CSOs and the crisis of credibility

It is said that people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care and I was reminded of this sentiment when I read an editorial comment in The Standard contending that There is a reason for demolitions and berating some Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) that denounced the on-going demolitions of illegal structures.

The editorial comment expressed suspicion at the motives of the CSOs and having insinuated that the CSOs were insincere the comment all but dismissed entirely, and perhaps with insufficient scrutiny, any and all of the valid concerns that the CSOs had raised in at least two statements, which were conveniently provided on page 12 under the Letters to the Editor section of the 17-23 November issue.

By questioning the motives of the CSOs with regards the stance they had chosen to take on the issue of demolitions, the editorial comment managed to obscure and even invalidate any contribution that the CSOs were making to the debate around demolitions – and it is this disinclination to engage with the ideas that the CSOs were bringing to the table that caused me some discomfiture.

My discomfiture arose from the fact that I like to engage with ideas – even disagreeable ones – yet the dismissive tone of the editorial comment precluded such an exercise by contending that CSOs were motivated by greed, self-interest and it implied that the CSOs’ perspective on the demolition issue (and perhaps any other issue) was neither sincere nor worth interrogating.

The issue of whether or not the CSOs had raised any worthwhile points or advanced any valid ideas on how best to handle the problem of illegal structures or how to protect those who would be affected by the demolition exercise was not even raised because the CSOs’ motives were viewed with skepticism and considerable disdain.

If anything, the tone and approach of the editorial comment proved that one’s perceived motives can matter more than one’s message because motives determine the credibility of the message and motives speak to the integrity of the one conveying the message.

If people don’t trust your motives, they will not trust your message and the credibility and integrity of the CSO sector has over the years taken a severe pasting, mostly at the hands of state-controlled media advancing a ZANU PF narrative that framed CSOs as traitors or puppets of the West and enemies of the State.

….are CSOs in it for the money or to do some much-needed good

The average Zimbabwean would be hard-pressed to say a single positive thing about CSOs as a collective because at the height of the economic meltdown, urban folklore held that forming an NGO was the fastest way to make money and the commercialization of the country’s myriad problems ostensibly became normative.

The problem is not that these narratives or stereotypes about CSOs exist, or that they have led to CSOs being generally regarded with mistrust or that they have caused significant harm to the public standing of CSO actors who are mostly viewed as unpatriotic, lacking in integrity, having little credibility and driven by self-interest.

The problem, in my view, is that CSOs have done little, if anything, to rebut these claims.

Perhaps this is because CSOs believe their work will ‘speak for itself’, which would be rather naïve if it is the case.

What is certain is that if CSOs do not begin addressing the issue of their dented credibility as a sector it won’t matter what the sector brings to the national discourse because any ideas from CSO actors will be treated as fruits of the poisoned tree.

What is also certain is that if CSOs do not take up opportunities afforded them by editorial comments – such as the one carried in The Standard and even the recent comment by Nathaniel Manheru carried in the Herald which referenced and attacked Thabani Nyoni as an individual but scathingly indicted the CSO sector as a collective – to tell their side of the story, these damaging negative perceptions will continue to haunt them.

The need for a CSO counter-narrative or rebuttal cannot be overemphasized especially against the reality of a government controlled by the ZANU PF party which the sector has had and still has a somewhat antagonistic relationship.

If the CSO sector has anything to say for itself in light of past and present public attacks that have cast aspersion on its collective sectorial integrity – the sector should start saying it because it is inarguably faced with a crisis of credibility.

Whilst many in the CSO sector have argued that repressive laws in the country have created a hostile operating environment which has seen many CSO leaders and actors being harassed, arrested or dragged to court on spurious charges (most of which are later dropped) – they have not dealt with the issue of how the public perceives them as a collective.

And they have not dealt with the issue of how those negative public perceptions have significantly hindered their work and/or increased their vulnerability to unwarranted attacks by State actors as the public cannot be relied upon or expected to mobilize or speak up in defense of a CSO sector that they view with distrust.

It is common cause that the dented credibility of CSOs can be traced back to various dynamics in the country including the sector’s embeddedness with opposition politics, its reliance on foreign funding and by extension its perceived susceptibility to foreign influence, which perception has all but coagulated into hard fact in the public’s imagination owing to the ZANU PF-informed narrative of CSOs being agents of the West.

It is a narrative that CSOs have dismally failed to refute; if at all any serious attempt at refutation has ever been undertaken.

The Zimbabwean public largely does not trust the motives of CSOs, neither do other non-state actors or entities as evidenced by the Standard editorial comment which charged that “the CSOs involved [in denouncing demolitions] seem like champions of the poor when all they want is to get their fingers into the jar of donor funding”.

Motives matter. Stereotypes abound with regards the nature of CSOs’ work as they are often viewed as being greedy, unscrupulous and self-aggrandizing non-state actors who earn a living through hijacking the legitimate grievances of the populace and trading in the pornography of pity politics to get money from donors.

This is the public perception. This is the dominant narrative.

And this is how the State, through its various and seemingly captured institutions including the public media, the police who conduct arbitrary arrests and officers of the courts who allow political interests to interfere in how they discharge their duties, have all colluded to frame CSO work as illegitimate, unpatriotic and self-aggrandizing.

Motives matter and CSOs need to begin defending with fervency and sincerity their work and its legitimacy.

Narratives matter too because they frame reality and CSOs need to start providing proof that they do care about people by challenging the notion that they are only in it for the money.

They must prove that their intentions are noble, their motives are pure and their hearts are in the right (read patriotic) place.

Otherwise, whatever ideas or concerns they raise, regardless of how genuine, positive and sincere their contributions may be – their efforts will not be recognized, appreciated or acknowledged as long as the public remains suspicious of their underlying motives.

(First published in the Southern Eye)


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