Non-Governmental Organizations as Effective Actors in Equation of Challenges and Opportunities By Mohammed B. Attah


The title of my paper above reminds me of the title of Mei Cobb’s paper: Volunteering – Reconnecting a Disconnected Society, published in 2002 by the World Association of Non-Governmental Organizations, WANGO in her book: Culture of Responsibility  and the Role of NGOs. Ten years on, the exposition in her book about recognizing the need to refocus the drift in human race is still fresh in my mind.

Today, more than centuries ago, the issue of the role of NGOs in filling the gaps of quality of lives have become more important. For example, there is a generational demand for an African leadership that possesses the competence to comprehend the challenges and opportunities of globalization, the imperative of democratization and good governance; which is the vision of a preferred future. For me, where these qualities are in want, the non-governmental community readily serves as credible alternative.

As described in the book: ‘Culture of Responsibility and the Role of NGOs’, the umbrella-term “NGOs” refers to a broad, kaleidoscopic groupings of non-profit organizations that espouses a variety of agendas, causes, and ideologies, and differ in size, resources and organizational level” In a broader term, NGOs represents the greater part of civil society organizations (CSOs), and media serves as an arm of that sector. Thus CSOs began in most of African states as social and political movements where the media and NGOs started as part of African independence in the 1960s. Ghana, Zambia and Nigeria are front runners in this revolution.

Those of us who were at the 4th High Level Forum on Aid Effectiveness in South Korea 2011 recognized that the most important and single resolution of the one-week event was the acknowledgement of the role of NGOs as non-state actors that exist between the public and private sectors, and solving humanity basic problem. Indeed, there is a shift from the past where NGOs are simply seen as guests.

The element of social change includes focus of service that NGOs are reputed for. It is important to take from the past to sustain the future, likewise to give back to the society out of what you have taken from it over the years. Then, you need to know what the differences are, and what steps are needed to achieve these visions. This in my mind captures the equation between good and bad, give and take, and of course between challenges and possibilities. Between these extremes lies the faintest shade of grey that form the equation or strikes a balance.

As we recognize the power of the media in global peace and brighter future, we must not forget also that many in the NGO community takes responsibility for the serious social, environmental, political, and human rights issues that are confronting us daily. Thus the theme of this Turkey-Africa Media Forum, which is “Design of Common Future and Media Solidarity”, should recognize these two actors in our quest for better tomorrow.  Naturally, NGO and media espouse certain values that guide the human race. These values include selflessness, living for the good of others and the ability to translate challenges into opportunities.

Despite the commendable results achieved by the actors in the civil society, which include freedom of expression, political awarene3ss, enhanced education, etc, poverty, inequality, corruption and bad governance are still the order of the day in most African nations. The recent (is it over?) uprising across Middle East, referred to as the Arab Spring, the Boko Haram insurgency in my country Nigeria, the Pirates and Warlord in Somalia are huge challenges confronting us all. We should not forget the threat and insecurity of the media. Guinea Bissau recently sacked the entire media in that country while only two weeks ago Boko Haram unleashed mayhem on some media outlets across Nigeria. These challenges have called for increased responses at the 2012 Press Freedom Day celebration at the Africa Union (AU) Headquarters in Ethiopia with the theme “New Voices: Media Freedom Helping to Transform Societies”, organized by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in collaboration with AU Commission, some Associations of Journalists based in Ethiopia and the Ministry of Information of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia amongst other partner organizations.

For many in our sector, challenges are seen as opportunities, opportunities to grow and learn, to strengthen ourselves, to test ourselves and our faith. They reveal how badly we want to create the dreams in our hearts, and how hard we’re willing to work for them. We have three clear ways of turning our obstacles to successes, this include first that we liberate ourselves by accepting responsibility. Thus we should recognize that we are in control. We need to accept responsibility for our responses, and recognize that they assert a powerful influence on our life. Change cannot come until we accept responsibilities. The second is that we use leverage in our approach. Leverage means that we exert the greatest amount of control with the least amount of effort. And the third is that we turn challenges into a game. There is a common belief that when you take life too seriously, you overreact to situations. But you could turn this into a game and live with it.

One critical factor in our quest for development that participants at this Forum should take home is the issue of sustainability. Since the Earth Summit of 1992, the world has become more and more favourable to sustainable development, and education is recognized as the key to achieving this.  In the spring 2008 edition of Development Education Review, Ros Wade outlines the emergence of education for sustainability (EfS) as a concept and reflects on its potential to generate an international movement for change. He wrote: “Since 1992, NGOs have, of course, been actively seeking to strategically influence the national political landscape with regard to EfS and have established alliances (with media) in order to navigate the difficult terrain of government policy and practice” Emphasis is mine.

The last few decades also witnessed a turning point in our development sphere as NGOs now use the media as a tool for social change. Traditionally, non-state actors (NSAs) are partners and friend with the media and this has remained unchanged in the history of man. In some instance, media NGOs have played more roles in shaping the course of event than government. Social media such as SANGOnet, in South Africa, Media Rights Agenda (MRA) in Nigeria and Radio Peace Africa, Zimbabwe have helped in bringing about monumental changes that the development sector celebrates in Africa.

In a publication titled ‘NGOs and Social Media – Challenges and Opportunities by David Barnard in NGO Pulse a publication of SANGOnet, he states that “The world continues to experience dramatic technology innovation and changes which impact on every dimension of human and organizational behaviours and activities. As a result, the strengthening of NGOs’ capacity for service delivery, networking and advocacy activities increasingly requires that attention be given to their ability to implement and integrate technology as part of their core activities.

Despite these healthy development and collaboration between and among media and NGOs, there still exist huge societal gaps that require improvement on the part of the media. It is not in doubt – I speak as a trained journalist too – that the media underreport development issues in our world of today. Our media are dominated by news about politics, crimes, social events etc than charitable trust or benevolence. For more than ten years, I have been involved in the publication of NGO Network, a general interest magazine for the non-profit sector in sub-Saharan Africa. With about 2000 copies published quarterly and distributed free-of-charge among stakeholders – NGOs, funding organizations, government and individuals – the main objective has been to bring forth into the public perception the important role NGOs are playing in shaping the human race that are underreported in our conventional media. Though the publication is temporarily suspended due to funding, the civil society in Nigeria will readily inform you that within the last years that this magazine existed, a lot of achievements were recorded in promoting the works of NGOs. And because of its successes in this short period, many have not come to the reality that NGO Network is on vacation.

The current global economic and political challenges may in one way or the other have been fueled by the over-sensationalizing the issue in our media. May I ask that we for once reverse this trend and give the development sector more prominence? Perhaps the society will incline toward this direction just as we witnessed with the other ideology in the past. Here, I am of the view that this is one outcome that this Forum intends to achieve.

And as NGOs adopt the role of advocates of a more just and caring society, they can help develop and nurture conscientious concern in the emerging global challenges. Thus NGOs also have a duty to stay the course in terms of balancing between challenges and opportunities. Between these two boundaries lies the faintest shade of grey that form the equation or strike a balance. Rather than concentrate on the endless shades of grey between these extremes, I have always believed in turning them into positive development, which form part of the work of NGOs. I therefore call on other sectors to emulate this path as well as collaborate with NGOs in achieving meaningful development

In concluding this paper, I have critically reviewed the objective of this Turkey-Africa Media Forum which is to provide an opportunity for comprehensive information sharing and exchange of views, as well as create professional solidarity among media institutions and journalists through forming a common platform and communication channels, and thus wish to appeal to media practitioners present here, particularly Africa Media Initiative (AMI), a co-organizer of this event  to critically review my requests for a more inclusive report on development. With about 250 representatives of both print and electronic media in attendance, it is my hope that the proceeds from this event will clearly recognize the need for this shift in paradigm, from egocentric politicking to selfless service to humanity, for a more just and sustainable Africa, and indeed the world.

Finally, I wish to convey my deepest appreciation to the Office of the Prime Minister, Directorate General of Press and Information and the Africa Media Initiative (AMI) for considering it worthy for me to give perspectives on the role of NGOs as key actors in this quest for a peaceful world.

Thank you.

A paper by Mohammed Bougei Attah, Africa Regional Coordinator, World Association of Non-Governmental

Organizations (WANGO) at the 2012 Turkey-Africa Media Forum held on May 9-11 in Ankara, Turkey

Attah is also the Managing Editor of NGO Network, a general interest magazine for the non-profit sector.

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