Reality Check

Civil Society in Uganda

Reality Check 11

This 11th edition of the Reality Check examines the Understanding of Uganda's Civil Society Ecosystem and Identifying Pathways for Effective Engagement with Civil Society in the Development Process.


Efforts to support the development of civil society organisations (CSOs) in Uganda as a third pillar of inclusive development date back to pre-colonial and post-independence Uganda, although accelerated momentum is witnessed from the 1990s onwards. During the heyday of state intervention in the 1950s and 60s, both the colonial and post-independence governments used a set of laws to encourage as well as regulate the efforts of CSOs. CSOs, particularly those in agriculture and other formal sectors of the economy, were seen as critical in the task of mobilising citizens to foster economic production, promote a sense of nationalism and drive economic transformation.

As a result, many producer organisations or cooperative societies and labour unions were encouraged to organise, in part representing the changing dynamics of Uganda’s economy from a predominantly agrarian to an industrialising and services economy. Indeed, by 1961, there were over 39,000 registered organisations across all sectors of the economy, rising from 259organisations in 1951. These organisations became launching pads for ascension to political power (for those seeking political power) and political control (once in power). Regarding the latter, a set of instruments, ranging mainly from statutory laws to financial support, were used by state actors to keep CSOs, at the time, under control. For example, there is evidence that many cooperative societies, whose leaders politically supported the state-received financial credit through state development banks, were not obliged to repay, which later, in part, contributed to the 1980 fiscal crisis.

However, as political events shifted between 1970 and the 1980s, so did the contours of the CSOs. First, Idi Amin’s reign of terror triggered and sustained the flight of many key leaders of CSOs, particularly those that challenged the state, and resulted in a regression of the CSOs’ role in shaping the governance and development trajectory of Uganda. Second, the ravages of the 1980-86 civil war accelerated the formation of new forms of community- and socially-driven CSOs that dominated the provision of social services, such as education and health, of which citizens were in desperate need after the civil war. Third, the shift from a state- to a market-led development paradigm characterised by the sweeping implementation of structural adjustment reforms (also commonly known as SAPs) and complementary poverty eradication action plans (PEAP) between 1995 and 2008 spurred the formation of ‘community-based’ organisations or what is famously now known as NGOs. Indeed, as NGOs witnessed a sharp rise in numbers, the former production-based organisations, such as cooperative societies and trade unions, regressed. This, in part, reflected the impact of structural adjustment reforms; that is to say, as the burgeoning agricultural and industrialising revolution that had started in the 1970s began to retreat, so did the organisations that evolved in the wake of this process.

Indeed, government and development aid was targeted towards sustaining an economic liberalisation process that started in 1995 and NGOs to complement state efforts in closing the gap in service provision left behind by the destructive nature of the 1980 civil war and perhaps the ‘collateral damage’ of structural 1 See Bates (2014).adjustment reforms. By the mid-2000s, as Uganda was once again attempting to return to a multi-party political dispensation, NGOs were as many as (if not more than) state agencies and were seen as largely independent and incapable of succumbing to state control.


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Verena Kasirye

Verena Kasirye

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About this series

The series analyses developmental challenges in the political, social and economic sphere in Uganda. The editions examine hot topics of the daily political agenda and undertake a rigorous reality check. Reality Check is published in cooperation with Centre for Development Alternatives.

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Centre for Development Alternatives & Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung e. V.