The fallacy of CSO Engagement: Reflections from the Just Ended AfDB Annual Meetings in Lusaka

The dust has settled on what was a well-attended – 4 000 delegate strong - largely successful annual meetings of Governors of the African Development Bank (AfDB). The annual meetings held in Lusaka this May marked the 51st convening of such nature. Next year’s meetings are pegged to be held - outside the continent - at Ahmedabad, west of New Delhi, in India and in Busan, South Korea in 2018, that’s a debate for another day.
The illustrious affair which attracted high profile and inspirational Africans, was held under the very appropriate, ‘Energy and Climate Change’ theme. Like most people, I relished the prospect of ‘rubbing shoulders’ with eminent African ‘development super-stars’. What truly grabbed my attention though, was the CSO Forum scheduled for two whole consecutive mornings included in the programme. I curiously rushed to conference centre to register. I appreciated the sisal bag of goodies (branded t-shirt, cap, pens, note book, memory stick, etc.) which have now come to mark conference life.
With optimism, curiosity and expectation about this CSO forum that the Bank seemed keen on investing time on and had reserved their largest conference room for. I went in with the romanticised view that this meant the AfDB understands civil society as expression of democracy through special interest groups that advance pluralism and individual freedoms. That must mean AfDB: is trying to serve the African people; is interested in what civil society can contribute to this effort; understands and appreciates the role of civil society in social and economic transformation; and values its contribution towards making the AfDB truly responsive and relevant to the African person. I eagerly looked forward to discussion about how to improve participation in sharing or reviewing success of implementation of AfDB strategy and programmes.
These were by no means baseless expectations. They were reinforced by my review of the impressive and hugely ambitious High-Fives that assert the AfDB’s commitment to advance Africa's transformation over the next 10 years to: 1) Light and Power up Africa; 2) Integrate Africa; 3) Feed Africa; 4) Industrialise Africa; 5) Improve the quality of life of the people in Africa. All very impressive, even though activists like me would argue that given the extent of poverty and inequality on the continent, they are lopsided. Improving the quality of life of the people in Africa, should rather be the foundational principal or at least number one.
Participating in the CSO forum, a number of things were evident: the bank has little apparent experience engaging civil society; it must be a new area or one for which no proper preparation had been done; they had inadequate internal think-through on how to facilitate such engagement. Two things bothered me: seemingly over-inflated view of the Bank’s role in ‘building’ civil society; and civil society participants’ unquestioning participation in the tightly controlled programme. Did this demonstrate that we in civil society have too little understanding of what the AfDB is? Or are we giving AfDB the benefit of the doubt because it is an African institution and so it must surely mean well - unlike the World Bank which we do not hesitate to question - or could it be that civil society has simply lost its edge and is no longer able to mount the kind of punchy engagement that attracted me to civic work during the drop the debt campaign of the 90s and early 2000s? The sentences that follow explain why these reflections occupied my mind.
Applause filled the audience in the opening session of the CSO forum when AfDB President Akinwumi Adenisa declared “we are going to build capacity of civil society.” I listened in wonder at whether that was the role of a development or whether the Bank had any capacity itself to take on such an endeavour. This premise that civil society needs capacity clearly informed the engagements that followed. The CSO forum turned out to be somewhat stage managed meetings with little or no dialogue but lecture style, plenary and side meetings. One particular presentation focused on what civil society is, it’s character in Africa, how it is funded, etc. A good presentation, for the wrong audience. It was one clearly useful for a Bank audience but odd to see civil society people be ‘capacitated’ on what civil society is.
Many colleagues asked me what the purpose of these annual meetings was and why the public was so easily invited in. Having attended other such meetings before, I attempted to give intelligent explanations of why engagement and public awareness of the AfDB was important for the African public. However, after attending a few sessions I had no reservations about honestly saying what I truly thought it was, a big public relations (PR) event. PR is not at all a bad thing, it helps endear institutions to the public and build support and interest, after all AfDB is an undeniably important player on the continent, and one could argue it must be the most important player. Despite senior officials repeating the interesting perspective and good propaganda that ‘AfDB is not a political institution, but a bank”, in our world where he who has the money has the power. I do not hesitate to tell the AfDB that it is as political an institution as any other. As such meaningful civil society engagement is crucial and unnegotiable.
Admittedly, civil society in Africa has its shortcomings. Overall however, civil society has taken an active role in contributing to country, continental and global development. Meaningful engagement with civil society by AfDB is critical for ownership as well as alternative voice in development processes. Democratic governance, and the quality and relevance of development programmes owes a lot to civic organisations and individuals that have taken it upon themselves to make checking excesses and contributing to a fairer world their business. The AfDB must acknowledge this and make better use of time allocated for engagement with civil society.

  • Chilufya Chileshe has been part of civil society for over 10 years in various staff and Board capacities in Southern Africa.

 Photo Courtesy: nid

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