One astonishing outcome of the “Partnerships” Poverty Conference, was that not a single NGO raised any questions and concerns about the National Development Agency’s (NDAs) poor track record of governance and accountability.
The National Poverty Conference was co-hosted by SANGONeT and the NDA and took place on Tuesday, 17 October 2006, under the banner "Partnerships for Development - A Strategic Mechanism for Accelerated Progress towards the Eradication of Poverty in South Africa"
Civil society’s restrained behaviour was a concerning outcome in light of recent media articles referring to fraud and administrative incompetence within the NDA --- notwithstanding, a spate of historical media exposé’s describing endless stories of ineffectiveness and corruption over the years since the inception of the NDA. Even SANGONeT recently received a complaint, which underscores the image of the NDA as an organisation burdened by confusion.
However, when the moment of truth arrived, not a single person in the 300 strong gathering, which included a significant NGO contingent, stood up and questioned the NDA about its duty to carry out its mandate in a responsible, conscientious and reliable manner.
Besides working towards a common goal, the role of partners in any arrangement is to hold each other accountable to a common set of principles and objectives. It was extremely disappointing to witness the NGO sector, weathered and weakened by a decade of insecurity, shrink back from its responsibility to question agency in the NDA.
While a distressing response, the situation is also indicative of an extremely uneven playing field where all is not fair and equal in a relationship where the line is clearly drawn between those who give and those who receive. On this occasion, the power dynamic was palpable.
Tuesday’s partnership discussion was mobilized around three inputs, viz., the NDA (government), civil society and business. These partnership presentations were informed by a contextual mapping of trends in poverty, provided by speakers from the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC), the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the Department of Social Development.
With the obvious exception of the civil society input, speaker after speaker stood up and spoke about an engagement with civil society based on consensus around predetermined agendas that showed little regard for civil society’s goals.
In closing his academic input on trends in poverty, which unfortunately also endorsed a contested poverty study, Michael Aliber of the Human Sciences Research Council, concluded that he was not really sure what role civil society could play in eradicating poverty. His closing comments were: “perhaps delivering services to improve the reach of government, but maybe civil society should just steer clear until we know what works”.
Moreover, while Brian Whittaker of the Business Trust was very polite to positively acknowledge the NGO sector in his closing remarks, the partnership model that he presented was strongly focused on building the private sector and the state.
Godfrey Mokate of the NDA spoke of engagement with a wide range of stakeholders, including NGOs to advance the goals of the NDA. He made significant references to meeting the country’s MDGs and acknowledged South Africa for her remarkable development successes and macro-economic strategy.
However, Scholastica Kimaryo of the UNDP argued that South Africa’s ability to improve economic growth hinged strongly on her ability to improve service delivery at the local level.
Moreover, Edgar Pieterse, of the Isandla Institute, criticized the NDA for having policies that did not further the goals of poverty eradication, but were instead targeted at poverty alleviation.
Pieterse was also critical of the MDGs in general for being disconnected from debates about trade reform and development finance. Making specific reference to South Africa, he questioned ASGISA’s ability to address the structural drivers of poverty and inequality.
Pieterse contended that poverty eradication could only take place within a framework of contestation and made particular reference to institutional reforms that shifted the powerbase. He maintained that civil society has an important role to play in sustained debate, substantial advocacy and continued grassroots work to promote a poverty eradication agenda.
Finally, he also argued that varied stakeholders have differential interests that allow us to engage in a democratic way, but which also does not always lend itself to partnership.
In spite of Pieterse’s insightful and inspiring input, civil society discussions on the day did not engage sufficiently with the issue of independence, critical engagement and the importance of playing a watch dog role.
The National Poverty Conference ended on a somewhat dull and unsatisfactory note. No clear position was advanced about a viable and equitable partnership arrangement. An interim task team, comprising five people, has been established for a short period to develop a framework for a more permanent task team, the objective of which is to take the outcomes of the conference forward and to plan next year’s event.
- Fazila Farouk, Deputy Director, SANGONeT.
Presentations and papers are linked to the names of speakers in the programme for the National Poverty Conference.
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