Consensus emerging from business and government sectors a day after what is probably Trevor Manuel’s swansong budget is that the budget is as good as it can be, given the overarching global economic crisis.
But what about the ‘third’ sector - civil society?
Among the ‘five principles’ guiding the budget, Manuel emphasised ‘protecting the poor’, manifested through increased spending on education, health and social grants. At the macro policy level Manuel has retained his commitment to ‘accelerating growth and job creation, broadening economic participation and reducing poverty’. Laudable intentions Mr Manuel - but in the context of global recession I ask myself what this budget means for the thousands and thousands of civil society organisations that provide a multiplicity of poverty alleviation and development services to ‘the poor’ in South Africa?
Admittedly we do not have reliable and current national data on the civil society sector in South Africa. However we do know that the sector is large - there were around 98 000 organisations at the last national count (2002) . Since 1994 the government has not always been able to deliver on its promises, and CSOs fill these gaps, focusing on serving poor communities, often without state assistance. South African CSOs maintain a precarious financial sustainability, still largely dependent on a combination of local corporate and international donor funding. That funding has been profoundly reduced during the past months, as the global crisis eats into foundation investments and government reserves.
Research undertaken by CAF UK shows that the knock-on effects of the financial crisis are already placing increased demands on UK civil society organisations. At the same time the pattern of job losses and associated social ills is placing greater than usual demands on organisations of civil society. In this instance South Africa would do well to emulate the UK government, which has acknowledged the important role of CSOs by establishing the Office of the Third Sector to drive forward government’s role in supporting a thriving sector. This office has announced an action plan that pledges up to £42.5 million to help volunteers, charities and social enterprises deliver extra help to those that need it most during the global economic downturn. It is a pity that Manuel’s budget made no mention of our civil society sector, especially as repeated emphasis was placed on the necessity to ‘reduce poverty’ - alleviation of poverty and its associated ills is the raison d’etre of the large majority of South African civil society organisations.
On the other hand, organisations of civil society should not simply wait for handouts. The crisis requires proactive and collaborative action. It is time for us to put aside the various and petty divisions that have prevented national cohesion and combined activism from our sector during recent years. Our organisations are all too often the last safety net for those most in need. That is a responsibility and a challenge to which we must collectively rise. We should be proactive in urging government and business to cooperate with us at this time of crisis. Before the effects of recession bite too deeply into the social fabric we need to think creatively about ways in which we can engage government at various levels for the good of the communities we serve. For example, what is the NPO Directorate in the Department of Social Development doing for us at this time? How can we leverage opportunities within the Extended Public Works Programme, the emphasis on Enterprise Development and Job Creation presented through the legislated BBBEE requirements; the increased budget allocations to education and health?
Manuel referred in his speech to the work of Karl Polanyi - somewhat paradoxical in view of Polanyi’s avowed opposition to neo-liberalism. However, to end with Polanyi - for him the deepest flaw in market liberalism is that it subordinates human purpose to the logic of an impersonal market mechanism. He argues that human beings should instead use the instruments of democratic governance to control and direct the economy to meet individual and collective needs. It is to be hoped that the government which takes over after the April elections will acknowledge and support the role of civil society organisations; and that CSOs will collectively demand the full spectrum of the rights and privileges of democracy, including acknowledgment of both the diversity, and the collective contribution, of the civil society sector.
Colleen du Toit
Chief Executive Officer
CAF Southern Africa