Dissertation Abstracts

Civil Society Organisations and Societal Transformation in Africa: The Case of Ethiopia

Author: Kelkil , Feleke T, bymref@gmail.com
Department: Development Studies
University: UNISA, South Africa
Supervisor: Prof Catherine A Odora Hoppers
Year of completion: 2015
Language of dissertation: English

Keywords: Civil Society Organizations , Social Transformation , Participatory Development , Citizens led development


The thesis is concerned with civil society organisations (CSOs) and the challenges of facilitating sustainable societal transformation in Africa, focusing on the case of Ethiopia. The thesis underlines the fact that the conceptualization of civil society is controversial. Some western scholars argue that the Enlightenment period in Europe provided the bedrock for the foundation of ‘modern’ CSOs. As a result, they believed that the life patterns and ‘traditional’ social organizing practices of Africans, Asians and other societies of the world are incompatible with the civilized world. This outlook constitutes the mainstream view that has played an uncontested role in the decades of development in Africa.

Proponents of African and ‘traditional’ perspectives of civil society, however, argue that many nations in Africa have centuries-old humanism and a history of volunteerism and civic institutions, which form the backbone of their social fabric. They argue that Africa has its own rich culture and civilization which is the bedrock for generating and developing healthy human societies and effectively functioning CSOs on the continent. These African civic cultures nurture character and intellect within communities and social spaces despite the challenges of colonialism, globalization and other external pressures. For this reason, they challenge western-based perspectives on ‘modern’ CSOs. Given the predominance of and the tension in these two perspectives, this thesis calls for a re-examination of the concepts, meanings and practices of CSOs and the exploration of the role of ‘traditional’ CSOs in facilitating societal transformation in contemporary Ethiopia, Africa.
In so doing, it critically examines how the tensions in various international development agendas have led to the legitimisation and proliferation of ‘modern’ and western-based non-governmental organisation (NGO) interventions in Africa, and then discusses the way the civil society sector, particularly ‘traditional’ CSOs, is side-lined owing to the funding formulas that regard western-based NGOs as preferred development partners.

For this, the thesis takes a case-based approach to the study of ‘traditional’ CSOs in Ethiopia, and examines their goals and practices leading to social transformation experiences by reviewing the political history, genesis and civic functions of CSOs and the social changes at grassroots levels. The thesis also analyses the ways in which local communities organize their ‘traditional’ associations and collectively engage in social action to transform their communities. It also highlights the negative implications of the neo liberal theoretical discourses and the developmental state approaches in relation to ‘traditional’ African CSOs. In conclusion, the thesis suggests critical pathways for harnessing the role of ‘traditional’ African CSOs in the future societal transformation process in Africa.

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