SANGONeT spoke to Zohra Dawood , the Executive Director of Open Society Foundation, SA (OSFSA)
How long have you worked at the Open Society Foundation (OSF), what is your background and what are your personal development interests?
I have worked at the OSF SA for five years. Prior to this I worked for the Department of Land Affairs.
With respect to my personal development interests, I would say that I cherish issues concerning integrity and equity and how this informs people’s choices.
What are the key development challenges facing SA today?
I would contend that this is less about the argument for transformation. There is general agreement about what that agenda should achieve. However, the challenge lies in finding consensus concerning the process of that transformation. In other words, the nuances of the transformation process still need to be worked out. This is particularly pertinent to issues regarding access to power and resources. It really is a question of who is on the inside track and who is not.
To sum it, I would argue that the greatest development challenges facing South Africa (SA) concern the complexity of an open society, which demands debate and discussion. What is lacking in SA is an open engagement around the many paths to the end goal.
What are the biggest challenges facing donors in SA today?
It is about looking for vision and finding that new vision, new strategies for engagement, and new tools for advocacy within civil society. This is a challenge in particular for the OSF SA as a Foundation that supports ideas. In this case, we are not only looking for tried and tested ideas, but we are willing to take risks when innovation is demonstrated and in order to capitalize on these ventures, we look for creativity and this is hard to find.
It may be that there’s an element of civil society organisations (CSOs) constraining themselves because the state we live in is powerful. To elaborate on this point - a fair number of CSOs have chosen to work for government and the degree of risk taking that is available to them may be compromised in this situation. On the other hand, there are organisations that have taken extreme positions, without enough debate around affordability and the state’s development priorities. CSOs are going to have to figure out how to define their roles pragmatically.
Finally, the other perennial concern is that of a loss of leadership in civil society. This leadership deficit manifests itself in a lack of effective implementation. For implementation and delivery to take place, what is needed is leadership at the level of management. Donors also grapple with lack of ideas that are fundable due to this leadership deficit.
In addressing this problem, it is incumbent upon donors to consider how best to work towards replenishning this diminishing base of leadership in civil society. After all, a vibrant, robust civil society is the cornerstone of democracy!
What are the biggest challenges facing the South African NGO Sector, in general and from a funding point of view?
In the case of certain CSO clusters, it is easier to identify and define their role. For example, with respect to those working in the human rights arena, it is obvious that their role is governance and accountability, for which funding opportunities remain stable. However, there is another cluster with a service delivery mandate that is unable to affect its mandate as resources, which traditionally flowed to them are now being redirected to the state.
When was OSF SA established and how has the organisation responded over the years to SA’s various development challenges?
OSF SA was established a decade ago and its founding mission was to actively create institutions for democracy. What has changed over the years is that these institutions are in place; however, the challenge is about keeping the spaces open for the nurturing of these institutions, which lead to a vibrant democracy.
In creating the conditions for an open society, we are moving beyond the bare architecture of democracy and into responding to wider societal concerns such as crime, keeping debate open and staking a firm claim in supporting independent media. The test for us is about re-visiting the questions about emerging threats to open societies in SA and this requires a dynamic approach to funding.
Is there a particular development approach that underpins your organisation’s work?
Our approach is to seek out good ideas and to be the sort of donor that is prepared to take risks. We are prepared to take the first footing on the basis that what is funded must have good prospects for replication. I would like to stress that we don’t own projects. Instead we germinate prospects for partnerships that potentially lead to replication and sustainability.
Is there a level of donor co-operation or co-ordination that informs your organisation’s work?
I think there is and its sector specific. For example, there is formal and informal co-operation regarding access to justice. There is also a group around training for independent media. OSF SA belongs to a network of donors working in the area of violence against women.
However, I would argue that successful co-ordination comes from creating one’s own linkages. This needs to be done with awareness about policy and practice in the work of government and the business sector.
The focus on the business sector is important for local philanthropy to succeed. Corporate social responsibility (CSR) is potentially a far more important revenue stream than international donor funds. CSR allows for agendas to be influenced as local money is alert to local conditions. Moreover, business has a vested interest in certain areas such as stability in education, skills training and a whole range of things that can create conditions of stability.
What is the geographic scope of your organisation’s work?
Where do you see this organisation ten years down the line?
I want to think that we have the capacity to make ourselves redundant if we have created the institutions that make for an open society.
There is a perception in the NGO sector that donors are more likely to fund the more formal sophisticated urban based NGOs. Do you agree with this perception?
In this case, I can’t provide an either/or response. This is mainly because of the generation of effective ideas and donor’s ability to hold organisations accountable. Often the larger urban organisations have the ideas and the structures to ensure accountability. Nevertheless, we have made efforts to identify nodal points in impoverished rural areas with a view to capacitating civil society in these areas.
What institutional qualities and characteristics do you think are important for NGOs at the individual level to make a success of their work?
There needs to be a vision. With vision comes passion and pragmatism. However, the best vision in the world needs a workable plan, including a resource plan or else it dies a quiet death.
What advice do you have to offer to unknown and new NGOs to get onto donor radar screens?
For an emerging entity there must be an idea that fires people up matched with a firm sense of how to effect the idea. The idea is more compelling to donors if they can identify the need for its existence and how this initiative can address the need.
What trends do you predict for the future of funding in SA?
There is not going to be a sea change with money being diverted away from SA. This is not happening as donors want to support growing democracies. Moreover, in the region, SA is important as we are a good example for democracy. Nevertheless, we still need to be inventive in identifying different sources of funding.