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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

The celebratory mood in the SANGONeT office is somewhat dampened by the recent events at the World Summit for the Information (WSIS), hosted in Tunis from 16-18 November 05.

As we celebrate the fact that within its launch month, 13,500 people visited the SANGONeT portal, viewing a vast 180,000 pages, we are also deeply disturbed by the fact that civil society was not given voice at WSIS, which was really supposed to be THE platform to search for solutions in support of harnessing technology to promote development and decrease global inequalities.

Actions speak louder than words and the disruption by the Tunisian authorities of the Citizen Summit on the Information Society (CSIS) speaks volumes about the threat that a vibrant civil society poses to authoritarian states. CSIS was the alternate and parallel event that many NGOs and activists from around the world traveled to Tunis to attend. Two of the key themes for discussion in the CSIS meeting were ‘human rights’ and ‘freedom of expression’ in the Information Society.

It is alarming that the CSIS meeting did not take place due to blatant harassment and obstruction on the part of Tunisian authorities. David Barnard, SANGONeT’s Executive Director who traveled to Tunis, contends that Tunisian authorities physically forced people away from the CSIS event. Upon his return, he also reported that Tunisian authorities had an enormous presence armed with huge guns with telescopes. It was clear that their intention was not just to shoot, but to make sure that they didn’t miss. In the face of such brute force, the CSIS conveners were forced to cancel their event.

WSIS has been described by many as just another talk shop. It is outrageous that the four years of preparatory meetings leading up the event and focusing on one of the most contested global issues, i.e., Internet control, has resulted in a compromise position where America continues to impose its hegemonic control of the World Wide Web – WSIS did not result in any concrete steps that will shift this strategic role and responsibility to a more representative global authority, any time in the foreseeable future. This struggle serves to demonstrate the enormously important role that the Internet is playing in informing and shaping global public opinion.

We South Africans appear to take our civil liberties for granted, completely underestimating the power of the Internet as an information dissemination tool --- and for an increasing number of us, it is available at our fingertips. Many of the more authoritarian states, recognizing the potential of the Internet, place enormous restrictions on Internet access. China, for example, only tolerates a watered down version of Google for its citizens.

SANGONeT is committed to demonstrating to South African civil society just how effective and efficient the Internet can be to promote an alternate, progressive and developmental perspective. At the launch of the SANGONeT portal we created a digital video conference link to Seattle based Michael Gilbert, an online specialist who talked about Weblogs and Wikis as two of the most cutting edge tools to promote an alternate civil society perspective.

We will continue advocating for the use of technology in support of civil society initiatives and are set to host our Second Annual ICTs for Civil Society Conference from 7-9 March 06. Mr. Gilbert will be back in South Africa for the event as will many other new speakers and practitioners to increase civil society’s understanding of how the Internet and other ICTs can be effectively used to promote social causes.

What infuriates me as a development practitioner, is implimentation of projects that are not based on my findings but more on donor outcomes. Why then do we even bother at times to get into projects that are not sustainable and our top beneficiaries are the donors and not the communities. Please I think we need to devise policy guidelines that actually protect such injustices from happening.

From Sazini Ndlovu.

As much as we campaign for workers' rights around the world - are NGO worker rights well protected? how, where, etc do we form a working group to conduct social audits on our internal practices? Is there a union of NGO workers?

From Aneshree Naidoo of Action Aid.

Even more irritating is large companies especially mining houses calling staff development CSI. Many pay for ABET (adult basic education & training) classes through their CSI budget and forget that this is actually part of the training they should have done for the past 250 years!!

From Andrew Miller of Project Literacy.

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