Civil society’s role in Zimbabwe and Canada

By: Amy Yee
MacKinnon defines civil society as “a new term” that has recently been used to define the work of NGOs. The problem, says MacKinnon, is that civil society and political affiliation have remained closely intertwined even up to the July 2013 elections in Zimbabwe.

Morgan Tsvangirai, president of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) party in Zimbabwe, the official opposition. Photo by Southbanksteve/Wikimedia Commons

By: AMY YEE

Morgan Tsvangirai, president of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) party in Zimbabwe, the official opposition. Photo by Southbanksteve/Wikimedia Commons

Morgan Tsvangirai, president of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) party in Zimbabwe, the official opposition. Photo by Southbanksteve/Wikimedia Commons

On Nov. 27, as part of the African Studies’ Brown Bag Seminar Series, Jim MacKinnon presented a talk called The Role of Civil Society in Canada and Zimbabwe: Past, Present and Future.

MacKinnon is the project developer at Oxfam Canada and has worked at the organization for twenty years. He has travelled to Africa on various occasions, and spent three years teaching in Zimbabwe.

MacKinnon defines civil society as “a new term” that has recently been used to define the work of NGOs. The problem, says MacKinnon, is that civil society and politics have remained closely intertwined, even up to the July 2013 elections in Zimbabwe.

In 1999, Zimbabwe’s main opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), was established and supported by women’s and human rights groups – what MacKinnon calls civil society.

Civil society’s mistake, says MacKinnon, was holding on to this alliance and not letting it go once MDC became involved in the government.

“Civil society has to, in a sense, cut the umbilical cord,” MacKinnon says. “What happened this year in Zimbabwe, you had one foot in civil society and the [other in] MDC. Now that division has to be made.”

MacKinnon says civil society should reinstate its position as an independent organization and serve as a watchdog to the government.

“Now you’ve got a civil society that I think is a bit lost… I think civil society, globally, is under attack,” he says.

In terms of Canada’s situation, MacKinnon says civil society has a problematic relationship with the government and faces funding issues.

“The only money we get from the Canadian government now is humanitarian, is for emergencies,” MacKinnon says, in regards to Oxfam’s funding. “They’re more than willing to give to us for typhoons and earthquakes, but development programs, zero.”

In the cases of both Zimbabwe and Canada, MacKinnon says dialogue and change has to happen in order for civil society to bounce back and regain its proper place.

MacKinnon’s seminar brought together a moderately sized group of students from different disciplines of the university as well as professors and members of the community to make for an intimate discussion upon the subject.

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