In 2018, the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy released the Global Philanthropy Environment Index, the world’s largest and most comprehensive effort to document the state of global philanthropy and the factors that enhance or inhibit its success.
By Kelly Ann Krawczyk, MPA, Ph.D., associate professor, Auburn University Department of Political Science
Ghana is often called West Africa’s “shining democratic star,” and the third sector also supports this designation. Ghanaian civil society is vibrant, with thousands of registered civil society organizations (CSOs).
While a complete database of registered CSOs is not available, there is data that indicates over 33,000 organizations registered between 2000 and 2012, with steady increases in the number of CSOs registering in each of those years. However, CSOs are not evenly distributed across the 10 regions of Ghana. About half of the total CSOs that registered from 2000-2012 are located in the capital of Accra, and there are significantly fewer CSOs in the more rural, and northern regions of Ghana.
This geographic distribution is not unusual. We know that African CSOs often gravitate to urban areas with access to infrastructure such as electricity, phone, and internet. But CSOs also “go where they are needed.” The pressing economic, social, and health challenges in Ghana’s northern regions helps explain why many community-based organizations (CBOs) and grassroots organizations, often unregistered, are located in these rural areas of Ghana.
Ghanaian CSOs work in four main categories: service delivery, advocacy, in watchdog roles, and as collaborative partners with government, engaged in research and planning related to national development (GIZ 2013). There is also an emerging fifth CSO classification known as partisan CSOs or political pressure groups, which are informal extensions of political parties and interests, and which have proven to be controversial.
Ghanaian CSOs have been especially successful in the research and advocacy space, particularly when it comes to constitutional, legislative, and judicial reform, government effectiveness, voice and accountability, and anti-corruption. Ghanaian CSOs have actively participated in and supported the legislative process by producing draft bills, and conducting research on and reviews of pending bills. Legislation proposed and drafted by CSOs has in some cases been adopted and passed into law.
The environment for civil society in Ghana
The capacity of the Ghanaian third sector is significantly higher than in many other African environments, yet the sector still deals with serious challenges. First and foremost, Ghanaian civil society faces a disabling environment due to a lack of human, financial, and technological resources. CSOs generally have poor resource mobilization skills, and lack diversification of funding sources. Financial resources are limited and heavily dependent on foreign funding. There is also a lack of financial transparency and internal democracy in the management structures and systems of CSOs.
The overall environment for civil society in Ghana is free and open. There are no barriers to the formation of civil society organizations, and CSOs suffer from no real state interference or harassment. In fact, the relationship between Ghanaian CSOs and government has evolved from limited interaction and conflict in the 1990s, to increasing engagement and cooperation over the past two decades.
Three major laws govern civil society operations in Ghana. The majority of civil society organizations register and operate under the Companies Code Act 179 of 1963.14. The two other statutes under which civil society groups register are the Trustees (Incorporation) Act of 1962 and the Professional Bodies Registration Decree (NRCD 143) of 1976.15. While it is relatively easy to register as a CSO in Ghana, it is not inexpensive, and the centralized registration process and annual renewal requirement create real barriers for CSOs based outside Accra.
There is currently a campaign for a bill to regulate the third sector, but the draft bill has not yet been passed. Despite the overall vibrancy of Ghanaian civil society, the lack of effective regulatory mechanisms and the absence of a current database of CSO leaves the sector largely uncoordinated.
Pressing issues facing the Ghanaian third sector
Challenges to long-term sustainability
My own forthcoming research sheds light on important issues and challenges currently facing the sector. The biggest challenge is sustainability. There is not a culture of formal philanthropic giving in Ghana, and the majority of funding for civil society comes from external donors. These donors tend to fund short-term projects in program areas that align with their goals, versus the mission of the CSOs.
Ghana’s recent relationship with donors has taken several recent new turns. After Ghana was reclassified as a lower-middle-income country by the World Bank in 2010, foreign donors began to shift their financial support to countries with greater need. In addition, Ghana’s government has recently promoted “Ghana Beyond Aid,” an effort to become independent of foreign aid.
This has created sustainability challenges for Ghanaian civil society organizations, since CSOs tend to rely heavily on foreign funding as an income stream. Over the past 10 years, donor funding for civil society has declined. CSOs find themselves scrambling to find enough local financial resources to continue operating.
To address these concerns, there is a push for CSOs to diversify funding by incorporating fee-based services and income-generating components into their programs. There is also a focus on building coalitions and partnerships with other CSOs in order to share costs.
Increasing professionalization of the sector
Increasingly, there is an emphasis on formal, professionalized CSOs, coupled with a de-emphasis on and decline of grassroots, informal CBOs. This is in part due to donors’ conception of civil society, which is narrow and includes mainly professional, urban CSOs. In contrast, community-based organizations (CBOs) are typically rural.
The distinction between these two types of organizations is vague, and the two labels are utilized by INGOs, donors, and government to make decisions about programs and funding. This over-emphasis on professionalized urban CSOs can result in civil society acting as a kind of technical consultant for the government, offering policy and practical recommendations to help the government achieve its stated goals, versus engaging in the kinds of advocacy and mobilization activities that represent the needs of marginalized groups.
The growth of “partisan CSOs”
Although the majority of civil society strives to be non-partisan, there is a growing perception that some CSOs are political, especially those CSOs working in anti-corruption and governance. While there are instances of the government closing down CSOs in this area, often the restriction of the civil society space is subtler. By scrutinizing civil society and monitoring their activities, government can indirectly restrict their actions. Increasingly, CSOs are founded by the spouses of political actors for the sole purpose of soliciting funds and support for political purposes.
The potential for shrinking civic space
Another concern is citizens’ growing tolerance for government constraint of the civic space in Africa. There is a “significant willingness to trade freedom for security,” especially in regions of sub-Saharan Africa that have experienced a rising threat from extremist groups.
Many Africans are less willing to demand their freedom than they would have been a few years ago. In fact, only 48 percent of Ghanaians currently support free association, which is a decline of 9 percent. Whether this is out of fear of extremist groups or just apathy is unclear.
The Freedom in the World report also finds that while 87 percent of Ghanaians feel free to speak their minds, 69 percent feel that they must “often” or “always” be cautious about what they say regarding politics. This raises concerns about the possibility of shrinking civic space in Ghana.
While civil society is Ghana is vibrant, and has a higher capacity than many other countries on the continent, the sector also faces serious challenges that it must resolve in order to maintain its legitimacy and effectiveness.
Suggested future reading:
My forthcoming research – in collaboration with Oduro and Oeding, on “Shrinking civil society space in Ghana: Current dynamics and impact on the sector” will be published by Cornell University.
Also, please check out on “A Study on Ghana’s Civil Society Sector,” published by the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) in 2013.
Dr. Krawczyk is an associate professor and the Ph.D. Program Director in Auburn University’s Department of Political Science. Her research focuses on the relationship between civil society and democratic governance. She is specifically interested in how civil society impacts political behavior. Her research has been published in journals of public administration and civil society, including Nonprofit & Voluntary Sector Quarterly, Voluntas: International Journal of Voluntary and Nonprofit Organizations, and International Review of Administrative Sciences. She has also authored book chapters, as well as governmental and professional publications for the Governance Commission of Liberia and the World Bank.
She is a founding committee member of the Strengthening Research on Civil Society in West Africa project, an initiative of the Association for Research on Nonprofit Organizations and Voluntary Action (ARNOVA), funded by the Ford Foundation. She is also a Democracy & Development Fellow at the Ghana Center for Democratic Development (CDD-Ghana).