• Friday, June 21, 2024
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Nigeria’s CSO Industrial Complex: A solution in search of a problem

Nigeria’s CSO Industrial Complex: A solution in search of a problem

In September 2020, I penned a review of the Amended Police Act 2020, which was ostensibly the legislation that would reform the Nigeria Police Force. Supposedly drafted in partnership with a non-profit organisation run by a well-known anti-police-brutality activist, this bill turned out to be anything but what a Nigerian police reform bill should look like.

Rather than taking out grey areas and providing solid answers to questions about accountability and use of power, the bill merely reiterated most of what was in the prior Police Act, and created new opportunities for systemic arbitrage, fraud and abuse with several new grey areas and ambiguously-worded new powers.

Naturally, I wrote a scathing review which exposed the Act as a waste of everyone’s time at best, and a source of real danger at worst.

The point seemed clear to everyone who read the Act and its review – a new Police Act which was merely an amped up version of the existing one could hardly be described as a “reform” Act.

Everyone that is, except the activist fellow behind the organisation which jointly drafted the bill. He did not seem to have much of a point to back up his disagreement with my assessment, though he impressively expressed his non-points in a series of magnificently verbose and utterly empty tweets. Only later, when I examined the funding behind his organisation did I finally understand what the problem actually was.

CSOs are necessary – but some aren’t

As a journalist from a poor country ranked at number 153 on the global Press Freedom Index, it is impossible to divorce the media ecosystem I operate in from that of Civil Society Organisations, donor funding and foreign assistance. Nigerians operating in this space need all the help they can get, if they are to avoid getting captured by the state or parts of the private sector which are just as repressive and censorship-friendly as the state. I myself have benefited extensively from CSO funding in the past.

In 2017, it was a CSO called OSIWA (Open Society Institute of West Africa) that funded an American company called Pilot Media Initiatives that had an idea to drive youth participation in Nigerian politics by bringing political satire to Nigerian TV screens. After scaling through as number one out of over 3,000 applications, I became the first writer on The Other News on Channels Television, where I was tasked with building out the rest of the show’s creative team. The show would go on to air for six seasons and provide a launchpad for my mainstream journalism career.

Read also: FG, CSOs, reject establishment of national youth development commission

Later on in 2019, it was a grant from the MacArthur Foundation that funded my audiovisual investigative debut – an examination of a dysfunctional government hospital in Badagry, which had a CS maternal mortality rate of 40 percent. Following the release of this documentary and the accompanying story, the Lagos State Health Service Commission started making unannounced inspections to the hospital, resulting in a halving of the maternal mortality rate for CS deliveries.

It is important to mention these instances to make the point that I hold no personal grudge with the existence of CSOs. Some are manifestly necessary and systemically important to governance, civic and creative spaces in the harsh Nigerian operating environment. The problem however, is that there is a burgeoning genre of CSO that exists to do nothing other than receive funding, submit beautiful reports and slide decks to donors, and receive some more funding. These are not so-called “briefcase CSOs,” but actual functioning organisations with overheads and operating budgets. And yet their impact is utterly negligible.

The reason such entities exist, as explained to me by a friend in the space, is that a lot of donors do not really care whether or not their money is used correctly or to create any impact according to the promises of the CSO.

According to this friend, one is not expected to dedicate the majority of funds disbursed from donors to doing actual work. One is merely expected to submit whatever paperwork the donor asks for to justify the next grant. The implication of this will be left unspoken, but the reader can easily put 2 and 2 together.

Who needs more CSOs? Not Nigeria

There is an unfortunate pattern of behaviour that is often observed in Nigerian business spaces, where a (perceived) successful new business model is cloned by an infinite number of copycats and wannabes until it loses all novelty value and eventually ceases to be profitable altogether. Once upon a time, this was dropshipping. Later on, it was cryptocurrency trading. At one point, it was manufacturing craft shoes, bags and fashion accessories. What these all had in common was that the vast majority of people who rushed in only did so hoping to make a big payday by simply being in the right place at the right time.

Registering a CSO and applying for funding seems to have become one of these heavily-cloned “business” models, which is where a problem emerges for a space that already has to deal with state rescaling and the double dealing of its own prominent individuals, as is the case with Amnesty Nigeria. The last thing the CSO space in Nigeria needs is more of these fly-by-night CSO outfits that use the same flowery empty-speak, put on the same sickly sweet social affectations, present the same colourful slides and pitch decks while submitting the same funding proposals, and ultimately end up adding value only to the founder’s individual financial life.

In a space that is already dealing with a loss of credibility due to internal and external factors, many of which are not its own, the last thing anybody needs is yet another solution that does not match any known problem in Nigeria other than the founder’s personal income generation efforts.

As we say on Nigerian social media, “It have do.” Please.