The disappointments of civil society: the politics of NGO intervention in northern Ghana

Mohan, Giles (2002). The disappointments of civil society: the politics of NGO intervention in northern Ghana. Political Geography, 21(1) pp. 125–154.




During the 1990s, civil society emerged as the prime political force in the policy agenda of the major lenders and development agencies. An active civil society, it was believed, would enable choice, scrutinise errant governments, and ultimately lead to regularised, plural democracy. This article subjects this policy discourse to theoretical and empirical scrutiny. Theoretically, civil society is treated as a space of freedom, separate from the state, and constituted by Non-governmental organisations (NGOs). This ignores the reciprocal linkages between state and society, the constraining effects of market forces, and the underlying ideological agenda of the major lenders. As a result, some political scientists working on Africa dismiss civil society as a useful analytical category. However, I follow Mamdani's call for examining 'actually existing civil society' through a case study of NGO intervention in Northern Ghana. It shows that tensions exist between the Northern NGO and its partners, that the local NGOs create their own fiefdoms of client villages, and some officers use the NGO for personal promotion. Additionally, the single-minded strengthening of civil society undermines efforts at decentralisation. The conclusion suggests that the 'Third Way' programmes serve a neo-liberal policy agenda which enhances factionalism and promotes highly circumscribed visions of development.

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