The Institute for Democracy in South Africa

Monday, 24 April, 2006 - 15:55

Paul Graham Reflects on IDASA’s Transformation to a Transnational African NGOThe Institute for Democracy in South Africa  (IDASA) was formally established in 1987 by members of the libe

Paul Graham Reflects on IDASA’s Transformation to a Transnational African NGO

The Institute for Democracy in South Africa  (IDASA) was formally established in 1987 by members of the liberal opposition to South Africa’s apartheid government. Initially IDASA played a critical role allaying fears of the White elite regarding South Africa’s transformation to an inclusive democracy, engaging blacks and whites across an increasingly bitter political divide, and building a vision of a non-racial democratic future.

Over the years, parallel to South Africa’s (SAs) smooth transition to democracy, IDASA’s programmatic focus has evolved in scope and reach. IDASA has moved beyond merely fostering a culture of democratic elections and human rights in SA to embrace the notion of sustainable democracy as an ongoing process involving citizens and democratic institutions in many settings. It advocates this understanding of democracy across the African continent.

This expanded programmatic and geographic focus has seen the organisation grow enormously in human and financial terms. For the past eight years, IDASA has consistently employed in the region of 100 staff with an annual budget fluctuating between 55-60 million Rand.

A Leader with Roots in South Africa’s Anti-Apartheid Struggle
Current executive director, Paul Graham, has worked at IDASA since 1988. His involvement in politics and community activism precedes his engagement at IDASA.Graham's personal interests lie in formal and non-formal education and early influences in his life include politics, religion and education. After majoring in English Literature and receiving a formal qualification as a teacher, he chose to pursue a profession in adult education working both at the University of Natal and the Methodist Church, prior to joining IDASA.

Graham lists one of his current development interests as exploring the relationship between democracy and the reduction of violent conflict. He has also been thinking and writing about the relationship between democracy and development which he believes is important to elucidate.

Graham appraises SA’s key development challenge within the context of the skewed concentration of wealth in this country and argues that over and above poverty, inequality is the bigger evil. In his view, finding a solution to this problem is enormously challenging - the difficulty is maintaining public space (as opposed to private solutions), and to deal with issues such as health and education as public goods.

Graham advances strong views about democracy. He argues that challenges to domestic autonomy pose a threat to democracy and contends that the “war on terror” has introduced new challenges to the work of building democracy - where the definition of democracy, particularly as promoted in Iraq by the United States, has become highly contested.

In his view, the struggle for democracy should always be an indigenous one, built upon democratic yearnings and traditions in different societies. People need to be reminded of this in SA as well as in other parts of the world. Graham argues that people here need to maintain a commitment to constitutional democracy that is not affected by the bipolar world of contemporary world politics. 

He states further that unless there is democracy for all, there is democracy for none. He contends that instead of forcibly advancing a social version of democracy, we tend to limit ourselves to an elite version of democracy with elected officials as the primary actors. He believes that we should be more confident in our own construction of a democratic society!

Promoting an Autonomous Indigenous Democracy
IDASA’S mission is to promote sustainable democracy. Graham describes this mission as uncomplicated but emerging out of a rigorous definition process. He explains that a sustainable democracy is one that is autonomous as well as domestically owned and supported. Core to this focus on building an authentic, indigenous understanding of democracy is the emphasis on developing strong democratic local institutions in every setting, not simply government. This is highly dependent on an educated and self-reliant citizenry with the capacity for cooperative work to build thriving communities. Another important programme focus of IDASA is advocating for social justice from a quality of life perspective.

The underlying objective of the organisation is building the capacity for democracy within civil society and government. This is something that IDASA has tried to do consistently over the years.

The Growing Pains of an Emerging Transnational African NGO
While IDASA was originally established with a South African focus, it has always worked in non-South African sites due to its involvement with exiled South Africans. Presently IDASA’s reach extends across sub-Saharan Africa.

Nevertheless, while IDASA’s work in other parts of Africa has evolved substantially over the years, it only came to terms with the fact that it is an African organisation last year. This realization has had far reaching implications for the organisation and its staff.

According to Graham, for IDASA to pursue its objective of promoting sustainable democracy in Africa, there are only two places where it makes sense for the organisation to be located, i.e., Addis Ababa or Pretoria (PTA). PTA is ideal as it hosts the pan African parliament and has one of the highest concentrations of diplomats in the world, in addition to the existing IDASA infrastructure in the city.

As a result, the organisation has decided to reduce its Cape Town (CT) office which will increasingly focus on the South African parliament as its primary concern. So while there are currently 60 staff in CT, in time to come, IDASA would like to reduce this to about 20 - relocating staff that deal with regional work to the PTA office, which has been IDASA's head office since 1999.

According to Graham, this change is happening slowly in order to ensure the retention of good staff. In his view, when one loses a good staff member, one risks losing an entire project. As a result, IDASA's approach has not been to issue ultimatums to its staff to relocate or leave.

Nevertheless, Graham argues that this moderate approach has not been without its challenges as CT staff understandably became very anxious about the situation. However, he maintains that the CT based South African parliament is among the most significant on the continent and will always demand a fair deal of attention from IDASA, making the CT office a strategic centre for the foreseeable future.

IDASA’s African expansion stems from its open door policy, its engagement with interest groups from numerous African countries, and its judgment that aspirations for a broader vision of democracy are widely shared across the continent. Currently IDASA has an office in Nigeria staffed by South Africans and Nigerians.

Since 1997 IDASA has had two types of offices, core offices and project site offices. Project site offices are set up to run fairly long term projects but close upon completion of the projects. For example, there is a project site office in Zambia, the Zimbabwe office has just closed and in Angola, there is a partner organisation operating a project site office. The Nigerian office is an international office.

The Dual Challenges of Staff Retention and Sustainability
In spite of its enormous growth and success over the years, IDASA’s internal challenges are no different to those facing many other NGOs. According to Graham, the biggest challenge that the organisation faces is recruiting and retaining good staff who are representative of the societies in which IDASA works. According to Graham staff are the primary asset in a knowledge-based organisation.

Another challenge facing the organisation is the increasing complexity of funding its work. Graham maintains that these days it takes longer to find partners and sign agreements. Moreover, it is becoming quite difficult to sustain programmes in line with other people’s priorities that do not always align well with IDASA’s understanding of democracy.

As an African organisation, fundraising in other parts of the continent is often difficult, particularly as reporting requirements are quite onerous, requiring a great deal of capacity which has considerable cost implications.

Finding support for the organization’s enormous budget also demands a high level of diversity of revenue sources. Graham argues that there isn’t such a thing as sustainability from domestic funding. Moreover, IDASA does not wish to be beholden to any single donor. IDASA has always prided itself in determining its own focus, but this also means that the organisation must, to a large degree, anticipate donor priorities. According to Graham, this is becoming more difficult with the centralization of many of the organisation’s longstanding donors in Brussels.

IDASA receives almost no corporate funding. Much of its money comes from the NGO component of bilateral agreements. Funding takes place in three ways:
•  Cost recovery through direct tenders
•  Grants – mostly overseas development assistance (ODA)
•  Co-operative agreements where there is commonality of interest regarding the outcome of the project.

A Consistent Programme for the Road Ahead
At a programmatic level, Graham highlights the ongoing challenge of identifying needs and demands and ensuring that IDASA’s work is relevant in an evolving policy environment. While retaining capacity to respond to certain unexpected demands, IDASA’s programme focus for 2006/7 is already clearly defined. The organisation has a strong focus on community and citizen empowerment as well as citizen leadership development. However, for the next couple of years, the organisation would like to pay more attention to legislative institutions, working with elected representatives of the public as opposed to working with bureaucrats.

Moreover, IDASA plans to modify its budget programme which tackles budget reform advocating for budget transparency. It is likely that this programme will broaden into an Economic Governance Programme. IDASA also intends to consolidate its education and training programmes in a School for Democracy that will provide new opportunities for interaction across programme areas, and exchanges within a larger network of democracy education partners across the continent.

Going forward, Graham hopes that IDASA will become a truly continental institution rather than a South African organisation working in a continental context.

- Fazila Farouk, Deputy Director/Portal Editor, SANGONeT

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