The power of African civil society

ONE Africa AwardReading about Africa in the Western news media can often be a depression-inducing experience. Conflicts, corruption, coups, famine and disease are just a few of the ills singled out in the everyday news coverage of the African continent in Europe and North America. We at ONE are working hard to change that narrative, though. Not by denying the major challenges that certainly exist on my home continent, but by highlighting the successes, the determination and the ingenuous creativity of the African people despite these challenges. There is no good reason why Africa’s positive stories of the major progress that are happening everyday should not be told and be overshadowed disproportionately by short-term, isolated challenges. Africa is rising and the Africa of today is a continent of great optimism and greater consciousness of the need to chart its own destiny. It is a continent of much more empowered citizens when it comes to demanding more accountability from their leaders as well as participating in shaping their own communities and their countries. These are the stories that must be told and we at ONE are finding such examples everyday and making an effort to bring you this other narrative about Africa by sharing the positive story/ies of a rising Africa.

One aspect of that story is the rise of a vocal and vibrant civil society in Africa. A civil society that has been effective in contributing to public participation, clamored for more transparent and accountable governance; lobbied for women and children’s rights to be understood and respected, and demanded better basic public services. Indeed African civil society has been an integral part of the real change that has swept over the continent in the last decade. These great stories must be brought to the fore. Though the dynamism of the civil society varies depending in which country you are, there’s an unmistakable increase in the activities and influence of non-governmental organizations—even notwithstanding the multitude of challenges civil society organizations face in much of Africa. From lack of funding, to hostile governments and restrictions on speech (to just name a few), it can be incredibly tricky if not risky to operate in some African countries, making their efforts and successes that much more heroic.

But challenges have never stopped progress and in Africa such obstacles have only strengthened determination. At ONE we’re proud to partner and work with many organizations across the continent. We often showcase the health education efforts and medical interventions by local clinics and medical groups to stop malaria transmission or treat HIV or prevent vaccine-preventable diseases. We work with farmers associations and other agricultural organizations to promote the best farming practices. We lend a helping hand to our fellow advocacy groups as they encourage their governments to root out corruption and open their national budgets and laws to public scrutiny and review. None of this would be happening if it weren’t for African citizens taking the initiative to make their communities better places to live and work.

We have also been privileged to feature some of these organizations over the past few years through offering the ONE Africa Award, a $100,000 USD prize devoted to recognizing the work of indigenous African organizations, individuals and groups in developing the continent specifically in pursuit of the Millennium Development Goals. Last year’s recipient was SEND-Ghana, a policy, research and advocacy-based organization working to promote good governance and equality among men and women in Ghana. The group’s efforts have helped civil society to organize and influence policy and improve transparency through empowering citizens to monitor the government’s delivery of basic services.

We’ve found that offering this prize is our best way to shine a spotlight on some of the exceptional work being driven and led by Africans. Past years winners have come from Nigeria, Kenya and Ghana and the call for nominations for the next award is now open until September 16, 2011. If you know of any Africa-based organizations finding improbable solutions to vexing challenges, please encourage them to apply today.