NGOs as Innovators of Change?

The aim of the Planact conference was to think back about the 21 year evolution of this NGO that, at various moments in its history, boasted a staff complement of the brightest stars in the development sector (including some of the most progressive thinkers in the country), --- and the alumni were out in force to track their imprints on Planact’s reflective path forward.

NGOs were conspicuous by their absence at this event, which was a real pity as the conference titled NGOs as Innovators and Agents of Change: a history interpreted by development practitioners was meant to extrapolate lesson for the sector at large. In fact many of the programme’s items reflected upon the role and contributions of NGOs in development in a universal manner.

When questioned about this contradiction, a Planact board member argued that the idea behind the event was to mobilise the alumni, many of whom are consultants engaged in important development work that can contribute significant intellectual and other capacity to the organisation on its journey forward.

And so it came to be that development consultant and ex-Planact staffer, Laura Royston pieced together the history of the organisation dividing it into four equal eras, starting in 1985 and ending in 2006, chronologically embracing the eras of resistance, transition, democracy and most recently consolidation.

Juxtaposed against this segmented timeline, delegates were taken through the milestones that the organisation achieved, charting its progress from that of a voluntary membership-based organisation to a growing and formalized entity that eventually found itself in survival mode working for the state and providing a community liaison service. However, 2005 onwards was intended to signal a new milestone in the organisation’s progress, viz. The Planact Way. Unfortunately, after two whole days of conferencing, this new milestone/method has yet to reveal its true meaning.

Royston’s inputs lingered over the heydays of Planact’s evolution, which covered - in much detail - the transition and early democracy periods as significant milestones in the organization’s history. During this time, the organisation was closely involved in community struggles providing civic support to Gauteng’s urban communities that were resisting the apartheid state in a politically charged environment. Even keynote speaker Lechesa Tsenoli, Member of Parliament, pointed out that SANCO (the South African Civic Organisation) emerged largely as a result of Planact’s involvement and support in the early 90’s.

However, while it was interesting and heart-warming to hear about the roots and rise of Planact, Royston’s focus on the early days of the organisation amounted to little more than a nostalgic trip down memory lane - well received by the alumni and executed in a rather self-congratulatory atmosphere.

Moreover, her analysis of the last decade of the organisation’s transition was superficial and did not get to the crux of the challenges that Planact and many other NGOs faced and continue to face. Challenges such as the erosion of intellectual capacity, interference by a state intent on moulding NGOs into service providers, dwindling institutional memory, poor leadership, an undersupplied skills pool and donor driven agendas were absent from her analysis, revealing an out of touch-ness with some of the fundamental flaws of the present day NGO.

Nevertheless, some of these issues were addressed in the opening remarks of keynote speaker Kumi Naidoo, Secretary General of Civicus who highlighted three salient points: 

  • NGOs are historically associated with significant intellectual capacity;
  • There are many new people who have entered the NGO sector that are making decisions in an experiential vacuum;
  • The role of NGOs in public life is skewed towards delivery, much at the expense of critical engagement with the state.

He argued that the outputs of the vast majority of NGOs (80 percent) takes place at the delivery level and governments of the world are quite comfortable with this role for the sector, as NGOs represent cheap labour.

Royston concluded her presentation of The Planact Way with a diagram demonstrating that Planact had come full circle in its 21 year history. In response to which, Clive Felix, Director of the Urban Services Group asked if Planact was embarking on another era of resistance. The response to this question vaguely spoke to some notion of re-invoking the historical membership base of Planact.

Perhaps Planact’s attempt at reaching out to its alumni has something to do with filling the experiential vacuum highlighted by Naidoo. But it’s really difficult to imagine middle-aged, middle class lefties - running lucrative consultancies from leafy garden offices in posh suburbia - getting their hands dirty with the social movements that represent present day civic struggles and resistance. There is very little money, if any at all, in this kind of work.

The conference culminated in a closing a session where the question put to delegates was how they could make a contribution to the organisation on its journey forward. But Becky Himlin, Planact’s Executive Director, says time ran out so there wasn’t enough of it to have an in depth discussion about how to engage the Planact alumni in a meaningful partnership.

However, according to Himlin, Prof. Alan Mabin of the Wits School of Architecture and Planning was very forceful about his commitment to work together with Planact and develop a partnership on issues of mutual concern. Prof Mabin and his school must also be acknowledged for providing one of its lecture theatres which served as the conference venue. 

In addition, NGOs once affiliated to the now defunct Urban Sector Network were very supportive of the whole project and gave some good feedback in the closing session, says Himlin.

As for the rest of the Planact alumni, there appears little clarity on a clear partnership strategy. It’s a pity given the investment of time and money put into this project. While Planact still has an enormous reputation, the organisation itself is a shell of its old self and this initiative in many ways represents a last ditch attempt to re-invoke its former glory.

At least one tangible outcome of the project will be a publication documenting the proceedings of the conference and the history of the organisation. This represents an important objective in capturing the institutional memory of the organisation and the NGO sector at large. One hopes that current Planact staffers find their way on to the pages of this chronicle --- they were noticeably absent from the conference programme.

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