A Dire Consequence: The Demise of the South African NGO

governance ngos B-BBEE
Tuesday, 20 November, 2012 - 15:45

In this article the author criticises the B-BBEE Code proposal for excluding organisations that help non-blacks and encouraging NGOs to operate like social enterprises in order to become sustainable, among others  

The onslaught of anti-non-governmental organisation (NGO) actions (BEE Code proposal to exclude NGOs that help non-blacks, lottery shambles, focus on enterprise development (ED) over corporate social investment (CSI)) shows a breath-taking disregard for this essential sector of our country.

South Africa has a huge and, until now, growing civil society network of more than 85 000 NGOs. This vast array of organisations fill-in the gaps in a society where care is not being provided by anyone else - from feeding the aged, caring for orphans, saving the rare leopard toad to helping rape victims. They are the caring face of a society that has become hardened to the suffering of others, and dismissive of those not strong enough or wealthy enough to care for themselves.

Globally, the NGO network is suffering as the economic downturn has led to corporates and governments alike reducing funding support. International funders such as the World Bank, United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and LHL have slashed their budgets and the impact on the social support sector everywhere is dire.

Yet here in South Africa, we have gone beyond the simple matter of lack of money due to a reduced economy to what appears almost to be a deliberate strategy to pull funding from civil society and divert it elsewhere. In South Africa, we have discovered enterprise as the new utopia, and if not enterprise, its dreamy cousin, social enterprise.

In practice, this means that traditional funding from sources such as the Lotto is now being denied to reputable organisations like the Highway Hospice in KwaZulu-Natal, who provide essential support to hundreds of dying patients annually, on the basis that they ‘should be sustainable by now’. In other words, the Lotto has decided that the Hospice should be a social enterprise – an organisation that makes money while it helps people to die with dignity? Possible perhaps in affluent populations, but completely unreasonable in the poor communities in which it operates.

Another onslaught is the proposed emphasis on enterprise development in the new BEE Scorecards – whereby social development or CSI funding traditionally reserved for NGOs will be five points in the scorecard, whereas ED will score 8-times more, at 40 points. If that is not an unbalanced pull, I do not know what is.

I am a fervent champion and supporter of the ED sector, and actively promote the crucial role it plays in growing our economy and creating much-needed employment. However, the millions that have been (and are) squandered through weak and ineffectual government-funded business support agencies, inappropriate opportunities offered to unqualified entrepreneurs through schemes like EMIA, and the general poor performance of most state-sponsored ED initiatives, leaves one feeling that this is a knee-jerk response to compensate for their poor results. The reality is that successful ED is a specialist task that needs to be carried out by experts and take place in tandem with social development, not in place of it.

The proposal that in future only NGOs who support purely black people will gain BEE scorecard points is for many, the final straw. Who will support the other people dying of cancer, the other school children who need remedial reading, the other disabled who cannot feed themselves? Certainly not the government, because if they were doing it none of the NGOs would have been started in the first place.

If this comment seems overly harsh, the question is perhaps what strategy has government got in place to support this essential sector? What tools are there to encourage funds to flow to civil society to balance the overwhelming emphasis on business and black economic empowerment?

It seems that the NGO world is its own worst enemy for it has been quietly and effectively getting on with the job without fanfare for years. Sadly, as we only value our seatbelt when we run into a bus, so too will we only realise the worth of the NGO community when they cease to exist.

South Africa is on a disastrous course. As we withdraw our support for civil society, we risk becoming a country unable to care for the people, and if a country cannot care for and respect its most marginalised citizens, how can it call itself a civilised society?

About the Author

Catherine Wijnberg is the director and founder of Fetola, a fast growing economic development agency and not-for-profit organisation made up of respected development practitioners across Southern Africa.

Catherine has owned and operated small businesses in three countries across five different sectors and has successfully conceptualised, designed and implemented several award-winning community and business development programmes, including the Legends programme that grows for-profit and nonprofit organisations all over South Africa.

Her most recent initiative, the Graduate Asset Placement (GAP) Programme, seeks to place 24 000 unemployed graduates into internships over the next three to four years, creating in the region of 8 000 permanent jobs.

To contact Catherine, e-mail to cwijnberg@fetola.co.za or call 021701 7466.

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