The Roots of the NGO Crisis: A Look Beyond the Surface

leadership ngos Financial sustainability
Wednesday, 4 February, 2009 - 13:21

Frank Julie traces the roots of the current NGO crisis which he argues, can be located in the shifts in leadership that have occurred within three historical periods. These shifts were accompanied by broader shifts in the power relations in South Africa post 1994 and cooption of sections of the leadership to a discourse that was detrimental to the interest of the poor and marginalised.

I have been active in the NGO sector in South Africa for about 27 years starting out as volunteer, field worker, organiser, programmes manager and later as director. I have also served on various NGO boards, act as advisor to many and now practice as a development practitioner within the sector.

During these years of involvement I have tried to develop a sensitive understanding of the challenges that NGO type organisations (or organisations with a social purpose) face. A few years ago I authored a book – The Art of Leadership and Management on the Ground (2006) -that captured those experiences to make it available to a broader audience. The central focus of the book is the role of leadership in building sustainable organisations for permanent social change. The response to this book was overwhelmingly positive and this prompted me to develop questions around leadership and learning within the sector, especially in relation to the current crisis facing NGOs in South Africa.

Although this crisis is manifesting itself as a funding crisis, lack of resources and lack of capacity, my view is that this is simply the outward manifestation or symptomatic of a deeper crisis – a crisis of leadership. Empirical evidence would suggest that this crisis of leadership does not of course only relate to the NGO sector but to all sectors of society. But my focus with this paper is the NGO sector. I would argue that this leadership crisis is a result of a leadership discontinuity that took place within the sector over a period of about 30 years. My view is that we have experienced a leadership discontinuity further exacerbated by a disruption of learning processes with serious implications for transfer of knowledge, skills, experience and a subtle, sometimes deliberate undermining of a body of knowledge produced in the process of struggle for a true developmental practice in the interest of the poor and marginalised.

Background to the NGO sector globally and in South Africa

Within the European context the anti-slavery movement in England in the late 18th century provided the initial impetus for the rise of what we today know as the NGO movement (or non-profit sector). This movement gave rise to various “political associations” that eventually led to the World Anti-Slavery Convention in 1840. Subsequently the World Alliance of Young Men’s Christian Associations (YMCA’s) was founded in 1855, followed by the establishment of International Committee of the Red Cross in 1863.

Trade unions emerged later in the 19th century as a leading force in the NGO movement. Rapid industrialisation with its consequent social and economic challenges, created specific areas of need within societal structures. It is these needs that the NGO sector tries to address. The growth of the sector has been substantial over the last decade, fuelled by increasing concerns over issues such as the environment, globalisation, unemployment and poverty, human rights violations and more recently the HIV and AIDS pandemic.

NGOs in Africa and social control

The emergence of the NGO sector in Africa can be traced back to the period of colonisation and the role of the missionaries in conquest. In a paper, Manji and O’Coill (2002) state that the role of NGOs “…in ‘development’ represents a continuity of the work of their predecessors, missionaries and voluntary organisations that cooperated in Europe’s colonisation and control of Africa.” According to them NGOs can either subscribe to an “emancipatory agenda” or a “paternalistic role” in development.

Although not stated explicitly, the authors identify at least three major periods within which this colonisation and control evolved. The first was characterised by the colonial period of war and conquest with the missionaries playing a significant role in controlling the expectations and behaviour of black people. Where services were provided by the colonial state it was mainly for a minority. A clutch of charities and missionary groups provided support to the majority rural population such as material support in education, health or other social services. In exchange they evangelised amongst the black population, promoting their own vision of civilisation (Manji and O’Coill (2002).

Struggles by Africans against colonialism were either met by brute force or the waging of an ideological war. Within the latter the missionaries and voluntary organisations played a key role. “They provided the (colonial) administration not only with a cheap form of private welfare, but with a subtle means of controlling the behaviour of blacks.” The programmes of care which they delivered did not seek to address the root causes of the poverty but focused on the failings of Africans themselves. “The problem was not injustice, but being ‘uncivilised’ and suffering from the ‘native’ condition,” Manji and O’Coill (2002).

The post independence or second period landed these missionary and charitable groups in a crisis since the popular political movements derived their legitimacy and credibility from a desire to end social injustice. Manji and O’Coill raise an important point about how these missionary and charitable groups managed to survive after independence and found the answer in the changing discourse around ‘development’.

“While the idea and practice of ‘community development’ existed within the colonial period, voluntary bodies did not represent themselves or their work in terms of ‘development’ until much later when the US Government and the international agencies began to distinguish half the world as ‘underdeveloped’ and to describe ‘development’ as a universal goal” Manji and O’Coill (2002).

Since the missionary and charitable groups were tainted by their association with a racist past, the new discourse around ‘development’ created a way out for their dilemma of illegitimacy. By adopting this mantra of ‘development’ they could create a connection with emancipation. They also started to express concern about poverty and vociferously condemned the racial prejudice that created this poverty. They reinvented themselves as indigenous ‘development NGOs’ due to the pressure of black resistance and international politics (Manji and O’Coill (2002).

It is important to note that the discourse around ‘development’ was quite different to how progressive NGOs with an emancipatory agenda would interpret and understand it. The dominant discourse was framed “with a vocabulary of charity, technical expertise, neutrality, and a deep paternalism.” It “…continued to define non-Western people in terms of their perceived divergence from the cultural standards of the West, and it reproduced the social hierarchies that had prevailed between both groups under colonialism” Manji and O’Coill (2002).

According to Kaplan (1996) even in the so called ‘developed’ Western countries there were “damning and articulate indictments” of this notion of ‘development’. Quoting well renowned economist Wolgang Sachs and colleagues, Kaplan (1996:10) writes:

“The idea of development stands like a ruin in the intellectual landscape…the development epoch is crumbling under the weight of delusion, disappointment, failure and crime, and …the time is right to write its obituary.”

After political independence the new African rulers were not so eager to extend the benefits of political office to everyone. The popular movements, associations and trade unions that brought these rulers to power were now seen as an obstacle to progress. Under the guise of ‘national planning’ they were marginalised and replaced by experts supported by bureaucratic and centralised decision-making. The language of emancipation and denial of rights was now replaced with the language of ‘poverty’ and ‘basic needs’. The difference may seem trite, but the implications are huge for developmental practice. As Manji and O’Coill (2003:7) state, the first approach,

“…demanded popular mobilisation, the other inspired pity and preoccupations about the technically ‘correct’ approaches to ‘poverty alleviation’.” (my emphasis)

During this time we also saw the emergence of development economists, advisors, technicians and ‘experts’. As a rule they were all imported from the West.

Another development took place, namely the role of the local development practitioner or activist. The political orientation changed from being concerned about power relations that generate poverty to poverty being the problem of the poor. According to this outlook poverty can be eradicated by the ‘development’ practitioner teaching the poor how to help themselves, hence the notion of ‘self-reliance’. The Freirian understanding of a lack of power being central in maintaining the position of the poor was undermined and with it the role of the activist as one of conscientising the poor to their own inherent power to change their own circumstances (Kaplan, 1996:38-39).

The 1970s saw major political and economic upheaval. The world economy experienced a recession. An oil crisis created a financial glut with Europe and America awash with capital and little prospect of high rates of return. Developing countries were offered loans to finance ‘development’. But this glut of international credit was short lived and the cost of borrowing increased significantly in the 1980s fuelled by an American monetary policy that drove up interest around the world. Those countries that took loans were suddenly faced with huge debts and the challenge to service the interest on the loans. It was during this period that we saw the advent of globalisation and its twin brother, neo-liberalism. Technological innovations also provided further impetus for this new form of economic and political control (Manji and O’Coill, 2003).

As a political ideology neo-liberalism believes in the supremacy of the market and the safeguarding of the right of a minority to the unfettered accumulation of profits at the highest rate possible. This is euphemistically referred to as ‘growth’. They argue that when this freedom to accumulate is unrestricted others will reap the benefits through a ‘trickle down effect’. According to this mantra, the purpose of ‘development’ is therefore to guarantee this ‘growth’ so that other freedoms can be enjoyed at a later stage in the future. State expenditure should be directed to create an enabling environment for this ‘growth’ to take place and not be ‘wasted’ on providing public services that can be best provided for by private enterprise (Manji and O’Coill, 2003).

The imposition of structural adjustment programmes as part of the debt provisions by the International Monetary Fund and World Bank led to a growth in poverty and inequality. The result was popular dissatisfaction and demonstrations. These demonstrations were violently suppressed, and the most popular organisations became the target of repressive laws. Universities were closed and strikes were declared illegal. This widespread opposition forced the multilateral and bilateral aid agencies to reconsider their approach to promoting ‘development’. Neo-liberalism at this stage had to be dressed up with a more “human face”. According to Manji and O’Coill (2003:9) the outcome of this process was,

“…the ‘good governance’ agenda of the 1990’s and the decision to co-opt the NGOs and other civil society organisations to a repackaged programme of welfare provision, a social initiative that could be more accurately described as a programme of social control.”

It is important to note that many NGOs unwittingly allowed themselves to be co-opted to this agenda by being hoodwinked by the language of ‘good governance’. Manji and O’Coill stressed that the pre-condition for NGOs’ cooption to this neo-liberal cause was merely a “coincidence in ideologies rather than a deliberate plan.” (my emphasis) Instead of coercive means to uphold an unjust social order, the proponents of neo-liberalism saw an opportunity to perpetuate this order through consensual means. Unlike the colonial missionaries who were not as discreet in justifying an unjust social order, the modern day NGOs may have unwittingly allowed themselves to be co-opted to perform this same role, albeit in total ignorance with more devastating effect (Manji and O’Coill, 2003:12).

To summarise one can delineate the 3 periods of social and economic control namely:

  • The colonial period (war, conquest, missionaries and charitable organisations spreading the language of ‘civilisation’)
  • The neo-colonial period (the development of indigenous ‘development’ NGOs as they adapted to the new political forces)
  • Period of globalisation and neo-liberalism (adopting the language of ‘good governance’ with NGOs co-opted mostly unwittingly to assist in social control)

Interestingly, a similar process was (and is still) pursued in Eastern Europe after the fall of the Berlin wall and the penetration of Western capital to capture the potential emergent markets with the ‘development NGOs’ in the forefront of this economic conquest. This is how Kaplan (2005:14) summed this situation up in relation to Bosnia and Herzegovina.

“In the past, BiH (Bosnia-Herzegovina) was dictated to by various (foreign) empires and regimes. These have disappeared; but ‘globalisation’ and the dictates of unaccountable global institutions might signal greater danger. With the latter, power is wielded in more hidden and insidious ways, through temptation, through assumption, through a compelling discourse which lulls to sleep rather than awakens.”(my emphasis)

The evolution of the South African NGO sector

It is within the context of the global developments and discourses in the ‘development’ industry, especially the broader African context, that one must view the South African NGO sector as a community of practice to understand the current impasse. The same patterns can be delineated.

Although one can trace the origin of the South African NGO back to the slave period, for the purpose of this study I will start with the period of the 1970s when the more modern NGO emerged as we know it today. The pre-1970 period was characterised mostly by predominantly white controlled welfare organisations subsidised by the apartheid government promoting separate development.

The period preceding the 1970s was marked by political repression with the major political actors banned, imprisoned or forced into exile. The trade union movement, South African Congress of Trade Unions (SACTU), as one of the biggest NGOs in the 1950s was dealt a similar fate.

The modern NGO sector, also termed the “struggle sector” (as opposed to the state supported and white dominated welfare sector) in its evolution can be contextualised by dividing it into three historical periods.

First Period: 1973 – 1991

South Africa experienced enormous economic growth in the 1960s. However, in 1978 the country experienced a deepening recession that resulted in its worst economic crisis. The fall of colonial regimes in Mozambique and Angola developed a renewed confidence amongst local activists to confront the apartheid state. This confidence was fuelled by one of the biggest strike waves since the second world-war in 1973 in Durban that spread to major centres in South Africa until 1978. Out of this strike wave was born a new trade union movement, later baptised as the Federation of South African Trade Unions (FOSATU).

In 1976 the country was rocked by the biggest rebellion of high school students against the forced imposition of Afrikaans as a medium of instruction. This period also saw the emergence of the Black People’s Convention (BPC) with its ideology of black consciousness and focus on fostering self-reliance through its programmes in black townships. Many adherents of the BC tradition were inspired by the works of Paulo Freire, Frantz Fanon and Afro-Americans like Carmichael. The emergence of the BPC was a forerunner of the more modern struggle NGO post 1970 (Matiwana and Walters, 1986).

It was during this period that NGOs mobilised against the apartheid state with some NGOs acting as front organisations for banned political parties. Various struggles were waged during this time such as consumer boycotts, school boycotts, worker strikes such as Fattis and Monis the boycott of the Tri-cameral parliament. Out of these struggles emerged alliances of organisations such as the United Democratic Front (UDF) and the National Forum (with the Cape Action League as an affiliate based in Cape Town) (Matiwana and Walters, 1986:33).

During this period South Africa experienced deepening crises manifested in various political uprisings in 1980, 1985 and 1989. The military strangulation and subsequent retreat of the South African Defence Force in Angola with the help of the Cuban forces led to the independence of Namibia and later a negotiated settlement in South Africa.

Many NGO leaders had an activist background with affiliation to a certain political tendency. It was during this time that NGOs were flooded with external funding with very little or no concern for accountability from donors. Funding during this period came mainly from church based sources or international donors who entered the NGO scene during this time.

Most of the knowledge, experiences and skills were acquired through incidental learning, action learning, observation, modelling, self-directed learning through study groups, reading, etc. Many of those who were part of the leadership had to hit the ground running. Learning happened in the process and practice of struggle. There was very little time for formal learning or training courses. What existed were non-formal leadership courses organised mainly by church groups. Examples of this were the Christian Education Leadership Training (CELT), Methodist Christian Leadership Centre and the Churches Urban Planning Commission (CUPC) (Matiwana and Walters, 1986:43). During this time the sector was also male dominated.

Second Period: 1992-1999

During this period political parties were unbanned and a new political climate prevailed. NGOs started to revaluate their role vis-à-vis the state and many leaders left the sector in droves to join the new democratic government that was elected by popular vote in 1994. The UDF was dissolved and a deliberate process of demobilisation of organisations was embarked upon. This had the effect of reducing the oppressed to spectators to the political negotiations that followed. The political compromise that followed happened with almost no input and participation from popular organisations. This was in stark contrast to their previous role in the struggle years where consultation and participatory democracy was cherished and embedded in the process of struggle.

A new economic regime - the Growth Economic and Redistribution Policy (GEAR) was put in place that replaced the Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP). This was to be South Africa’s version of the structural adjustment programme imposed on other African countries in the second period as outlined above. This was neo-liberalism in disguise. The protagonists of this self-imposed structural adjustment programme often frowned upon and stifled debate around ideological underpinnings and implications. NGOs were not very vociferous in their opposition to this policy, too scared that they may be targeted and denied funding.

A more hostile donor environment started to prevail with more emphasis now on accountability, transparency, management, good governance, legal compliance, measuring impact and project planning. Available funding could only be accessed with strict conditions especially around planning and reporting. The logical framework planning method imported from the USA (from the Pentagon) via Germany (ZOPP method) became prominent with many leaders sent for training to master this tool (Reeler, 2008:5). The social theory that underpinned this method was hardly questioned openly.

Many NGOs collapsed unable to adapt to the new conditions. International funding dried up as more donors decided to exit. Local funding sources opened up to mitigate the effects of the limited international donor funds and more international governments preferred to enter into bilateral funding agreements (government to government) such as USAID and the European Union. Local funding sources were (and are still) marred by bureaucratic red tape and inefficiency. NGOs were now encouraged to develop ‘income generating’ strategies to mitigate the effects of a developing funding crisis. Already the very identity of the NGO sector as ‘non-profit’ started to shift, albeit under the guise of ‘income generation’. The discourse around NGO ‘sustainability’ as innocuous as it may sound can be viewed in this context.

To meet the challenges many NGOs started to network and established forums. The South African NGO Coalition (SANGOCO) was a product of this networking amongst NGOs. Donors also promoted such networks to save on administrative expenses in the management of funding contracts. One example was the Urban Sector Network (USN), consisting of a group of NGOs promoting social housing.

A new policy framework for NGOs was developed with the most important being the Non-profit Organisation (NPO) Act. This NPO Act required all NGOs to register themselves. This was to be a prerequisite for external funding and to compel NGOs to legally comply with certain provisions such as submission of annual narrative and financial reports to promote accountability.

On the education and training front new policies were introduced by the democratic government with a new emphasis on formal training, accreditation of courses, the establishment of SETAS, Recognition of Prior Learning, South African Qualifications Authority and National Qualifications Framework. Many formal educational institutions eg universities, started to position themselves to offer training programmes to address the new demand for ‘capacity building’. A new terrain and language opened up and new training programmes were required and offered. Many NGO leaders enrolled into these programmes to improve their own social mobility and at times as a stepping stone into government or the corporate sector. Unlike the first period where the focus was on the collective, a crass individualism and materialism started to emerge at a leadership level. Interestingly at this time the role of the development practitioner or activist started to assume a new meaning, from activist in the Freirian understanding to one of development worker teaching the poor to help themselves, ie the discourse of ‘self-reliance’. Popular mobilisation to address strategic issues of power was replaced with the discourse of ‘capacity building’ and ‘advocacy’ all imported from the ‘developed’ (read: overdeveloped world). The discourse of the second period in the African context started to play out.

At the same time new NGOs and CBOs focusing on the new challenges such as HIV and AIDS, women and child abuse, gender mainstreaming, etc started to emerge. A new cohort of leaders entered the sector, at times unaware of the lessons of the previous period. Social movements with a more overt political agenda started to gain more prominence as the social and economic crisis deepened with ‘service delivery’ protests becoming more sustained and spreading. The rise of the social movements can be linked to the failure of the NGO sector to address strategic issues of power at this stage.

Third Period: 2000 – 2007

During this period another cohort of leaders emerged who entered the NGO sector having either left the corporate sector or state institutions. Others were unemployed and started NGOs as a survival strategy. Some of the leaders in the second period migrated to government or having achieved formal qualifications, started their own businesses or became consultants to the sector.

During this time more international ‘development NGOs’ started to enter the country competing for space with local NGOs. The policy frameworks of the state were now largely in place with a seeming change in attitude towards the sector. NGOs were suddenly viewed as ‘service delivery agents’, ie an extension and appendix to state designed (welfare) programmes. Problems on the ground were now framed as a ‘lack of implementation’ and not problems with the fundamental design and the development discourse that underpinned that design. As if the thinking behind GEAR could be artificially separated from these state designed (welfare) programmes!

Meanwhile the funding crisis deepened with a myriad of NGOs collapsing, many of them staffed by highly experienced and professional people. Frustrations with state subsidised donor agencies also spilled over into anger and despondency amongst many NGOs. SANGOCO lost credibility and as a network organisation all but collapsed.

This period also saw the consolidation of social movements with a more overt political agenda such as the Anti-Eviction Campaign, Landless People’s Movement, Anti-Privatisation Front, etc. This coincided with sustained ‘service delivery’ protests around the country and a general disillusionment with deepening poverty. Joblessness increased with an almost total collapse of public health and education and a deepening housing crisis (ie privatisation by default). This is reinforced by a conscious state policy of “self-disconnection” ie allowing the poor to disconnect themselves from basic services such as water provision, electricity and communication. At the same time the ‘connected’ are involved in widespread corruption and looting in the public and corporate sector.

The SETAS, launched with much fanfare to address the skills shortages in the country also started to show signs of incapacity and an inability to deliver on their mandate. Calls for their closure increased but later a scaling down was agreed upon.

On the political front divisions within the ruling ANC party deepened, culminating in a change of leadership at its Polokwane conference in December 2007. The policy of Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) was challenged since as benefitting only a few black elite with ties to the ruling party. Calls to rescind this policy increased with other voices calling for a more broad based approach. Meanwhile statistical reports (Sunday Times, Business Section, 20 November 2005) confirmed the widening gap between rich and poor with South Africa being the most unequal country in the world after Brazil. This deepening social and economic crisis and its effects on the poor finally spilt over into the xenophobic attacks in early 2008. The crisis for the NGO sector deepened with some big NGOs closing down. According to research quoted by the University of Stellenbosch only two percent of NGOs would remain sustainable in the long term (Cited by USB, Mail & Guardian, 5 May 2007).

In a recent gathering of about 20 NGO leaders who can be regarded as veterans within the sector, all having entered the sector in the first period, the precarious situation that the sector finds itself in today was summed up in this way (Kaplan et al, 2008:5):

“We are losing our humanity. As NGOs we are losing the practice of being human – and this was (their emphasis) our practice. Why, and how may we rekindle it? What are we enabling, what are we allowing? We don’t talk truth anymore; and truth exposes, truth names the void – says what is really there. But we cannot speak because we no longer listen; we no longer listen to the silenced voice, the silenced person, the silenced position, the silenced idea.”

Towards the end of 2007 calls were made for the revival of SANGOCO nationally, with various chapters re-launched in the middle of 2008. All over the country some NGOs started to do some serious introspection with leadership networks emerging in Johannesburg (NGO CEO Circle), Durban (Leadership Conversations) and Cape Town (The Leadership Circle and Director’s Forum). Deep disillusionment has been expressed during these gatherings with the current impasse that NGOs have reached and blamed mainly on the political leadership. In the gathering of NGO leaders quoted above this disillusionment was expressed thus:

“Our political leadership, and the movement that overcame apartheid, appear bitterly tainted with the ravages of pride: corruption, disrespect, arrogance, and overwhelming culture of denial. Our financiers and merchants – peppered now with erstwhile struggle leadership – have joined a mass movement of global capital and argue the fate of our (their) money as the arbiter of the fate of our land…and the gap between wealth and poverty has become obscene” (Kaplan et al, 2008:5).

This then, is the context within which the NGO sector finds itself in today and the realities that the leadership are confronted with.

A typology of the three periods may look like this:

1st Period

Political and economic crisis in SA; focus on activism; trade unions rebuilding; building of democratic organisations; UDF and National Forum launched to coordinate local struggles; fighting apartheid state; SA isolation deepens; war in Angola a turning point; learning in action; informal learning, experiential learning; learning as participation in struggle; ample funding available; little accountability for NGOs; struggle sector vs state subsidised welfare sector; male dominated; the ‘development discourse’ enters SA; leadership training offered by churches; a strong indigenous NGO movement become entrenched.

2nd Period

Political compromise; new democratic government; new policy frameworks; GEAR strategy adopted by government to promote ‘growth’; RDP scrapped; popular democratic organisations demobilised; ‘poverty alleviation’ and ‘basic needs’ discourse emerged; uncertainty amongst NGOs; networks emerged, foreign funding dries up; local funding sources open up; focus on ‘income generation’, leadership exodus to government; new leadership enters sector; crisis in the NGO sector emerging; new language of ‘good governance’ and accountability; new tools to measure development work (e.g. logframe imported from Germany via USA); NGOs collapsing; new NGOs emerged focusing on HIV/Aids, women & child abuse; new educational regime i.e. accreditation; RPL, etc.

3rd Period

Deepening social and economic crisis exacerbated by global crisis; service delivery protests increased and becomes sustained; social movements gain more prominence; xenophobic attacks become more widespread; deepening divisions in ruling party; crisis for NGO sector deepens, more NGOs closing down; leadership networks emerged; questioning of political direction and political leadership; revival of SANGOCO; NGOs regrouping; a new generation of leaders enter the sector; female leadership dominance disillusionment within the NGO sector; calls for revival of UDF; more international ‘development’ NGOs enter SA competing for space with local NGOs; symptoms of a global economic crisis emerge; split in the ruling party formalised a year later.

Political and economic crisis in SA; focus on activism; trade unions rebuilding; building of democratic organisations; UDF and National Forum launched to coordinate local struggles; fighting apartheid state; SA isolation deepens; war in Angola a turning point; learning in action; informal learning, experiential learning; learning as participation in struggle; ample funding available; little accountability for NGOs; struggle sector vs state subsidised welfare sector; male dominated; the ‘development discourse’ enters SA; leadership training offered by churches; a strong indigenous NGO movement become entrenched

Political compromise; new democratic government; new policy frameworks; GEAR strategy adopted by government to promote ‘growth’; RDP scrapped; popular democratic organisations demobilised; ‘poverty alleviation’ and ‘basic needs’ discourse emerged; uncertainty amongst NGOs; networks emerged, foreign funding dries up; local funding sources open up; focus on ‘income generation’, leadership exodus to government; new leadership enters sector; crisis in the NGO sector emerging; new language of ‘good governance’ and accountability; new tools to measure development work (e.g. logframe imported from Germany via USA); NGOs collapsing; new NGOs emerged focusing on HIV/Aids, women & child abuse; new educational regime i.e. accreditation; RPL, etc.

Deepening social and economic crisis exacerbated by global crisis; service delivery protests increased and becomes sustained; social movements gain more prominence; xenophobic attacks become more widespread; deepening divisions in ruling party; crisis for NGO sector deepens, more NGOs closing down; leadership networks emerged; questioning of political direction and political leadership; revival of SANGOCO; NGOs regrouping; a new generation of leaders enter the sector; female leadership dominance disillusionment within the NGO sector; calls for revival of UDF; more international ‘development’ NGOs enter SA competing for space with local NGOs; symptoms of a global economic crisis emerge; split in the ruling party formalised  a year later

Political and economic crisis in SA; focus on activism; trade unions rebuilding; building of democratic organisations; UDF and National Forum launched to coordinate local struggles; fighting apartheid state; SA isolation deepens; war in Angola a turning point; learning in action; informal learning, experiential learning; learning as participation in struggle; ample funding available; little accountability for NGOs; struggle sector vs state subsidised welfare sector; male dominated; the ‘development discourse’ enters SA; leadership training offered by churches; a strong indigenous NGO movement become entrenched

Political compromise; new democratic government; new policy frameworks; GEAR strategy adopted by government to promote ‘growth’; RDP scrapped; popular democratic organisations demobilised; ‘poverty alleviation’ and ‘basic needs’ discourse emerged; uncertainty amongst NGOs; networks emerged, foreign funding dries up; local funding sources open up; focus on ‘income generation’, leadership exodus to government; new leadership enters sector; crisis in the NGO sector emerging; new language of ‘good governance’ and accountability; new tools to measure development work (e.g. logframe imported from Germany via USA); NGOs collapsing; new NGOs emerged focusing on HIV/Aids, women & child abuse; new educational regime i.e. accreditation; RPL, etc.

Deepening social and economic crisis exacerbated by global crisis; service delivery protests increased and becomes sustained; social movements gain more prominence; xenophobic attacks become more widespread; deepening divisions in ruling party; crisis for NGO sector deepens, more NGOs closing down; leadership networks emerged; questioning of political direction and political leadership; revival of SANGOCO; NGOs regrouping; a new generation of leaders enter the sector; female leadership dominance disillusionment within the NGO sector; calls for revival of UDF; more international ‘development’ NGOs enter SA competing for space with local NGOs; symptoms of a global economic crisis emerge; split in the ruling party formalised  a year later

In summary:

The above typology can lead to the misconception that the movement of leaders in and out of the sector happened in a mechanistic manner. This is wrong. It is quite common to find leaders (although rare) who joined the sector in the mid 80’ and leaders who joined the sector in the mid 90s and who are still active. The purpose of this typology is to show that there are three distinct periods that can be identified with the movement of leaders in and out of the sector in each period and facing different qualitative challenges that impacted on the continuity of leadership with implications for transfer of knowledge, skills and experiences.

What emerges from the above typology is the unfolding of a process of subtle social and economic control that happened in the rest of the continent during the second and third period as outlined above. South African NGOs did not remain impervious to the discourse around ‘development’, ‘good governance’, ‘poverty alleviation’ and ‘basic needs’ that NGOs beyond our borders were exposed to, with some unwittingly (and at times understandably) adopting this mantra and its unspoken agenda. The ‘development’ discourse was uncritically embraced especially since its protagonists were vociferous in their opposition to apartheid. Following this, the discourse around ‘poverty alleviation’, ‘basic needs’ and ‘good governance’ were also embraced since that was what NGOs thought they were struggling for in the first period (in SA) and also because it coincided with our democratic practices and ethos forged at that time. Many leaders were not aware that these discourses were already common currency globally nor were they aware of the real agenda of social control behind them due to South Africa’s relative isolation from the rest of the world. However, its effects were as devastating in South Africa as can be seen in the second and third periods in SA, as in the rest of Africa as Manji and O’Coill have pointed out above.

At the same gathering of veteran NGO leaders quoted above, this confusion about how the NGO sector as a community of practice has evolved was captured in the following observation:

“The development industry has usurped our very language. All the old words, concepts, no longer work. Yet language influences and defines who we are. At this point of transition we can no longer say what we mean. We ourselves no longer know what we mean…None of this is unique to SA, we’re all part of a global framing…” (Kaplan et al, 2008:7).

After analysing the situation they found themselves in the veteran leaders admitted:

“Looking at ourselves truthfully we were able to admit that we were both flattered and used by international donors who regarded South African NGOs as special, with superior expertise to bring to the dark continent. Glorying in this role we allowed ourselves to become separated from others on the continent.” (Kaplan et al, 2008:24).

Conclusion

In this paper I have tried to show that the roots of the current NGO crisis can be located in the shifts in leadership that have occurred within the three historical periods as outlined above. These shifts were accompanied by broader shifts in the power relations in South Africa post 1994 and the witting or unwitting cooption of sections of the leadership to a discourse that was detrimental to the interest of the poor and marginalised. It was an agenda of social control masked by a language of ‘development’ and ‘good governance’ that coincided with the language of struggle.

The entry of new leadership generations in the second and third period into the sector facilitated this cooption. It was further reinforced by the disruption of informal learning processes and by depoliticising the sector through the undermining of a body of knowledge, experience and skills acquired in the process of struggle to promote a developmental practice in the interest of the poor and marginalised. The shift in emphasis to more formal learning processes and with their emphasis on accreditation, standardisation and commodification of education at the expense of the value of informal learning, should be viewed in this context.

I would argue therefore that what was transferred (content) as part of leadership development in the SA NGO sector cannot be divorced from how (methodologies/form) it was transferred. A clear shift took place from the informal learning approaches in the first period dominated by activism to more formal approaches to learning in the second and third periods dominated by discourse of ‘development’ and ‘good governance’ with a new dominant trend amongst the leadership towards materialism and individualism.

The largely technicist and strictly academic approach (advanced mainly by academics with no or little experience of true development) embedded in the formal learning approaches, either deliberately or by default bought into the dominant global paradigm of ‘development’, ‘ capacity building’, ‘good governance’, ‘poverty alleviation’ and ‘basic needs’.

An NGO leader working with abused women put it this way:

“When the lecturers explain something I can hear they lack experience. Experience comes from the heart and theory comes from the head. I can assess if they have personal experience or clinical experience, paper knowledge.”

Another NGO leader described it like this:

“We hear of development studies… especially if we look at the South African context…training programmes are based on imported views that have no bearing on the context in which we live.”

Dr Linda Cooper identified a similar trend in the labour movement where she contrasts a focus on ‘workplace training’ from previously ‘workplace education’ with its emphasis on formal certification, recognition of prior learning and accreditation within a national qualifications framework. According to her (1998:10), worker experience previously regarded as shared resource and

“…guide to action’ amongst workers has been turned into a commodity which is ‘individually ‘owned’ “and can be exchanged for a qualification in order to compete with other workers on the capitalist labour market, and in a struggle for individual upward mobility and ‘career paths’.”

The logic of profit accumulation and maximisation had penetrated the South Africa NGO sector in insidious ways and its discourse became dominant albeit in sometimes disguised and deceptive forms. The very identity of the sector as “non-profit” has become contested terrain.

As Paul Goodman (1964:61) stated in relation to formal education, “Profit societies, like garrison states, invade every detail of life.”

As this paper has demonstrated, the NGO sector in South Africa, as is the case in the rest of the world, has not been impervious to this invasion. The question is: for how long will we blame external funding or lack of capacity for the crisis in which we find ourselves in? Or are we prepared to look beyond the surface, beyond the obvious? Only time will tell…

References

  • Cooper L (1998) “’From rolling mass action’ to ‘RPL’: The changing discourse of experience and learning in the South African labour movement’.
  • Goodman P (1964) Compulsory Miseducation, Penguin Education, New York
  • Julie F (2006) The Art of Leadership and Management on the Ground: A Practical Guide for Leaders and Managers to Build Sustainable Organizations for Permanent Social Change, Cape Town: Creda Communications, Cape Town.
  • Kaplan et al (2008) Boundaries, Possibilities and Constraints amongst NGOs in South Africa, The Story of In-depth Conversation, p. 5
  • Kaplan A (2005) Engaging with Civil Society in Bosnia and Herzegovina, A Narrative Account.
  • Kaplan A (1996) The Development Practitioners Handbook, London: Pluto Press.
  • Manji and O’Coill (2002) ‘The Missionary Position: NGOs and Development in Africa’, in International Affairs, 78(3).
  • Matiwana M and Walters S (1986) The Struggle for Democracy, A study of Community Organisations in Greater Cape Town from the 1960s to 1985, Cape Town.
  • Reeler D (2008) A Theory of Social Change and Implications for Practice, Planning, Monitoring and Evaluation, Community Development Resource Association.

Frank Julie is an organisational development practitioner and consultant. He has been involved in development work for the past 27 years. He is the co-founder of the Leadership Circle, a group of highly experienced NPO leaders and donor sharing resources within the sector. Write to him at frankjulie@telkomsa.net. Julie is also the author of The Art of Leadership and Management on the Ground (A practical guide for leaders and managers on how to build sustainable organisations for permanent social change). He is also the author of numerous articles such as ’18 Ideas to Avoid a Funding Crisis’, ’23 Sins of Management’ and ’13 Habits of Highly Effective Leaders’. His new book Leadership and Effective Learning will be published later in the year. He regularly contributes articles to websites and journals all over the world.

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