Why civil society should be eligible for Covid-19 emergency funding

South Africa’s civil society organisations, which provide employment for substantial numbers of people, public services and social stability, have been devastated by the financial impact of Covid-19 and should be funded out of the R500bn Covid-19 emergency stimulus.

Currently, no provision has been made in the government’s Covid-19 emergency stimulus to help struggling non-profit civil society organisations, which includes charities, community-based organisations and civil movements, to survive possible collapse because of the financial devastation Covid-19 wrecks. The private sector donations to Covid-19 emergency fund also do not specifically include supporting civil society organisations.

A collapse of civil society organisations, which include charities, community-based organisations and civil movements, will cause more joblessness, lack of public services and lead to an explosion of social conflicts. Many countries have provided emergency funds to civil society organisations to help them navigate the financial impact of the virus.

The UK has released a £750million Covid-19 emergency funding package for charities and civil society organisations. The Australian government has included civil society organisations in its $130billion wage subsidies to businesses that have suffered large drops in turnover because of Covid-19. The Australian government has also given $200million specifically to charities and community organisations who provide social services, food distribution and emergency; and $100million for civil society organisations that provide support services related domestic violence and abuse.

The Singapore government has decided to double its contribution to charities and non-profit organisations it provides funding for the period of year, up to a cap of $100 000 per project. The Singapore government has set aside $70m for this purpose.

In South Africa, civil society organisations provide public services in instances where government fails – and so strengthening the capacity of the state.

There are about 150 000 registered civil society organisations in South Africa. The total operating expenditure of the sector is estimated at just under R20billion. About half of the sector is community-based organisations which are often less formal.

Collectively the sector makes up almost 2.5% of GDP. The sector employs just over 1.5 million staff – which is just under 15% of the formal non-agricultural workforce. This includes full-time, casual and volunteer staff. Almost 80% of the workforce of the sector are black and over 60% of the leadership and management are women.

A report to Parliament’s finance standing committee in 2002 already noted that the civil society sector employed more people than in construction, transport and financial services. Civil society is therefore a large employment generator – and the collapse of civil society organisations because of lack of funding will add substantially to the unemployment levels.

South Africa’s civil society has provided public services where official government services have failed. Civil society organisations such as the Johannesburg Welfare Society, the National Institute for Crime Prevention and the Reintegration of Offenders (NICRO) and Cotlands provide essential basic services, where the state is often absent or ineffective.

Without the civil society organisations providing public services, South Africa’s public service delivery crises would be considerably worse, with more violent protests and disruption. In fact, civil society organisations will be crucial to help the state delivers its R500 billion emergency economic stimulus, whether helping with distribution food to the hungry, get the Covid-19 social grants to the unemployed or to help women and children facing violence and abuse during the lockdown.

But civil society organisations will also be crucial to monitor corruption, mismanagement and waste of the R500bn stimulus – which may be derailed by ANC and government corruption, inefficiency and poor execution. Civil society organisations have since 1994 played a sterling role in holding government accountable: uncovering and protesting corruption, public service delivery inefficiencies and shambolic execution.

Giving a failing state in many areas, especially at the local level, civil society organisations are crucial in providing social capital to poor citizens. Civil society’s role in providing social capital is broadly understood as building supporting networks between citizens in broken communities, helping them access resources, knowledge and information and building a sense of community, when the state has failed, rule of law has broken down and they have lost trust in many formal institutions.

Extraordinary high levels of inequalities means South African society is highly fractured along race, gender and class – which generates exclusions, distrust and conflict along these lines of inequalities also. The Covid-19 lockdown has been disproportionally hard on the poor, the unemployed and the informal sector. The country is on the verge of major social unrests by the poor, unless they get food, emergency income and social support over the period of the lockdown.

South African civil society organisations have been important in strengthening social cohesion, building social bonds between potential disaffected people and getting them to cooperate with each other. Civil society organisations is crucial fostering a sense of social solidarity, mutual self-help and dignity among the poor, when inequalities may foster a ruthless battle for survival, where each person is only looking out for him or herself. This means that civil society organisations are important to maintain a level of social cohesion, “the extent to which people are co-operative, within and across boundaries, without coercion or purely self-interested motivation”.

Civil society organisations soak up a large number of young volunteers, especially black youth. This means that civil organisations mould many young, restless and energetic youth towards democracy, social justice and caring for others, and so providing a positive outlet for restless energy, strengthening democracy and foster social cohesion; youthful energy which may have otherwise gone into gangsterism, populism and extremist politics.

Close to a third of civil society organisations gets funding from government. Corruption, mismanagement and indifference by government, particularly the Department of Social Development, have meant that such government funding almost never arrive on time, have been reduced or stopped altogether, with many civil society organisations having to reduce their offerings or having to close altogether.

Most South African civil society organisations get their funding through foreign development aid from industrial countries. After the 2007/2008 global financial crisis many industrial countries started to cut their development aid and many South African civil society organisations saw their funding drying up.

In recent years, many industrial countries have seen the rise of ultra-nationalist and populist governments who have slashed foreign development budgets, saying they do not want to send their scarce taxpayers’ money to “corrupt” African and developing countries. This has further diminished funding for local civil society organisations. The devastating economic impact of the Covid-19 pandemic in industrial countries will likely lead to these governments reducing foreign aid further as they focus on domestic post-Covid-19 rebuilding.

This means that during these perilous Covid-19 times, when South African civil society organisations desperately need funding to keep jobs, public services and social justice programmes afloat, funding will be in short supply. The South African government should put a dedicated Covid-19 emergency fund for civil society organisations. Large corporates and wealthy individuals should also donate towards such a fund or set up their own dedicated funds for civil society organisations.

International organisations such as the World Bank, must also provide emergency civil society funding for not only South African civil society organisations, but to civil society organisations across Africa and other developing countries. Current funding from government to specific civil society organisations must be continued uninterrupted and increased.

By not securing funding for South African civil society organisations to help them stay afloat as employers, public service providers and social stability enablers, will not only cause joblosses, but may lead to public service delivery collapse, community breakdowns and social unrest.

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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