In Washington, the leaders of twenty African non-governmental organizations spent the past week (May 27-31) discussing challenges to development in their countries. They took part in the annual Africa Liaison Program Initiative to learn how to be better advocates for their causes.
Evariste Karangwe, program manager for the initiative, says the weeklong meeting paves the way for dialogue between those at the grassroots level and those in power.
He says, "The purpose is to foster open communication, dialogue and collaboration among key stakeholders in the African development process. We’re talking about US NGO’s, African NGO’s, USAID missions and African governments."
One of the NGO leaders taking part is Annie Kairaba of the Rwanda Initiative for Sustainable Development. She says she learned new skills about how to be an advocate for land policy and law.
"What has been happening in the Rwandan NGO’s or Civil Society, advocacy is a new thing because of a highly centralized government that has led the country for centuries, she says. "It’s only since 1999 that Rwanda has started a decentralization program. So all the decisions had been made by the government and NGO’s would just implement government policies. So in terms of advocacy, we as a Civil Society have to be an independent organization or network."
Ms. Kairaba says eight years ago, non-governmental organizations and civil society were powerless to stop the genocide. "In the past, I would say they have not played a major role. You may have heard about the genocide in Rwanda in 1994. It’s because civil society was very weak. They didn’t play any role to lobby a change in the government ideology. But now, since 1994, NGO’s are reflecting on their past role and trying to be stronger in lobbying the government on policy issues."
For Judy Kamanyi of Uganda, the elimination of poverty is the driving force behind her NGO, the Uganda Women’s Network.
She says, "Poverty is actually pervasive. Poverty impacts differently for women than for men. Women are more disadvantaged. We tend to find gender imbalances as far as poverty is concerned. The women are the poorest of the poor."
Ms. Kamanyi says meeting with U-S officials in Washington – and other NGO leaders - gave her the opportunity to publicize issues of concern to women. "If for instance I raise these issues here in Washington, I’ll be contributing towards bringing reality towards what is actually happening. Not only what is happening in Uganda, but in the rest of Africa," she says.
In some countries, such as Tanzania, NGO’s are learning to have a voice in a democratic society. Mary Mwingira, head of the Tanzania Association of NGO’s, known as TANGO, says speaking out in a free society is a learned skill.
She says, "You know the majority of people in countries like ours don’t belong to any political party. But they want to participate in decisions that affect them. So, for us there’s a goal to understand the concept of democracy as a process of participation, of people airing their views, of people saying this is our concern. Even of people saying, how they would like things don in their own countries. It’s very important, but it requires a skill to do that effectively."
The Africa Liaison Program Initiative is funded by USAID and organized by InterAction, an alliance of US-based international and humanitarian organizations.