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Civic participation

Grassroots matter

by Michael Konow

In depth

Artisans are particularly important for Niger’s economy: a blacksmith at work

Artisans are particularly important for Niger’s economy: a blacksmith at work

Civil society organisations are struggling in the Republic of Niger. The basic legal provisions for their activities are in place, but they lack money, education and members. If aid agencies want to help, they should start at ground level. By Michael Konow

At first glance, the chances of civil society flourishing in Niger do not look good. There is almost no culture of civic engagement, even though there is a desperate need for it.

In recent years, however, the level of civil activism has risen. In 1988, there were fewer than 30 civil society organisations (CSOs) in the country; by 2007, foreign development organisations were aware of nearly 800. Niger’s national development strategy even speaks of more than 5,000 grassroots community organisations, 600 associations and five trade unions.

The skilled trades, which are particularly important for Niger’s economy, are increasingly becoming organised too. The national umbrella association Fédération Nationale des Artisans du Niger (FNAN) represents more than 500 grassroots organisations with an aggregate membership of around 80,000 craftspeople.

Grassroots organisations can improve people’s lives, especially at the community level. For example, they help draft municipal development plans and cooperate with state-run training centres. In Niamey, artisans organisations are taking part in a apprenticeship system that relies on in-company training plus school education, reflecting Germany’s “dual” model of vocational training. The crafts organisations helped to bring that about. They designed skills curricula, and now select trainees.

The law encourages civil society development. CSOs are free to organise and operate virtually without restrictions. Niger’s new constitution explicitly mentions them in its article on freedom of association and organisation. CSOs enjoy several legal guarantees and privileges. They are allowed to form networks. The state can exempt them from customs duties as well as from all direct and indirect taxes, charges and levies.

Serious challenges

Nevertheless, CSOs have to contend with countless problems. They are short of money; many cannot even cover their current expenses. The obvious reason is that their members are poor. Most CSOs rely on volunteers, but their members cannot afford to neglect paid work for voluntary services. Niger’s craftspeople live at subsis­tence level because cheap imports from Asia make competition tough and there are only few public contracts.

Many CSOs depend on outside funding. There is not much government money available, but international development programmes provide support. Examples include L’Appui au Renforcement des Capacités des Organisations de la Société Civile, which is run by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the EU’s Programme Appui à la Société Civile au Niger.

The availability of such aid unfortunately gives rise to a kind of project opportunism. Some organisations claim to be active in a wide range of areas in the hope of collecting donor money. Indeed, development agencies pay CSOs for participating in training programmes, workshops and conferences. Sometimes, they even remunerate people for CSO jobs.

However, the programmes international agencies run often do not take into account participants’ poor education. At just 28.7 %, Niger has the world’s second-lowest literacy rate for adults (over 15). Moreover, most members of craft CSOs have never learned to fulfil simple administrative tasks efficiently. They neither understand nor observe the rules that are spelled out in CSO statutes, which, in many cases, were drafted by external advisers. CSOs lack basic management skills as well as experience in planning, monitoring and evaluating projects.

Corruption is another serious issue. Democracy is not consolidated in Niger. Even one-time beacon of hope Mamadou Tandja, Niger’s president from 1999 to 2010, re­sorted to authoritarian rule at the end of his term in office – a move that led to a coup d’état and a one-year interruption of Niger’s young democracy. In Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index 2011, Niger ranks 134th among 182 countries and is categorised as “very corrupt”.

Corruption has an impact on CSOs. Their presidents often hold many positions inside and outside an organisation. For some of these people, CSOs are only a platform for raising their public profile before launching a political career. Non-transparency, distrust and asymmetric information leave their mark on the interaction between CSO leaders and plain members.

For CSOs in Niger, moreover, negotiating with the government agencies is a huge challenge. Members’ lack of education and training limits their scope for lobbying. Moreover, they typically do not have resources for engaging in politics. Many people expect the government and the international community to take care of matters on their own. After decades of authoritarian rule, there is little sense of public participation. People, so far, neither consider it their right to become involved, nor do they understand the government’s duty to act accountably.

Think local

International aid agencies that wish to strengthen civil society actors in Niger tend to support CSO networks, umbrella organisations and platforms. The appeal of this approach lies in the multiplier effects of reaching out to large numbers of people.

In theory, this approach makes sense. In practice, however, it rarely works out. The reason is that the grassroots organisations are still too weak to support overarching associations. Aid agencies have not yet tackled the underlying issues of inadequate organisation and management, poor communications, lack of funds and challenged legitimacy.
Organisation: The crafts organisation FNAN, to give an example, has eight regional subsidiaries, which in turn serve as umbrella organisations at their level. Some aid agencies are supporting the establishment of umbrella organisations at the even lower levels of the départements and municipalities. With a budget of less than € 1000, these organisations are then expected to coordinate some 10,000 mem-
bers, who tend to be organised poorly. This looks like mission impossible.
Communications: Umbrella organisations are typically based in Niamey or the seven regional capitals. They are often far away from member organisations. For vibrant interaction, they need information systems, but the umbrella organisations cannot impose them from above. If communications are not good within a member organisation, there is not much the umbrella organisation can do.
Funding: Member organisations struggle to collect membership fees and cover their expenses for phone calls, text messages or petrol. If they are made to share their scant funds with umbrella bodies, they will be left with even less money and will have a harder time wooing their members.
Legitimacy: Craftspeople do not tend to pay membership fees unless they see long term benefits where they are based. Many wonder what FNAN might be doing with their money. Lack of trust and challenged legitimacy hamper the operations of umbrella organisations.

Instead of continuing the promotion of umbrella organisations, aid agencies would be well advised to identify and support individual promising CSOs – such as the Coopérative du Centre des Métiers d’Art du Niger, which not only performs effective lobbying at the regional level but is even capable of representing the country at international trade fairs. Organisations like this are the base on which sustainable umbrella organisations can be expected to grow eventually.

More than physical presence

In spite of the many challenges, civil society activism is gaining momentum in Niger. The government took CSOs on board when it drafted its national development strategy. It similarly involves them in ongoing monitoring and evaluations of policy implementation. The new constitution was drafted by a consultative council that not only in­cluded representatives of key sections of society, but even members of individual craft CSOs. Currently, these organisations are contributing to drafting a national policy for skilled trades development. The biggest national craft fair, Salon International de l’Artisanat pour la Femme (SAFEM), is run by a commission with 150 members, a third of whom are required by statute to be members of the skilled trades.

Currently, CSO participation may often not mean much more than the physical presence of CSO members in decision-making bodies, but the foundations for real CSO involvement are in place in Mali. Aid agencies can support this trend through capacity development and promotion of ownership. In a country like Niger, which is at the beginning of its economic, social and environmental development, it makes sense to think local at first.

Activities at the ground level and long-term support for grassroots organisations will achieve more in terms of sustainable development than macro-level projects can. Development workers can make an important difference, and they have proven to be efficient and unexpensive.