The Status of Human Rights Organizations in Sub-Saharan Africa

Characteristics and Problems of Human Rights NGOs

First, it should be repeated that African human rights organizations vary enormously in their history, structure and aims. For example, many have a legal emphasis and may indeed have evolved as committees of the local law society or bar association. Some--including some of the most effective --originate in religious organizations and may be able to draw upon the resources and structure of a church. Some are membership organizations, although many are not. Some have a specific and closely defined mandate, such as working on issues affecting women's health, while most have mandates that are much broader and more vaguely-defined.

The growth and achievements of the African human rights movement in a short space of time have been remarkable. If this section appears to place emphasis on the shortcomings of human rights NGOs--as identified by the groups themselves and by the project researchers--this is because the aim of the study is to help strengthen the movement.

Lack of regional coordination and collaboration: One of the principal problems is that the phrase just used-- "African human rights movement"--is more wishful thinking than reality. The lack of contact and exchange of experience and materials among groups in different African countries is clearly recognized by human rights activists themselves, but is nevertheless difficult to overcome. This lack of articulation between the activities of human rights groups--"networking" in the overused jargon--could even be observed within the same country. Organizations often fail to consult with each other and coordinate their activities, let alone coordinate with other sectors of society with interests and activities in common, such as the media or the legal profession.

A particularly acute example of this lack of contact and coordination lies in the split between francophone and anglophone human rights groups. (Human rights groups in the lusophone countries have been traditionally weak--the one exception, Guinea-Bissau, has tended to fall under the francophone bloc). It is sad and dispiriting that colonial political rivalries, perpetuated by post-independence governments, should continue to find a reflection in the human rights movement. In this, as in several other areas, the women's groups have made a stronger effort than most to overcome the linguistic division.

Even where regional human rights bodies exist--such as the Union Interafricaine des Droits de l'Homme (Inter-African Union for Human Rights), based in Burkina Faso--they tend to be hampered by political and personal rivalries, as well as organizational weaknesses. A number of regional human rights groups were encountered in the course of the survey; the ones concentrating on women's rights tended to be the best organized, with the clearest mandates and the least blighted by personal and political conflict. It is quite clear however, that none of the groups that profess to address human rights from a regional perspective have been very successful at doing so. This is partly a resource issue, but also relates to the "top-down" or inorganic fashion in which they have developed, without first assessing the appropriate strategies to adopt in pursuing the idea, or without much prior consultation with the groups that would ostensibly benefit from the operation of a regional coordinating mechanism.

The seminar organized by the International Commission of Jurists preceding each session of the African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights was identified by our researchers as a forum from which more African NGOs could benefit, even if just to meet each other.

Unclear goals and objectives: For many of the organizations visited, further development was impeded by the absence of defined goals and objectives. Many organizations are spread too thinly. Given the scale of the human rights problems facing many African countries this is understandable. However, instead of having an impact in one area, there is a tendency for organizations to take on all sorts of issues and to handle them all ineffectively. In some cases, local organizations hold themselves out as pan-African when in fact their activities are concentrated in only the country where they are based and their methods of work are not easily transferable elsewhere. Few of the organizations surveyed have much sense of planning, and to the extent that they do, it is mainly of a short-term and reactive nature. Few of the organizations either monitor or evaluate the effectiveness of their operations in order to integrate these lessons into the next stage of their operation and development. A vast number of groups define their main function as "human rights education"--a rubric under which a wide variety of activities take place. Unfortunately, the methodology and the content of many such programs are ill-defined and inappropriately targeted. A clear need exists for human rights organizations to better conceptualize and execute such educational programs, not only to ensure their relevance to the community addressed, but in order to carry them out in a sustainable fashion.

Emphasis on civil and political rights: The work of most human rights groups in Africa has tended to focus predominantly, if not exclusively, on rights in the civil and political area--freedom of expression and association, political participation, the right to be free from arbitrary detention and torture, and so on. This emphasis is perhaps due in part to the significant involvement in human rights initiatives of lawyers, journalists and other professionals whose interests and activities tend to be substantially affected by infringements of these types of rights. As mentioned earlier, however, it is essential to the future effectiveness of human rights organizations in Africa that they broaden their work to include economic and social rights. At the same time, groups that have sought to do this have often been seriously constrained by the lack of involvement of individuals--social workers, statisticians, medical professionals, economists--who have the expertise that an organization needs to be able to monitor and report effectively on these rights. In addition, many groups have the perception that donors are less interested in supporting work on economic and social rights.

Lack of national coordination and collaboration: In many countries, there is a tendency towards duplication and overlap among groups and a significant lack of coordination in their activities. While there is an obvious need for greater communication, sharing of information and collaboration, there is often, in reality, competition and a desire to dominate rather than cooperate: "Everybody should affiliate to us" is a sentiment not uncommonly heard. In this respect--as in others--it would appear that women's organizations have performed much better than other human rights organizations and significant lessons can be learned from their experience.

Urban-rural split: Most groups are based in towns--and above all in the capital city--in a continent where the population remains overwhelmingly rural. The capital cities have their own dynamics and are often not representative of the human rights issues which most people face in the rural areas or even in provincial towns. A few organizations have tried to create branches outside the capital but with only limited success. Church groups have generally been more effective in this regard--probably because they have a ready-made national network--and other human rights organizations could usefully look at this experience and modify it to suit their own aims and capacities.

Societal divisions: Human rights groups are not immune to the ethnic, racial and class divisions which affect the societies in which they operate. This is most striking in the human rights organizations in southern Africa which inevitably reflect the division of labour imposed by the racist states of South Africa and Rhodesia. Whites--and to a lesser extent Asians and "Coloureds"--have used the greater political freedom allowed them in order to become active on human rights issues. The effectiveness of the human rights movement in southern Africa will clearly be strengthened to the extent that those groups who have been most discriminated against in the societies are increasingly involved in the work of organizations.

Elsewhere, human rights groups may be perceived as reflecting ethnic biases, especially in a situation where violent ethnic conflict is a major human rights issue. Monitoring such situations can be particularly difficult if a human rights worker belongs to one or the other of the ethnic groups involved in the conflict; his or her impartiality is likely to be called into question.

In other situations human rights groups may also reflect the concerns of the dominant (and particularly urbanized) groups in society rather than marginal groups such as pastoralists, hunter-gatherers and other minorities.

Undemocratic organizational structures: Another identifiable problem across the region is the lack of internal staff processes to include program level staff, such as staff attorneys, researchers or journalists, in decision-making. Many of the organizations visited were "one man shows". Sometimes, this may be due to funding constraints, but even in the organizations with a large staff, the head of the organization noticeably dominated. In a number of groups, decisions are made by the head of the organization with no consultation with anyone at all. There is a need for groups to think about ways to strengthen and democratize their internal decision-making structures. While this is not a problem specific to Africa, it does impair the ability of an institution to grow and sustain itself because there is no investment in training a competent professional staff.

Gender imbalance: There is a noticeable dearth of women in professional positions in African human rights organizations, except for those specifically dedicated to women's issues. In general human rights organizations, women in professional positions usually focus on "women's issues". The organizations need to think about genuine ways in which they can bring women into leadership roles in the movement.

Access to funding: Lack of money for day-to-day operations is another serious problem. Every organization has funding problems, with the partial exception of those which have church affiliations. Many organizations are functioning without basic office equipment. In one organization which a researcher visited, a donated computer was sitting on the floor because the group did not have enough money to buy a table. Another group had a number of its computers stolen by the security forces and could not afford to replace them.

There is very little of a local philanthropic community to fall back upon in these countries. The Nigerian human rights community and a few others, for example, have attempted to get local support, yet it has not been enough to sustain them. It is important to note that in many cases the personal contributions of small numbers of highly committed individuals who are often hard-pressed themselves have been fundamental for maintaining groups through difficult times.

Even so, all groups, regardless of stature or length of operation, face the same problem of donor-dependency, which, even if not overtly, has a significant and growing impact on the nature, character and programs of African human rights organizations. Most importantly, of course, human rights organizations need to develop programs that take as their starting point the needs of the community they are serving. At the same time they need to be able to design and execute the programs they want, rather than those dictated by donor agencies--whether subtly or directly.

Many groups remain unaware of the various donor organizations from which they could solicit funding. Equally importantly, groups need to learn how to write funding proposals. Although African human rights groups are likely to continue to be dependent on foreign funding, they need to develop ways to facilitate this funding at the same time that they define and prioritize the human rights agenda for themselves.

Relations with international NGOs: There is a need for close links between African human rights NGOs and their international counterparts. International organizations can amplify the campaigns of African groups and offer particular skills and experience. However, many African human rights activists felt that the relationship between the two has been largely exploitative, with international organizations utilizing the work of local groups without acknowledgment. As the number of African NGOs has increased in recent years, international organizations have found themselves competing with domestic organizations for the same sources of funding. This has led to occasions when international organizations have used local human rights groups to fund-raise for themselves without consultation or involvement. We would recommend that a code of conduct be developed to govern applications for joint funding between international and local NGOs.

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