In Lagos this May, a yearlong exploration on the formation of an association for civil society-focused research and scholarship in Africa culminated in a formal organizational launch and the successful convening of the new association’s first continent-wide conference. The organization, now legally registered in Nigeria and the United States, has been dubbed the Association for Research on Civil Society in Africa, or AROCSA.
This initiative has come about through the leadership of the Ford Foundation’s West Africa Office. To guide this effort, Ford partnered with ARNOVA, a U.S.-based academic association with more than 40 years’ experience in convening non-profit practitioners, scholars, researchers, and students focused on civil society. Among ARNOVA’s many accomplishments has been the publication of Non-Profit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly, a globally respected scholarly journal.
First Stop, Accra
The first major stop in the formation of AROCSA took place in September 2015, when a group of fourteen West African scholars, civil society practitioners, and “pracademics”—individuals whose careers bridge non-profit scholarship and practice—came together in Accra to explore the possibility of forming an association that could support their field. This core group was joined by a small delegation of non-profit scholars from the United States along with representatives from ARNOVA. Together, members of this group constitute the founders of AROCSA.
At this meeting, participants discussed and debated the value of creating a scholarly association focused on civil society, looking at potential strengths and weaknesses, opportunities and threats. These lively exchanges led to a collective sense that such an organization would indeed add value to the non-profit sector in Africa. Discussions turned to potential programmatic areas the new organization might focus on, and five were selected for further investigation:
1. A regional academic journal focused on African civil society
2. An annual conference bringing together scholars and practitioners for networking, learning, and skills-building
3. Training for scholars and civil society organization staff on applied research methods and evidence-based work
4. A fund to support research and scholarship on civil society in Africa
5. Fellowships for doctoral students and civil society professionals.
At Accra, it was decided that the new organization should be continent-wide rather than West Africa-focused: AROCSA’s founders agreed that it is crucial that there be a continent-wide organization that can serve as a bedrock for advancing knowledge and practice in the civil society space in Africa. It was in this spirit that the group committed to moving forward collectively to formally establish AROCSA, and all left Accra with high hopes.
Next Stop, Chicago
The next major stop on the journey to creating AROCSA took place in Chicago in November 2015. There, following ARNOVA’s annual conference, AROCSA’s West Africa-based founders focused much of their time on issues of organizational development, including mission and values:
AROCSA’s Mission: To promote and advance a community of excellence in research and practice on civil society in the service of African development.
a. We value and practice accountability, transparency and professionalism
b. We value and work with courage of conviction
c. We strive for the highest ethics, being intellectually and materially honest
d. We are non-partisan and non-sectarian in our positions and actions
2. Excellent in Scholarship and Practice
a. We promote rigorous, high-quality research and practice
b. We aspire to be globally competitive
3. Diversity and Inclusion
a. We acknowledge, embrace and accommodate diversity
b. We are intentional in including people and ideas from multiple demographic backgrounds
c. We maintain and sustain democratic principles
d. We are pan-generational, gender sensitive, multilingual, community-focused, pan-African, and tolerant towards multiple viewpoints.
And Onto Lagos…
With greater clarity on AROCSA’s direction, founding members then turned to the organizing of the organization’s formal launch event, a conference to be held in Lagos in May 2016. While ARNOVA staff provided strong logistical support to the undertaking, a small group of AROCSA founders coordinated the development of the conference program as well as outreach to potential participants. To support these efforts and AROCSA’s broader launch, an organizational logo was developed and an AROCSA website was launched.
The AROCSA launch conference took place in Lagos from May 19th to 21st, 2016. The more than 80 registrants were largely West Africa-based, but participants from Malawi, Kenya, South Africa, Egypt and Cameroon helped to bring a more continent-wide perspective to the event. In plenaries and breakout sessions, the conference program explored a range of issues, including technology, corruption, cross-country collaboration, social entrepreneurship, public policy, impact assessment, and philanthropy.
Conference evaluations revealed a very positive response to the gathering among participants: On their overall experience, the conference program, networking and other broad conference elements, roughly 97% of participants were “satisfied” or “extremely satisfied”—exceptionally strong numbers under any circumstances but especially so given that this was AROCSA’s first conference. Most encouragingly, when asked, “Based on your experience here, do you expect to become more involved in AROCSA?”, 100% of respondents to this question answered “Yes”. At the final session of the conference, more than 40 participants showed up to share their ideas for AROCSA and to sign up to participate in a range of working groups established to move AROCSA forward.
Moving AROCSA Forward
AROCSA founders’ meetings, just prior to and after the conference, were held to discuss a range of organizational development issues, most importantly leadership and governance. For the next year, a transitional leadership and governance structure will guide AROCSA, to include a Chair and a subset of AROCSA’s founders, the latter who will chair several committees, including several focused on the different program areas, one focused on membership, and one focused on fundraising and partnerships. A support staff person will be hired, primarily to support the Chair but also to lend assistance to the committees’ work. ARNOVA will continue to play a supportive role to the new enterprise, including by overseeing a new grant from the Ford Foundation that will fund AROCSA’s activities through the convening of the next conference, to be held in Johannesburg in July 2017.
While AROCSA’s founders are very optimistic about the future of the organization, they are by no means blind to the challenges ahead, as surfaced in their final meeting together. Among the biggest challenges:
Ø maintaining a largely volunteer organization run by otherwise very busy people
Ø moving beyond West Africa to build a truly continent-wide organization
Ø accommodating Africa’s linguistic diversity
Ø finding the right balance between academia and practice
Ø raising sufficient funding to support AROCSA’s admittedly ambitious programmatic goals.
These and other challenges aside, the launch of the Association for Research on Civil Society in Africa represents a very positive development within African civil society. If the organizations’ first period of organization is a harbinger of its future, AROCSA should indeed anticipate many successes moving forward.