Many Civil Society Organisations from Rwanda, Burundi, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, and Zimbabwe, last week met at Imperial Botanical Beach Hotel in Entebbe, Uganda, to discuss trade and regional development issues.
Productive discussions regarding regional trade issues were raised, and the role of the civil society in guiding citizens and advising governments on development.
What is called civil society is diverse, having within its ranks experts on trade, seasoned researchers, Trade ministry technocrats, and heads of multinational poverty fighters like MS Uganda, Oxfam, Deniva, and many other such organisations.
The thrust and details of the discussions have already been the subject of several news and business articles in a number of regional news media, including the concise communiqué that was the culmination of the meeting.
This column will only make some serious observations about the uneasy partnership between governments and civil society organisations, which is at best characterised by a frosty relationship.
Civil society will not advise government against some undertakings but will be labelled reactionary immediately. But reactionary should civil society probably remain, if some governments are to be put to task on accountability or delivery of services.
Civil society is even sometimes being fronted as the fourth arm of government (putting the media at risk of losing this traditional position.)
The issue of Aid for Trade that is a constant in bilateral and multilateral trade discussions has never been fully resolved, and it was surprising to find that no single East African regional government was clear whether they had ever received and disbursed this particular fund.
Yet this is a most important tool in pushing for trade empowerment to fighting poverty. Trade ministry officials in the countries of East Africa need to look into this as a matter of urgency, and no doubt after the Botanical Beach Hotel EAC meeting on trade and regional development, all civil society organisations are now into research to find out whether there has been any funds to this effect, and if at all, how much has been allocated to East African countries.
The impressive growth figures by all East African countries vis avis the continued slide in poverty in the countryside should also be a major cause for governments to pause and think what it is that they are not doing right, despite the many poverty intervention measures.
7 percent growth rates in East Africa are impressive figures, yet there is no corresponding prosperity in the villages. All wealth creation gimmicks seem to be working only for townsfolk.
Yet the countryside can be made to prosper. The Rwandan government is encouraging people to form cooperative societies so that they can be easily aided – cooperatives that were beaten into the ground by unfavourable conditions by some regional governments.
The story of Uribwitso in Rwanda should be a kind of eye opener to these regional governments. A confectionery and manufacturer of fruit drinks and spices, the proprietor began small, then he tapped into the countryside for raw materials. He encouraged people in Rulindo to grow fruits and pepper, which he then buys from them.
Even people in neighbouring districts like Ruhengeri and Byumba have began calling on him to buy their fruits because they have seen their counterparts’ progress, and they have an assured market. He has created jobs and an assured income for area residents, and there is no better development than this.
These seemingly small projects are the lifeblood of residents, and eventually emancipate them from poverty. The kind of agricultural activities we have in Rwanda can be based on a kind of outgrowers’ schemes, with many people contributing raw materials to factories; raw materials like sugar cane, tea leaves, coffee beans, and the fruits.
It is these kinds of activities that need to be aided, and in the long run factories will run with assured supply. This is one of the ways to go in the matter of wealth creation, instead of the multitudinous poverty alleviation schemes we have tried and failed to bring to fruition.
Politicians often go out to get markets first without securing the supply side, then they turn around and blame the citizens for failing their end of the bargain.
“I got these people a market in the United Kingdom to supply beans but they failed to get the required quota,” they pipe and shrill. We should start tasking such liars to make sure their programmes take off. Otherwise we shall never take them seriously again.
It therefore falls upon the shoulders of civil societies in our regions to assume the mantle of proper prior research and advise governments accordingly, before we are made to jump into ill-researched programmes with both our feet, then get stuck in the mire.