When NGO's are no longer

2013-09-02 00:00

THE current concerns about the complicated regime of donor funding for non-profit organisations is starting to reveal unfortunate consequences. We should reignite this dialogue.

It appears that we have forgotten about the contribution made by civil society organisations to human development. The civil society movement has made a substantial contribution to the political struggles in many parts of the world. South Africa is no exception. Many non-governmental organisations (NGO) provide essential social services to communities that remain underdeveloped — they feed the poor, they provide home-based health-care services. Many of them look after young children. What about drug addicts? We cannot forget the frail and elderly. The list is endless. This sector has the capacity to reach communities that are inadequately served by the current development instruments of government. This makes the NGO a critical player in development, particularly in the development of social services. Some questions are worth exploring.

The first question is about the capacity of the state to provide holistic social services to all. What do current experiences suggest?

The South African Social Security Agency (Sassa) pays millions of social and welfare grants on a monthly basis. These grants are helping many households meet their needs but the social services’ net misses some poor households, and in most cases these are voiceless families. In the same vein, we must acknowledge that even developed nations are battling with these issues. It seems an impossible dream that social services will reach all who need them, which is why many nations embrace the role and sustainability of NGOs.

This should not prompt us to blame the system, but it should remind us of our collective responsibility to make the system work for the people. We, collectively, remain the creators, participants in, and beneficiaries of, the system.

I argue this point on the basis that during the transition to democracy, we saw many capable people moving from the employment of the NGOs to the secure employment environment of the state. What followed was a complete overhaul of the funding regime. The state took a more active role in the administration of foreign donations that were destined for development, particularly by the non-governmental sector.

The financial stability of many NGOs began weakening in the face of compliance demands at this point. Unfortunately, this was happening despite the huge expectations the sector had about its former employees. The NGOs expected that these knowledgeable people would champion the pro-poor development agenda. The sector expected them to become the engine room of the state, which would employ the non-governmental sector as its army. This did not happen. Instead, a lack of funding forced many NGOs to close down. The question is, who bears the consequences of this? The answer is obvious — poor and vulnerable households.

Second, we should deal with the painful contradictions that risk paralysing the donor funding system. It is a fact that the poor remain in the majority, and the biggest portion of social and welfare grants paid by Sassa go to poor households. It is common knowledge that lotteries are supported by poor people, who spend the little they have on lottery tickets. It is one of their strategies for clawing their way out of poverty. The irony is that the instruments that are supposed to distribute the funds are watching many NGOs closing down. Defending the state’s dilemmas by blaming the NGOs does not resolve the challenge. It is not good enough to suggest that NGOs should plan better to mitigate their financial risks. The fact remains that the administrative burden complicates the very compliance requirements. In addition, we have complicated volunteerism as we see it turning into a step towards securing a job. We should be able to get out of this. We do not need to quantify the services provided by the NGOs. We know that. What we have not done is internalise the impact on society when these essential services are discontinued. Perhaps we have not thought about the social chaos and disintegration that follows. We should be very worried when children are forced to steal to get their dinner and when the sick are not treated because our system only understands budgets and statistics. We have also not quantified the impact this could have on overall development goals. We may be stagnating or even reversing the development gains. A dialogue for finding constructive funding solutions for the non-governmental sector has reached its sell-by date. It can no longer be ignored.

Nqe Dlamini is a rural development


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