Human Rights NGOs in East Africa: Political and Normative Tensions, a book that came out recently, is a collection of papers researched and empirically argued by East Africa’s most respected human rights campaigners and scholars: Joe Oloka Onyango, Makau Mutua, Willy Mutunga, Jacinta Muteshi, Muthoni Wanyeki, Sylvia Tamale, and Livingstone Ssewanyana.
It delves through the innumerable obstacles that prevent human rights activists from fulfilling their mandates—from government security agencies to the aid industry. The conclusions are cutting: The fact that human rights organisations struggle for the most time to account or compete for the available donations of a donor’s financial year planner has far pathetic consequences on their would be genuine pursuits.
In his paper, Makau Mutua, a professor of international human rights at the University of New York argues that if the politics in East Africa is broken (as it is already?), chances of seeing a government that respects its citizens are very few. He argues further that a modern and vibrant democracy cannot be achieved unless there is a policing civil society.
“Clearly, the state remains one of the major challenges facing human rights organisations in Africa” he writes.
In another paper, Ugandan feminist activist Sylvia Tamale unleashes her anger on two institutions: a deafening patriarchy that she considers mean, and the fainthearted female activist groups that she argues are both shy and hopeful.
For Tamale, patriarchy has eaten so much into the woman’s sanctity to the extent that criminal and penal laws guiding prosecution – for rape, sexual harassment, prostitution, and abortion – have been influenced by a biting form of maleness.
Several of the authors are bitter with what they see as male privilege. For example, Tamale writes that “prostitution is not about sex or morality. It is purely an economic matter. Commercial sex is about economic survival and is emancipatory… By criminalising it, not only does society narrow the employment opportunities available for women, but also it increases the vulnerability of those women that engage in the trade.”
That aid is a disservice to Africa is an argument presented again by many of the book’s contributors. Many of the arguments focus on how aid hampers human rights advocacy with a focus on the work on NGOs. Conspicuously, little or no attention is given to the link between human rights on the one hand, and governments, which after all receive a much larger share of aid than the NGOs.
Put together, these academics do a fantastic job, in a language that is readily accessible and fast. This combined convincing research, new anecdotes and statistics, should keep many readers engaged. Human Rights NGOs in East Africa: Political and Normative Tensions is one book that deserves serious attention as East Africa’s democracies continue to clash with their citizens.