Implications for Environmental NGOs

Analysts of African political systems have paid little attention to the place of NGOs in the political system or to the system’s effects on them. Nevertheless, the political system characteristics described above have significant implications for understanding how environmental NGOs function.

The limited revenues available to African states mean that, whether NGOs seek to persuade government to support them financially or to implement programs or reforms to protect the environment, they are quite likely to be frustrated by government funding shortfalls. Important as environmental problems may be, immediate demands for improving infrastructure, education, and health care often seem more pressing. Environmental NGOs operating in clientistic political systems are likely to face particular difficulties in obtaining resources from government, as they are rarely large or important enough to warrant being co-opted with major allocations of resources. If state power is centralized in an undemocratic or insecure regime, NGOs may have to mute their complaints about poor environmental policy owing to fears of harassment or outright repression. Political leaders who want to remain in power may be skeptical of even small-scale local citizen participation programs, and NGOs may be suspected of being nodes around which opposition might form, particularly if they adopt a critical approach. Centralization of power also means that relatively few government decisions are delegated. Consequently, NGOs may face long waits for key approvals or decisions that must be made at the top. In this situation, lobbying the government generally means trying to establish personal contacts with top decision makers and cultivating their favor.

Corruption complicates the work of environmental NGOs because they can easily find themselves confronted with requests for bribes, either direct or thinly disguised, in return for government services such as issuing required permits, cooperating with their projects, or participating in events they sponsor. Apart from the ethical scruples that NGOs often have regarding bribes, poorly funded NGOs generally lack the financial resources to pay them, and better resourced ones with international funding are often subject to externally imposed rules against bribery. Regional, ethnic, and religious divides can compound the problems resulting from corruption and clientism and make it more difficult for NGOs to establish national level organizations.

Weak states lacking resources and legitimacy create additional problems for environmental NGOs. Dealing with the state in this situation can seem fruitless because its capacities are so limited. Working with agencies that cannot enforce laws, execute programs, or provide assistance is surely not an attractive prospect, and perceptions that the state is not legitimate can make collaboration with the government even less appealing and cause NGO leaders to view the state with disdain. Finally, political instability can limit NGOs’ ability to operate in some parts of a country, exacerbate difficulties in forming national level organizations, make planning difficult, and create delicate political dilemmas. Governments that see themselves as threatened may become especially suspicious of NGOs as possible organizational vehicles for opposition movements, but aligning an NGO too closely with a government that might well soon be superseded is also inadvisable.

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