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The Changing Culture of NGOs in West Africa
July 11, 2003
By Amos Safo
Accra  (


The mode of operations of Non Governmental Organizations (NGOs) in Ghana and the Sub region has taken on a new face, following the change in structure and tactics by the Integrated Social Development Centre (ISODEC).

At 20, ISODEC could be considered as a young institution, but its achievements so far have outpaced its two decades of existence. Formed in 1983 in the heat of the economic down turn in Ghana, ISODEC started providing basic services like water, health, basic education and other human rights needs in deprived communities.

ISODEC grew out of four years of voluntary work of its founding members in Nima-Mamoobi, one of Accra's largest low-income settlements. Its founding members provided support services to a community organisation, the Nima- 441 Welfare Association, which helped to mobilise the community to secure their right to clean water, sanitation, maternal and child care and good secular education for neglected Muslim children.

The Nima- 441 Welfare Association remains active to date. Similarly, the early struggles for equal education for Muslim children gave birth, in part, to the Muslim Relief Association of Ghana (MURAG), which also continues to date to work for education of Muslim children in close collaboration with ISODEC.

Once formalised, ISODEC extended into rural water, building upon the work of some of its founding members. It is perhaps in the area of rural water policy that ISODEC may have made its greatest impact. Together with Water Aid, a British NGO, which ISODEC hosted and provided capacity and technical support for 5 years, the "Mole Series" was, initiated together with key players in the rural water sector to debate policies affecting the sector. "Mole" contributed, and still contributes, to substantial shift in public resources allocation from urban into rural water and the introduction of community-management systems for rural water.

ISODEC's current work in water has shifted back to the urban sector where it now focuses on research on the possible impact of privatisation of urban water systems on the right of poor people to clean and affordable water. The privatisation issue is vigorously pioneered also by "Public Agenda", the weekly issue-based newspaper that ISODEC set up and continues to support.

In Kumasi, ISODEC established the Cedi Finance Foundation (CFF) to mobilize funds from small-scale businessmen/women, petty traders, porters (kayayees) and shoeshine boys and in turn give them credit to expand their businesses. The Acting Executive Director of ISODEC, Bishop Akolgo explains that CFF was formed to disprove the wrong notion that urban women cannot be organized into credit unions. It was also to disprove the argument that credit without collateral security cannot be given to the poor. He said, " on the contrary the recovery is very high among the poor."

The Bawku East Small Scale Farmers Association Rural Bank (BESSFA) is a partnership between ISODEC and some rural women in Bawku. The bank was established to grant loans without collateral security to women farmers, who are mostly the breadwinners in their communities. According to Akolgo the primary aim of the bank is to prove a point that it is possible for women to own and run their own bank. As majority shareholders of the bank, the women have held the bank together this far.

Moving towards rights-based advocacy

Between 1994 and December 1999, ISODEC hosted the Africa Secretariat of the Third World Network (TWN). Managed by a unified management team, the two organisations worked in complementality. ISODEC provided the "rootedness" to TWN's largely global policy and research focus. ISODEC progressively built the foundations of its advocacy work, taking advantage of the TWN programme of work.

Joint research on the impacts of gold mining on the rights of affected communities gave rise to two institutions: the African Initiative on Mining and Society (AIMS), a regional network facilitated to TWN, and the Centre for Public Interest Law (CEPIL), a network of lawyers providing pro-bono legal and organisational support to communities negatively affected by mining, established by ISODEC. Side by side, ISODEC expanded its field presence in Ghana in such substantive areas as girl-child education, reproductive health and rights, piloting of community management systems for rural water and micro-finance.

In this period, ISODEC intensified coalition building with a wide range of civil society organisations; the trade union movement, the journalists association, the Christian organisations, teachers organisations, Muslim organisations, individuals in academia, the association of people with disability, national and international NGOs and research organisations etc.

These groups are currently organised under the Civil Society Council (CIVISOC) as part of the Structural Adjustment Participatory Review Initiative (SAPRI). CIVISOC, whose secretariat is hosted by ISODEC, is involved in outreach activities on economic literacy and facilitates civil society input into policy-making mechanisms such as the World Bank's Country Assistance Strategies (CAS) and the Consultative Forum on Ghana.

ISODEC also facilitated the formation of the Ghana National Education Campaign Coalition (GNECC) - a coalition of 25 civil society organisations promoting the right to good quality and enjoyable education for all children in Ghana. Currently ISODEC chairs the technical sub-committee, which is co-ordinating extensive research on the state of education in Ghana.

In its reproductive health activities, ISODEC is part of a group of organisations, working to establish a network of family reproductive health and reproductive rights aimed at promoting a holistic approach to reproductive health, which has, socio-economic and women's rights at the core.

The question then is why advocate? Four main reasons drive ISODEC's advocacy work?

1.Given the fact that Ghana did not grow out of the objective and subjective conditions of her people it is necessary for the people to constantly keep the state in check through various mechanisms; including holding the state accountable, transparent and responsive under the social contract between the state and people.

2.There is an invasion and occupation of the private sphere of society by big business and global capital under the guise of globalisation and in the face of weak states in Ghana and Africa in general. This is achieved through instruments like the IMF, World Bank and the WTO and their so-called reforms that seek to remove and or replace the state.

For example for over 20 years, the IMF and World Bank have been deeply involved in formulating public policies in Ghana. In 1999, IMF arrangements with the Government of Ghana (GOG) included 80 conditions with which the GOG was obligated to comply. Sixty-one of these 80 conditions were related to the political governance of the country. The practice of imposing conditionality infringes on a borrowing government's sovereignty and shrinks the democratic arena, or political space, within which citizens can operate. Donors and creditors can essentially micromanage the government through loan conditions that may dictate which laws to pass, which enterprises to privatize, or what ceiling to impose on social spending.

As it is, foreign actors usually diminish the political space in Ghana, distort government-civil society relations, (and, in some respects, cripple) the autonomy of government and people of Ghana to shape our nation's future. Hence, ISODEC analyzes proposals set forth by foreign actors on the basis of whether the proposals create or diminish the political space for Ghanaians to shape Ghana's future1 .

2.As part of its empowerment programmes under the Rights-based Advocacy ISODEC hopes to achieve three broad Goals:

- Provide data/information and Analysis to CSOs to help provide capacity for understanding, appreciating and taking part in economic decision making

- Assist the state to reduce its over-dependence on external actors and better engage with its development partners in the interest of Ghana, and

- Build capacity within ourselves and other elements of state and CSOs aimed at restraining the undue influence and dominance of international Financial Institutions and other powerful bi-laterals in our domestic political and economic decision making

3.Civil Society in general and NGOs in particular consider issues of politics to be the domain of politicians and the economy to be the domain of economists. This attitude is largely responsible for the exclusion and marginalisation of the people for historical, capacity constraints and other reasons. ISODEC aims to help demystify and clarify the arenas of politics and economics for the empowerment of CSOs for meaningful participation and the reclaiming of the state to the people.

Privatisation and our anti-privatisation campaigns

Akolgo explains that since 1983 Ghana has been locked into a number of IMF and WB led reforms under various names/titles from Economic recovery Program (ERP) to Structural Adjustments Program (SAPs) and now Poverty Reduction Strategies (GPRS). Central to these reforms is the rolling back of the state and privatization of state assets in the name of efficiency. He said these reforms have only succeeded in landing Ghana in a state of Highly Poor and Indebted Country status.

He said ISODEC opposes the view that everything to do with private or business or market is always good and anything about state or Government is always bad. "We also believe that the state has a responsibility to provide basic services to its people and that the market is not good at providing common goods (health, education, water, environmental protection)", explains Akolgo.

In addition to the above ISODEC argues that privatization of utilities has not delivered in any Country and will definitely not deliver in sub-Saharan Africa. No doubt, the adroitness with which ISODEC has fought its way through the water privatization debate that has put Ghana on the world map once more and compelled many academics, and surprisingly the Bank and IMF to rethink their position on privatization. The programme has all, but stalled, with the World Bank now conceding that the results of privatization are mixed and that privatization sometimes works in areas such as telecommunications and not water.

In many countries ISODEC has become a household name, with many students, researchers turning to the organisation for information and direction on privatization. In all these ISODEC has taken pains to explain that it is not anti-government, adding that if not for anything, it is helping government to defend the national interest against the marauding interest of International Financial Institutions and transnational corporations.

Rudolf Amenga-Etego, Coordinator of National Coalition Against Privatisation of Water observes that the "success ISODEC has achieved on the water front has changed the NGO culture in Ghana and West Africa. Many NGOs have had to rethink their policies." Amenga-Etego explains that ISODEC thought it wise to spend money changing lives rather than trying to provide everything. And that seems to be working.

In Akolgo's words, " more than anything, we are helping government to keep the social contract of providing education, health, water and sanitation." He said one of the advocacy issues confronting ISODEC is how to make government provide budgetary allocations for essential services like water and health.

"From now on we will be making provision of basic needs political party campaign issues. Politicians will be asked to state their positions on how to reduce our dependence on foreign donors, what are the strategic assets they will not sell to foreigners, what their vision for the country is and most importantly how they intend to improve on provision of essential services," he said.

These are the issues Bishop hopes will form the basis of the next general elections, especially in the three northern regions and the Central Region, where poverty is very pervasive.

Because advocacy has become the central focus of ISODEC, it has restructured its operations. Its subsidiaries; Public Agenda a bi- Weekly Newspaper and Cedis Finance Foundation (CFF) a micro-credit project and its affiliates; Bawku East Small Scale Farmers Association Rural Bank (BESSFA), the Centre for Public Interest Law (CEPIL), Centre for Public-Private Co-operation (CPPC) in Nigeria and ORCADE in Burkina Faso will now feed their projects into the Advocacy and Campaign Unit. It is interesting to note that ISODEC has extended its operations to Nigeria and Burkina Faso, where CPPC and ORCADE are providing West African linkages.

Repositioning for a human rights organisation

In 1992 the organisation held a major review of its operations during which it became clear that it was not enough just doing services delivery. ISODEC felt the need to start asking why the vulnerable, mostly women and children from deprived regions did not have the services they needed to sustain life.

The 1992 evaluation of ISODEC's role gave birth to its advocacy and campaigns policy. In 1999 ISODEC re-strategised with her constituencies and partners and moved into becoming a Human Rights organization. A 3-year Rights-Based Advocacy framework (RBA) and Program of work (POW) was adopted which consolidated its service support and advocacy experiences in a single human rights and divided into three parts'

1. Northern Ghana (Institutional capacity building, Family reproductive Health, Disaster systems and Education)

2. Southern Ghana (water and sanitation, Education) , and

3. Central Programs (Facilitation of change, Research, Training). This was necessary because for ISODEC to achieve her mission she had to adopt the thematic groups and cross-functional self-organising matrix approach for co-ordinating programs across individual and geographical areas by a combination of service support, research/advocacy and subsidiaries/affiliates.

The Research and Advocacy program consist of 2 main programs:

1. The Economic Justice Program (Budgets Analysis, Globalisation Response and Grassroots Economic Literacy and Learning Programs)

2. Rights Promotion program (Disability Rights, Economic and Social Rights and Centre for Public Interest Law).



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