Cultivating political capabilities among Ugandan smallholders: good governance or popular organisation building?

Sophie King

Opinion is divided about the capacity of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) to enhance the political capabilities of disadvantaged groups within an inclusive liberal development paradigm that seeks to advance ‘poverty reduction through good governance’. Advocates of inclusive liberalism argue that the participatory spaces created by the good governance agenda have increased the political space for NGOs focused on popular empowerment and policy influence. More radical critiques cast NGOs as apolitical brokers of neo-liberal development which distract from, or are disinterested in, more progressive development possibilities, including questions of redistribution. Drawing on a qualitative study of civil society organisations in Western Uganda, this paper argues that attempts to promote the participation of rural people in inclusive liberal governance spaces has proved less effective in enhancing their political capabilities than strategies based on economic associational development. Whereas strategies for enhanced inclusive liberal participation engage with the formal de jure rules of the game in ways that either sidestep or re-enforce the de-facto patronage-based political system, associational membership can catalyse shifts in the socio-economic power relations required to enable poor people to gain political agency in ways that begin to undermine patronage politics. This has important implications for both the theory and practice of political capabilities development among disadvantaged groups.