Civil Society, NGOs, and the Holy Spirit in Mozambique

By Pfeiffer, James | Human Organization, Fall 2004 | Go to article overview

Civil Society, NGOs, and the Holy Spirit in Mozambique


Pfeiffer, James, Human Organization


The concept of "civil society" has been used by major donors in the world of international development to justify the rechanneling of aid resources away from public sector services to nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in an era of structural adjustment. Mozambique provides an especially valuable case study of the civil society experiment in Africa, given its dramatic conversion from state-centered development to civil society and free markets over the last decade. The rapid retreat of the state in the lives of ordinary Mozambicans during this period quickly cleared a space for the emergence of an "independent" civil society that has been quickly filled by two social currents: international NGOs and Pentecostal-influenced churches. This article argues that the NGO presence has intensified already growing social inequality by channeling resources primarily to elites, while the church movements have thrived in poor communities outside the foreign aid world. The enormous popularity of the churches reveals the deepening marginalization of poor communities in the market economy and exposes the inadequacy of the NGO-civil society model to meet the needs of vulnerable populations.

Key words: civil society, NGOs, African Independent Churches, Pentecostal, Mozambique

The concept of "civil society" has rapidly become a central tenet of development discourse in the structural adjustment era of shrinking state sectors, privatization, and decentralization in the third world. Whether to link family farmers to extension services, promote microcredit schemes, or stimulate community involvement in health promotion, the inclusion of civil society organizations in development projects provides a convenient participatory gloss to a wide range of interventions that often seek to substitute private efforts for underfunded public services. While definitions vary, the World Bank (2002) states that, "Civil society consists of the groups and organizations both formal and informal, which act independently of the state and market to promote diverse interests in society." Others simply identify it as the "arena between the household and the state" (Azarya 1994:96).

The retrieval of the civil society concept from its more arcane history in political philosophy for these practical purposes has provided the logic for rechanneling major donor support over the last two decades away from the public sector to nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) cast as civil society actors. The proportion of bank-financed projects that included NGOs rose from 20 percent in 1989 to 52 percent in 1999 (World Bank 2000a), while the number of NGOs receiving funding from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), one of the largest donors in the development industry, increased from 18 in 1970 to 195 in 2000 (USAID 2002). A 1997 USAID policy document clearly links NGO-civil society promotion to privatization policies: "At all levels of development a flourishing NGO community is essential to effective and efficient civil society.... Civil society organizes political participation just as markets organize economic participation in the society.... Sustainable development is likely to occur where both civil society and markets are free and open" (USAID 1997:2).

In the new civil society discourse, NGOs can also give voice to the poor and marginalized, provide opportunities for political engagement, and offer arenas for community participation in health, agriculture, education programs, and "democratic processes" more generally. It is argued that NGOs, by virtue of their civil society character, have a comparative advantage over public services because they can presumably reach poor communities more effectively and efficiently (see discussions in Anang 1994; Edwards and Hulme 1996b; Gary 1996; Green and Matthias 1997; Howell and Pearce 2001; Laurell and Arellano 1996; Mburu 1989; Ndengwa 1996; Turshen 1999; USAID 1997; World Bank 2000b; Zaidi 1999). …

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