Breaking the Silence on NGOs in Africa

Edited by Lewis Maghanga and Nicholas Mwangi, Wakefield, Quebec: Daraja Press, 2023

Reviewed by Wangui Kimari

What does it mean when young people say that they are ‘breaking the silence on NGOs in Africa?’ This is the title of an impressive collection of articles recently published by Daraja Press. Building on the seminal 2007 book, Silences in the NGO Discourse: The Role and Future of NGOs in Africa, by Tanzania’s Professor Issa Shivji, this second offering from the Kenya Organic Intellectuals Network aims to re-centre this conversation against the continuous ‘silences’ when it comes to the histories, objectives, and outcomes of NGOs in Africa.

While informed by Shivji’s 2007 submission, as well as others like Manji and O’Coill’s (2002) piece that posited NGOs as the new missionaries, the essays in this collection principally draw on the authors’ own experiences as young radicals vulnerable to the oppressions of racial capitalism; circumstances that, they argue, are not uprooted by the actions of NGOs despite their ‘high-sounding slogans and altruisms’ (Bah, p. 35). Here, above all, they question the ability of these organisations to alleviate and consider systemic issues, while also implicating them in weakening the local struggles that aim to do so, principally by commercialising grassroots activism(s) and pursuing palliative rather than substantive solutions to systemic concerns.

Following from the authors’ first publication reflecting on the life of freedom fighter Pio Gama Pinto in Kenya, the 17 essays contained here – bookended by a foreword by Professor Issa Shivji and the actual essays by him that provoked these young reflections – further unpack the ‘silence’ around NGOs without engaging in the habitual good–evil binaries. Instead, they offer complex arguments and reflections, and suggest steps, not models, for how we can continue to engage with these ubiquitous organs while still seeking to organise for social justice.

I found this work particularly interesting considering many of the writers were born at a time when the mainstream civil society vernaculars of ‘good governance’, ‘empowerment’, and ‘capacity building’, for example, were already normalised by governments, foreign missions, multilateral organisations, and NGOs. This kind of speech was to become evident, too, in popular Kenyan discourse. Certainly, they are the generation for whom an NGO office was, if at all, a few kilometres from their residences. It is they who, in contrast to previous generations that would pull together as a family or community or formally through harambee actions (community pulling together or even fundraisers), exist in a time where NGOs are a critical part of an entrenched governance and social constellation, despite the, often, opaque and elite imaginations of those who sit at their helm.

Yet, here in this collection of essays, these young and determined writers highlight what they see within these organisations. In no order of importance, first, the very real link between NGOs and imperial political and economic practices – the reliance of NGOs on monies and logics from states that have long sought to entrench a colonial order in Africa. Second, they also point to the false non-partisanship of NGOs that have concrete ties to embassies, governments, and multilateral organisations. In addition, they name both the deliberate and, perhaps, inadvertent efforts that NGOs engage in to weaken substantive local-based political struggles. This is by asking, as but a few instances, that recipients of NGO monies deflect blame or act more ‘diplomatic’, as well as by commercialising struggles – pegging community action on grants, for example.

Furthermore, in the NGO fetishisation of the legal system and any number of local and international conventions, these organisations become fixated on legal advocacy, allowing for what Kinuthia Ndung’u, in this collection, calls a situation where there are ‘greater but illusory freedoms’ (p. 11). Front and centre, too, is their role as a platform for the further mobility of middle-class subjects or former government workers, who have had the privilege of studying ‘human rights’, for instance, but do not have the lived experience of the oppressions that are the ostensive target of these organisations.

But, it is important to note that in this multi-authored collection whose contributors are deft students of history, NGOs are seen as one articulation of a more pervasive and sinister system. Many of the authors in this collection draw a strong connection between the racial capitalism launched 500 years ago with the twin practices of enslavement and colonisation, to this current moment of neoliberalism. Drawing on local experiences, pan-Africanism, socialism, feminism, and, above all, learnings and sharings from popular education, the contributors illustrate – through their bodies and discussions and the bodies and discussions of their elders – how NGOs have long imperial genealogies.

However, while conscious of the ahistorical NGO industrial complex machinations, the authors recognise their implication in what is called, in the introduction by Nicholas Mwangi and Lewis Maghanga, the ‘struggle vs survival dilemma’ (p. 3). Certainly, as they write, struggling people cannot afford to be drawn in as ‘protagonists’ in an imperial project. But, in a context where, for NGOs, poverty is the ‘goose that lays the golden egg’ (Ndung’u, p. 11), there are still some moments of the struggle that necessitate collaboration, especially against the material conditions of many comrades and the presence of allies in these organisations. Surely, as Irene Asuwa (p. 31) contributes here:

Community mobilizers and organizers in this age need to study and understand NGOs for what they are. That way, we shall be able to keep up with the very fast mutations in occurrence and have frank discussions on how to survive within a deeply capitalist environment and still struggle against it because we cannot afford to lose sight of it. Through the culture of study, we can analytically and critically interrogate the danger of being pacified through NGOs and their role. This understanding will also help us creatively explore the question of survival and struggle in a very open manner. How to handle self-sustenance with a sense of our political and economic environment.

This delicate ‘dance’, between NGO aid and substantive action, persists, and many of the contributors’ vocalise this without any blinders; they unpack these contradictions while also speaking to the realities of their political and economic conjunctures and conditions. For these reasons, Breaking the Silence on NGOs in Africa is an important complement to the critical works of the same focus that precede it, e.g. those by Manji and O’Coill (2002) and Shivji (2007). And it remains an important testament of the determination of struggling peoples to powerfully, historically, yet in complex movements, name, interrogate, and challenge the state of affairs about which they are expected to be ‘silent’.


  • Manji, Firoze, and Carl O’Coill (2002) ‘The missionary position: NGOs and development in Africa’, International Affairs 78(3): 567–84.
  • Shivji, Issa (2007) Silences in NGO discourse: The role and future of NGOs in Africa, Nairobi and Oxford: Fahamu/Pambazuka.

© 2023 Wangui Kimari