As 2005 comes to a close, development NGOs in South Africa find themselves at the height of a decade of strife characterised by dwindling funds, restructuring and retrenchments and in some cases closure.
According to an article appearing in the Sunday Times, in early December our first lady Mrs. Zanele Mbeki pointed out that more welfare will not buy the poor out of their misery, highlighting a salient point that the SANGONeT portal tries to convey through its dedication to promoting principles of development that hold the potential to transform social and economic inequalities. Mbeki observed that a critical layer of civil society has been stripped of its leadership --- a point those of us left behind, have long been lamenting.
In a surprising comment, Mbeki made a call in support of the return to the Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP). These are encouraging words for civil society activists and development practitioners in the NGO arena.
In the early days after 1994, great numbers of NGOs enthused by the potential of a developmental democracy and bolstered by a bounty of donor funding geared themselves to work alongside grassroots communities in support of informed decision-making to ensure substantive bottom-up development in equilibrium with national priorities.
But after our nations leaders all but buried the RDP and set us on a neo-liberal growth path, numerous NGOs found themselves on the peripheries of a new system that trivialised community involvement. Critical responses to private sector driven development were labelled naïve and rapidly stamped out. This, to a large extent was the death knell for many development organisations.
Without a doubt a neo-liberal economic strategy and the NGO brain drain are macro determinants that have contributed to current dynamics, but there are other factors both internal and external to the NGO environment that need to be taken into consideration.
International trends have certainly re-routed donor aid away from South Africa as foreign agencies focus their attention on other global hotspots in the aftermath of 9/11 and the South East Asian Tsunami disaster of 2004. But even before these apocalyptic events, as South Africa settled into the routine of democracy, international donor agencies started pulling back, arguing that local NGOs should focus more strongly on local resource mobilisation, encouraging engagement with corporate social investment programmes.
This continues to pose challenges for development organisations working with communities and other stakeholders to promote systemic change as corporate South Africa undermines social investment limiting its role to brand promoting activities, largely within the realm of welfare. Another problem associated with this route is the fact that the traditionally white welfare sector with established corporate relationships has appropriated the language of development to promote distinctly non-developmental goals, effectively closing development NGOs out of this loop.
Add to this situation the fact that enormous amounts of foreign aid that traditionally went to development NGOs was re-routed to the new dispensation as countless bilateral agreements sought to ensure that the post-apartheid government was firmly placed in the development driving seat. With the post-apartheid government prioritising a neo-liberal growth path and development models highly influenced by private sector dominated public private partnerships (PPPs), development NGOs found themselves out in the cold again.
At the same time, both old and new strategic state development funding initiatives, such as the National Development Agency (NDA) and the Development Bank of Southern Africa (DBSA) also chose routes that circumnavigated a critical layer of civil society organisations in the development arena.
However, honourable the NDA’s intention was to get funds directly to grassroots organisations, this model failed due the poor absorption capacity of these survivalist organisations. Moreover, their support of poultry projects and cabbage patches did nothing more than promote subsistence agriculture in areas where social and economic redress such as land reform, infrastructure development and education would have been far more appropriate.
At the same time, with the DBSA choosing to channel all its funding through local government, the loop was effectively closed and countless development NGOs who had historically engaged at the highest policy levels informed by their work at the grassroots level, slowly found themselves with no sources of funding.
In recent years many organisations with a strong development focus have folded, such as the Development Resource Centre, which had a strong tradition of documenting developmental practise. The National Land Committee and more recently, the Urban Sector Network also closed offices. Both had a strong interest in the policy arena and were dedicated to promoting land reform and reversing trends associated with apartheid planning. Most recently, the Contact Trust a parliamentary monitoring initiative that tried through its parliamentary directory to bring governance closer to the people closed its doors in November 05.
Even the most established sophisticated and historically well resourced entities have not been spared. Interfund an intermediary grantmaking organisation that promoted a rights-based approach to development and funded many community based initiatives closed its doors in mid 2005. Finally, the South African Grantmakers Association has just announced its imminent closure in February 2006.
Many others survive, but with difficulty. For example, in the organisation’s 2005 annual report, the director of the Development Action Group an urban development NGO reported that DAG dipped into its reserve funds to stay afloat.
As the gap between rich and poor gets wider, 2006 will bring even greater challenges to development NGOs. The SANGONeT portal will continue to highlight struggles, successes and failures, acknowledging the role of these progressive intermediaries who champion the cause of the poor as well as lobby for their growth and development