Yasmin Sooka, Foundation for Human Rights

Wednesday, 22 March, 2006 - 12:57

The Executive Director of the Foundation for Human Rights, Yasmin Sooka Speaks to SANGONeT South Africans commemorated Human Rights Day on 20 March 06 and in light of this important occasion

The Executive Director of the Foundation for Human Rights, Yasmin Sooka Speaks to SANGONeT

South Africans commemorated Human Rights Day on 20 March 06 and in light of this important occasion, SANGONeT caught up with the head of the Foundation for Human rights (FHR), Ms. Yasmin Sooka who talked to SANGONeT about the work of the Foundation.

Ms. Sooka raises important points about the relationship between human rights and development, citing poverty as the most critical challenge facing post apartheid South Africa.


How long have you worked at the FHR, what is your background and what are your personal development interests?

I have worked at the FHR since 2001 and have an established track record in the rights field. Having qualified as a human rights lawyer, I worked in a law firm until 1995, whereupon I joined the Truth and Reconciliation Commission as Deputy Chair of the Human Rights Violations Committee.

My personal development interests lie in developing a strong and sustainable civil society. I am deeply absorbed with how to ensure that the participatory elements of democracy work and particularly concerned with getting grassroots voices heard at the highest level, i.e., having an impact at the policy level.

What are the key development challenges facing South Africa (SA) today?

Without a doubt this is the question of poverty and how the problem can be resolved from a rights-based perspective. It is critically important to find ways to make our constitutional democracy work for the poor. For me this means employing the elements of the PANEL approach to human rights. This can be clarified as:
P – participation
A – accountability
N – non-discrimination
E – empowerment
L – making linkages

 What are the biggest challenges facing donors in SA today?

This relates to creating sustainable development within a sustainable donor framework. One of the biggest challenges we face is the divergence in dependency between our state and civil society. SA has a very powerful state that is only dependent on 1% of international donor funding. At the same time, civil society is almost entirely dependent on international donor funds. For that reason, the question facing us is: how do we ensure that the state recognises civil society’s independence?

Simultaneously, within the South African donor framework, the issue of corporate social investment and engagement with private corporations needs to be addressed. In this case, the issue is how we get these donors to shift their attention away from superficial issues such as sport and charity to an engagement with human rights issues. I think it will be important to examine tax regulations in relation to this.

What are the biggest challenges facing the South African NGO Sector, in general and from a funding point of view?

If I had to list these, I would argue that they are:
• lack of funds
• poor governance
• inadequate succession planning
• weak partnerships, and
• poor transformation within the sector.

I am particularly concerned about the challenge of transformation. The FHR has conducted a number of sectoral studies and the dominant theme that has emerged is the issue of race and class where polarisation within the NGO sector reflects the cleavages of the past.

When was the FHR established and how has the organisation responded over the years to SA’s various development challenges?

The FHR was originally established in 1996 by the European Union as the European Foundation for Human Rights. Broadly speaking it sought to deal with the legacy of apartheid. Subsequently, the foundation was established as a Section 21 Company. It was at this juncture that it dropped the word “European” from its name and became known as the Foundation for Human Rights. A key reason behind this is that the board saw the necessity to raise funds from other donors and countries. Another requirement of the board was that the new director be a South African, which is when I came into the picture.

Nevertheless, the Foundation’s aims and objective remain the same, i.e., to deal with issues of human rights and the legacy of apartheid. At the FHR, we go to great lengths to ensure that we respond in a holistic and comprehensive manner to the issue of poverty, examining closely its linkages to HIV and gender. We explore how rights as set out in the constitution can be used as a tool to address these issues in a holistic manner. We are particularly concerned with helping poor communities to realise their constitutional rights.

However, our funding is still split 60/40 in favour of blue chip organisations in relation to community based organisations. The absorptive capacity of grassroots organisations is an obvious issue that has not tipped the scale. Nevertheless, we encourage strong partnerships between our NGO grantees and their community partners.

What is the geographic scope of your organization’s work?

We tend to make grants predominantly in SA, however, there have been exceptions where regional grants have been made. I believe that regional expansion will be an important point for us moving forward as SA’s problems cannot be seen in isolation from the broader region.

SA has an important regional role to play in relation to building a human rights culture, developing a global alliance, establishing an African court of human rights and promoting NEPAD.

Is there a particular development approach that underpins your organization’s work?

SA is a constitutional state with a Bill of Rights. The FHR is particularly concerned with building the participatory elements of our democracy where marginalised voices are heard. These include the voices of minorities, migrants and farm workers.

Is there a level of donor co-operation or co-ordination that informs your organization’s work?

We are at the forefront of trying to establish donor coalitions to encourage partnerships and diminish competition.

Has the organisation incorporated learning mechanisms as part of its overall monitoring and evaluation system?

We submit annual work plans with indicators to the European Union and this forms an important part of our monitoring and evaluation programme.

Has the organisation made any grants that have failed?

Yes and that’s due to the fact that there are huge risks involved in development funding. However, we do try to identify factors that can mitigate the risks.

Where do you see this organisation ten years down the line?

I would like to see the FHR as the main human rights donor in the broader Southern African region. I would also like to diversify our own funding base to include corporate funding. I am also keen to move away from the current unequal donor/grantee relationship towards a more equitable partnership with NGOs.

What institutional qualities and characteristics do you think are important for NGOs at the individual level to make a success of their work?

• A good governance structure, including an independent board
• Strong leadership
• Hosting regular meetings where minutes are taken.
• Relating to their broader environmental context
• Good employment practises
• Sustainability related to good governance
• Good grassroots linkages
• Accountability
• Agency

What advice do you have to offer to unknown and new NGOs to get onto donor radar screens?

For funders, the main issue is limiting risk. Accordingly it would be important for new NGOs to document and clarify who they are, especially at the governance level and succinctly present their aims and objectives. A useful strategy would be to establish a partnership with an NGO that has a solid track record and reputation. However, ultimately, the organisation must show some passion in selling what it does --- this is what really appeals to donors.

What trends do you predict for the future of funding in SA?

International donors see SA as a comfortable, medium term country and this does present some challenges for us. The fact that many of these donors gloss over the issue of inequality in South Africa, presents particular challenges for civil society. Going forward, international donors will also want to look at broader African programmes.

Moreover, the protectionism that the NGO sector in SA currently enjoys will soon come to an end as global patterns in relation to the opening of markets will bring multinational NGOs to South Africa. These international agencies will compete with local NGOs for funding.

Yasmin Sooka was interviewed by Fazila Farouk, Deputy Director, SANGONeT

Disclaimer: Ms. Sooka has not reviewed this article due to her busy schedule. Some of its contents may change once she has reviewed it.

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