeated the rural areas of the continent, enabling community radios to become instruments of public debate, social change and even banking.

Information is thus circulating more quickly in Africa today than ever before. In the human rights field, advocates are being trained to use video and encryption technologies to collect and report out their evidence of human rights violations.

The communications changes over the last 20 years have been so massive that their implications for social policy and planning in the future are hard to predict.

African NGOs, for example, now argue that the flow of information to and from the villages needs to be more systematic and be driven more by villagers' needs. They want modern communications technologies to improve the lives of the truly poor and increase their participation in the political and economic decisions that affect their lives.

If the pertinent information is to be shared, discussed and evaluated in village meetings, how do rural communities access and use information systems? Local village and community leaders, teachers and religious figures need to be able to select from general information flows those that match the needs of the groups they serve.

Elsewhere in the world the potential of electronic communications has been grasped well by the young. In fact more than Africa's modest television networks and weak print media, new communications technologies are likely to undergo major growth and thus increase their influence on the political and economic development.

What role can youth play in this process? Gone are the days in Africa when youth were routinely emancipated with defined roles and responsibilities as adult members of the community through initiation ceremonies and other institutions. Today in Africa many young men and women find little to keep them in their villages.

They move to the cities if not to Europe and the United States, depriving local communities of their energy and imagination. Could the ongoing communications revolution change this trend, empower these young people and thus benefit their home communities?

J. Paul Martin directs human rights studies at Barnard College and teaches both at Barnard and Columbia. This is the final part of the article which appeared in yesterday's edition.

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