17469553954_0f3596c183_z(1)Last week we were honored to be part of a daylong forum organized by the Africa Development Bank (AfDB) at Sofitel Abidjan Hôtel Ivoire. This was part of a wider agenda by the bank to address various weighty issues and even elect their new president but the agenda of our day was to discuss the importance of civil society organizations (CSOs), their impact on society and how they can be supported.

Africa Development Bank is a multilateral development institution that came to be in 1964, with a mandate and mission to contribute to the social and economic development of African countries by providing loans and grants towards the same. The bank is hedged on a policy of openness, transparency and accountability and it is with this in mind that it has for the last several years deliberately reached out and partnered with CSOs. CSOs keep institutions and governments in check and it is the banks belief that effective collaboration with them will go a long way in fostering and enhancing transparency. The bank has gone as far as creating a database of competent CSOs to partner with, and this database was launched at the forum.

An educated citizenry is an enlightened one and there is no denying the crucial role that CSOs play in disseminating information to the grassroots. This they do even more effectively than governments. Their role is not just to educate, but also to have firsthand knowledge of the communities, know their unique problems and look for specific solutions for them. For a bank anchored on aiding development and ending the vicious cycle of poverty in African societies, it is clear to see the importance of a strong collaboration with CSOs.

There is also no denying that civil society organizations are playing their game in a very unequal environment. They’re up against governments, businesses, as well as harsh and sometimes biased judicial systems in their respective countries. They’re playing against bodies and organizations that are much more entrenched and with way more resources than they can compete with. But they soldier on and for this they need appreciation and support.

Poster CSO Forum 2015Different plagues affecting Africa and how CSOs can come in to help stem them were discussed at the forum and top among these was corruption which is affecting just about every African country. Universally, according to the Corruption Perception Index, African countries fall below the 50% mark in terms of transparency. With the exception of Botswana, every other country is doing badly to different extents. We have a problem.

Panelists and participants told of sad situations in different African countries where the citizenry has resorted to irregularly paying for what should come easily and freely to any citizen of a sovereign country. We are at a point where corruption has crept to the private sector and even to schools. Cases of parents having to bribe to get their children into certain schools are not altogether uncommon.

As much it happens globally, corruption in Africa is not just corruption. It is the crippling of health services in public hospitals. It is escalation of diseases that could easily be cured were it not for the fact that someone meddled with procurement of essential drugs. It is carnage on our roads because someone interfered with the design and construction of roads for their own monetary gains. In a country like Kenya specifically, prolonged corruption is what culminated in wide open borders in parts and the playground that terrorist are making of our country. Corruption in Africa is therefore not just about broken souls and stunted economies. It is death.

It is not going to be easy to tackle a phenomenon that is so deep rooted and that fights back so viciously but we have to start somewhere and that somewhere can be by continuously and relentlessly educating the people to shun bribery, and to recognize and stand for their rights – something that CSOs already do well.

Education and protection of whistle blowers, among them bloggers, is also a good place to start. Having legal whistle blowing policies on paper is one thing, and educating people is quite another. In the information age, blogging and social media will, and does come in handy in terms of whistle blowing, albeit with commensurate dangers to those that dare. We have heard of bloggers getting arrested, imprisoned and others put to death in some extreme countries.

Environmental degradation was also up for discussion at the CSOs forum. It is sad that as much as there are efforts to stop the same, felling of African forests is still at a frightening level. Do local communities recognize the correlation between drying rivers and the felling of trees? Do they realize that environmental degradation has a direct result on the poverty index? Clearly, more education on this could help and CSOs can play this part well enough.

In an example of how CSOs can be a good go between for corporate and the people, the partly AfDB funded Menengai Geothermal Project in Kenya was put in focus, and representatives talked of how a well informed local community makes operations smooth for the climate-smart energy initiative that aims to boost Kenya’s power to meet the ever increasing demand.

A lot more was discussed and by the end of the day, it was clear that civil society organizations are a force to reckon with, and their role in development of African countries cannot be ignored.