Civil Society needs to adapt in tough times

Civil society needs organisational agility, imaginative leadership and synergic partnerships in tough times. With South Africa assigned to junk status by two global credit rating agencies, traditional sources of funding for civil society, including non-governmental organisations (NGOs), community-based organisations (CBOs) and social movements, are likely to decline.

The likely drop in income follows on the back of falls already in foreign (industrial country) funding following the aftermath of the 2007/2008 global financial and Eurozone financial crises. More recently, the rise of populists and conservative governments in many industrial countries and the accompanying opposition among their electorates to their governments’ providing development assistance to developing countries, have meant that these governments have, and will have, less enthusiasm to maintain previous levels of funding to developing countries.

Donald Trump’s election as US President last year further raises the spectre that official development assistance to Africa under his presidency may be dramatically slashed. The US (through government, private sector and philanthropy) is the biggest source of funding for development assistance, including civil society, to Africa and South Africa.

All of this means that South African civil society groups must restructure themselves as organisations to become more resilient, efficient and have stronger impact. They will have to streamline their internal operations, strengthen their internal governance and accountability systems and improve transparency.

Furthermore, they will also have to prioritise programmes, ensuring they are relevant and impactful. Monitoring and evaluation of programmes for effectiveness must become the norm. Civil society bodies will have to collaborate more effectively with each other, pool resources and integrate their programmes more creatively. They will also have to partner more effectively, individually and collaboratively, with communities around the issues that matter to them.

They will also have to explore alternative revenue streams. As the funding from abroad shrinks, South African civil society will have to start to tap more into local sources of funding. A number of potential sources of funding have been relatively unexplored in South Africa. These include funding from the middle classes, including the new emerging black middle class and young professionals.

Corporates in South Africa have generally not provided funding for social justice initiatives. Corporate social responsibility programmes often have ultimately had very limited impact. Yet, social justice programmes are desperately necessary to strengthen the country’s democracy and social fabric and to promote peace.

Many corporates have mostly focused on black economic empowerment (BEE) as a form of redistribution or social justice. However, BEE deals have in many cases enriched politically connected individuals, the so-called “political capitalists”, who are already well-off, rather than poor communities. BEE is a potential new revenue stream for civil society, which should insist that all BEE transactions must involve a civil society organisation involvement.

South African civil society must also more actively engage current government civil society funding initiatives – whether the National Development Agency or the lottery to fund civil society more transparently, fairly and effectively. For example, a report by the Funding Practice Alliance found the NDA “failing” in its mandate of distributing funds to deserving civil society groups. It found that the funding from the lottery has not been effectively distributed to charities either, often going to government agencies, well-connected ‘civil society’ organisations, and sport bodies which could generate their own money in many cases.

South African civil society groups must collectively put pressure on government civil society funding organisations to get them to become more accountable, distribute funds more fairly and more meaningfully.

Civil society should be involved in ensuring more competent people are appointed to these organisations, monitoring their activities and their funding distribution to ensure it goes to deserving communities and groups.

State funding for civil society through a dedicated tax is another unexplored option. The example of Hungary is one South Africa could do well to explore. Hungary introduced a mechanism to provide every citizen with the right to designate a percentage of paid income tax to a non-profit or public benefit organisation. The idea there was to financially support civil society, prevent the politicisation of funding and encourage a culture of giving to social justice causes. In the South African case, the proceeds of such a tax designation could be put into a Civil Society Fund, which would be managed by civil society.

Alongside such a mechanism could also be more generous tax incentives to companies for giving to civil society. The new tougher, uncertain local and global funding environments civil society is confronted with, demand organisational agility, imaginative leadership and synergic partnerships.

*This article was published in Inyathelo’s 2017 Annual Report. To view the article on their website click here.

William Gumede is Associate Professor, School of Governance at the University of the Witwatersrand. He is Executive Chairperson of Democracy Works Foundation and former Deputy Editor of The Sowetan newspaper.

During the anti-apartheid struggle, Gumede held several leadership positions in South African student, civics and trade union movements. He was a political violence mediator and area coordinator for the National Peace Committee during the multiparty negotiations for a democratic South Africa and was seconded to South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. He is the author of several number 1 bestsellers. His more recent books include: Restless Nation: Making Sense of Troubled Times (Tafelberg); and South Africa in BRICS – Salvation or Ruination (Tafelberg).

To read publications by William Gumede on our website please click here.

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