CSOs threatened by foreign investors

Chris Mahove

Civil Society Organisations in Zimbabwe have admitted they are threatened by the presence of huge investors, claiming corporate social responsibility projects by some companies were now encroaching into their space.

The CSO’s noted their operating space was shrinking as multi-lateral Non-Governmental Organisations and large companies were now involved in projects which they should be running in local communities.

They also cited domestic laws regulating their activities, which they said  imposed onerous registration, licensing, reporting and accounting obligations on NGOs, which allowed the government to have unlimited discretion in sanctioning them.

This came out during a media sensitisation workshop on the shrinking space for CSO’s and Human Rights Defenders in Zimbabwe held in Harare Thursday.

Lennox Mhlanga, who was the main presenter at the workshop, said a number of CSO’s in Zimbabwe were folding not because the issues they were addressing had been eliminated, but because spaces traditionally held  by CSO’s  had now been captured by private interest groups, lobbyists,  Government oriented NGO’s and corporate social community responsibility which he said attempted to discredit them.

“We have seen how in this country a number of large corporations have because of demand for the so called Corporate social responsibility initiatives,  are utilised or become a front for taking over spaces were CSO’s should be involved because what they want is also to be seen to be doing something.

“We have seen these people moving into CSO space claiming those areas and coming through with CSO initiatives. A lot of these corporates actually require assistance in terms of designing …because what they intend to achieve is different from what civil society organisations have gone out to achieve in terms of sustainability or sustainable programmes within the society,” he said

He said withdrawal of funding by most donors for grassroots and marginalised communities had seen donors dictating what sort of projects should be carried out in communities.

“We have seen how donor fatigue has affected local CSO’s here in Zimbabwe where donors are looking at other elements outside what is happening on the ground to determine whether or not they can fund certain CSO’s in the country,” he said.

The CSO’s attacked the PVO Bill saying it had what they termed ‘Philanthropic protectionism’ which had become a favourite of government on trying to restrict or to control the way in which CSO’s operated.

“And the PVO Bill has some elements of this where people will be barred from the civil funding processes and one has to declare where the funding is coming from,” he said.

The Parliamentary Committee on Public Service, Labour and Social Welfare s endorsed PVO Amendment Bill early this May after ending its Public Hearings and Consultations, effectively closing debate on the thorny issue.

Chairperson of the Portfolio Committee on Public Service, Labour and Social Welfare Emma Ncube said based on the views of the majority participants who attended consultation meetings and public hearings on the Bill, there was need to regulate and keep in check some PVOs operating in the country and called for a quick implementation of the new provisions of the Bill.

Ironically, Chinese investors, who now have the bulk of investment projects in Zimbabwe since the adoption of the Look East Policy by the government and have been carrying out numerous corporate social responsibility programmes and projects in the country, have of late been the target of attack by CSO’s in the country.

 And the admission by the CSO’s that projects being undertaken by investors in the country was shrinking their space could, therefore, could explain why they have been clamouring for the expulsion of Chinese investors.

Chinese companies have been involved in a number of community projects aimed at empowering the communities in which they operate, and the attacks from civil society organisations should come as no surprise.

Increased diplomatic and economic engagement between China and Zimbabwe has seen many Chinese companies investing in the southern African country and in the process engaging in corporate social responsibility (CSR) initiatives that aim to improve the livelihoods of ordinary people in the communities they operate in and play their part as responsible participants in the local economy.

Chinese companies have funded public health programs, sponsored education for thousands of school children, provided access to clean water and have been fighting the COVID 19 pandemic.

PG 4 Foundation on, an arm of Chinese invested company, PG Industries, has been providing assistance in support of vulnerable children in disadvantaged communities.

The program covered areas such as drug abuse, early pregnancy, school drop-outs and other ills that have threatened the future of Zimbabwean youths.

Most of these areas also form part of the projects that local CSO’s have been trying to work in, and it should come as no surprise that the CSO’s have drawn their daggers against Chinese investments.

Early this year, the civil society groups, under the banner of the Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition, wrote a statement denouncing Chinese investors, alleging that their investments were disempowering and impoverishing local communities.

“Our joint statement is not meant to defame China or trigger xenophobic resentment towards Chinese nationals in Zimbabwe. On the contrary, we seek fair and mutually beneficial relations between the two countries.

“We have however noted with deep concern the threats of displacements and mining projects in ecologically sensitive places around the country without any due regard for the concerns of the local people,” they wrote in a statement signed by more than a dozen CSO’s.

However, as also admitted by the CSO’s, there is general donor fatigue which has led to friction between them and larger NGO’s who were now getting much of the limited funding from donor agencies because of their wider scope.

“You cannot lump CSO’s with larger NGO’s mandated by multi-lateral organisations to operate inn certain spaces. They have got more leverage both political and financial. They can move from one country to the other depending on what catches their purses,” Mhlanga noted.

“But for CSO’s if you are from Zimbabwe you cannot move to South Africa ….You are trying to solve problems that are locally based, problems that are unique to Zimbabwe. So you cannot have a situation where you say the shrinking space in Zimbabwe is the same as for larger institutions,”.

You find government defining its own ….definition of CSO’s is based on a political definition so they create patriotic clones of organisations because they conform to their political agenda.

This has resulted in most CSO’s being forced into running projects outside their mandate as a the limited funders dictate the type and nature of projects they want to fund, which in many cases, are often times detached from the real needs of the beneficiaries.

And sadly, most of them have ended up venturing into political activism, which most donors are prepared to fund, which has put them at loggerheads with the government.

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