The Emergence of the Third Sector in East Africa

I’ll be presenting a paper at the Centre for the Social History of Health and Healthcare (CSHHH), Glasgow on the 27th October (, and then in Oxford on the 1st November (,_politics__and__geography_seminar).

‘Common Council, Common Policy: healthcare, missions and the rise of the ‘voluntary sector’ in colonial Tanganyika’ looks at the emergence of the voluntary / third sector in East Africa from the 1930s, and implications for understandings of voluntary service provision today.

The paper argues that current debates on the role of the third sector and voluntary agency service provision and development interventions are largely based on European and North American understandings of what constitutes the third sector, relations between third sector actors and governments, and the opportunities and challenges such actors face. Moreover, current analyses of the third sector in sub-Saharan Africa focus almost exclusively on the institution of the NGO. For many writers, donors, aid agencies and governments, the NGO is the third sector.

This paper challenges these views. It suggests that we need to understand the historical trajectory of the third sector in sub-Saharan Africa if we are to understand the place of voluntary agencies in service delivery and development today. The space that NGOs now occupy was not created by them in the 1960s, ’70s and especially the 1980s. The origins of the formal third sector in East Africa (and much of sub-Saharan Africa more widely), the space into which NGOs would step, lie in the role played by missionaries during the colonial period. The nature of that third sector space – its relationship with the state and with donors, its distance from the actual communities in which they operate, many of the challenges and constraints faced – have their roots in the emergence and subsequent evolution of formal voluntary sector activity from the 1930s onwards.

Does this have any real implications for the third sector in East Africa today? The current global financial crisis has given fresh impetus to international policy debates on the role of voluntary agencies; the appropriate mix of public, private and voluntary within a well functioning society; and the question over competitive advantage of each of these sectors (what can each do better and/or more efficiently than the others). But by assuming the third sector looks, acts and functions in the same way in all contexts, there is a danger that the scale of opportunities or of problems may be missed. Moreover, if we assume all third sector actors look the same (the NGO-isation of the third sector), what about other actors which may be as, if not more, important in the lives of the poor, yet who may be ignored by donors, governments and researchers?


About Mike Jennings

I am Reader in International Development and Head of the Department of Development Studies at the SOAS, University of London. I research, teach and write on Africa, and the history and politics of international development in sub-Saharan Africa. Research areas include: - The history of development in Africa, from the late nineteenth century to the current day - Politics of East Africa (Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda) - the role of non-state providers (NGOs, FBOs and self-help groups) in welfare service provision - Social aspects of health, including HIV and AIDS, and malaria
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