In our view

Building power of the collective - CAPE ARGUS (City Late) 27 Apr 2011

COMBINED EFFORTS: Protesters painted in the coloirs of world flags demonstrate in Joburg against the fur industry. People come together to promote and protect the rights of our interconnected world, argues the writer. PICTURE. REUTERS WE NO longer talk of "the system". In the days of apartheid, the target of the struggle was often referred to as "the system". There was a heightened awareness of how the relationships between people, policies and institutions interacted to shape and maintain the intentional inequality of our society.

 

 To many, the system was very real. It was actively engaged with and it responded, often violently. Even though we are now less conscious of the system, we cannot escape operating within a pattern of relationships that shape the outcome of our combined efforts. The relationships between the government, business and civil society shape the outcome of our best efforts to address the challenges we face.

The end result of our combined efforts is that South Africa has one of the largest gaps between the rich and the poor in the world. It is time that we again take a long, hard look at the system. Last week, many role players in civil society signalled their intention to start taking more responsibility for their role in the system. The Funding, Practice Alliance (FPA) launched the results of its research into the funding of civil society organisations by the National Lotteries Board (the lottery) and the National Development Agency (NDA).

The alliance is driven by the conviction that civil society has a crucial role to play in addressing the great and growing divide in our country. This role is not sufficiently understood or appreciated and is desperately under-resourced. The people most motivated to address society's greatest challenges and unmet needs are those most affected by them. Acts of- self-organisation and civic action are the foundation of society. The source of societal organisation and innovation is citizens acting together in civil society. People directly experiencing the need have the most intimate understanding of it, and are most able to drive the process towards meeting it.

Research into development interventions over many years has repeatedly shown that support of self-driven change is more effective than the delivery of externally initiated expert-driven solutions. Around every issue and need there are local movers and shakers, who are prepared to invest enormously in pursuing the issues they feel passionately about. The people left to their own devices and labelled as poor, are forced to invest all their energy and meagre resources into self-help initiatives. Examples abound of how society is shaped by these civil society organisations. People organise around health, education, disability music, books and gardening.

At times, they are compelled by need, but often these initiatives are joyous expressions of our humanity, our creativity and need for community. This civil society energy is an important driving force and resource for progress. South Africans understand this from our recent history. People organise themselves to get access to the resources they require to progress and develop. When frustrated, the creative energy for development is eventually compelled to become destructive. Business and the government have a fundamental decision to make.

They can continue to overlook civil society as they squabble between themselves about who will be most effective in meeting the needs of citizens. Or they can improve their skill and ability to combine their power and resources with the limitless ability of ordinary people to organise themselves to do extraordinary things. To be effective, all parts of society must be adequately resourced. The tendency is for society to be organised in such a way that resources flow away from those who need them most to concentrate at the apex of the pyramid.

However, the experience of many of those trying to make civil society organisations work is that funding across the growing divide is a "drip-drip" affair. The hopeful recipients wait for the next drop, not knowing when and where it will fall or how big it will be. They are fearful of complaining in case they get excluded. It is difficult to get together with other beneficiaries to exert pressure as they are in competition with each other for the limited funds available. Even when the money does flow, there is as much chance of funds harming organisations as there is of helping them. Because of their immense diversity, the effective funding of these organisations requires skill and competence.

Over- funding can be as harmful as underfunding. Making organisations dependent and then withholding funds is a killer. Encouraging organisations to grow and then taking two years t) process their next application is disastrous. It is vital to disburse fund5 timeously and to hold recipients accountable. Above all, it is critical -hat funders are constantly learnin; from their recipients in order to improve the service. A dynamic that bedevils the funding of civil society organisations is the temptation to use funds to turn civil society organisations into delivery agents of the funder's interests and priorities.

This is particularly so when the agencies doing the funding are established and controlled by a government that is under pressure to deliver services. The report of the research commissioned by the FPA is simply entitled "Meeting their Mandates?". The two agencies it studies are vastly different but both are found to be falling far short of meeting their mandates. The report makes a compelling case for civil society organisations to move beyond individual attempts at demanding quality service from these agencies. Civil society also has a decision to make. We can continue to play the victim without meaningful engagement, or we can risk coming together to engage more confidently and constructively. Unless we actively engage, both our NDA and the lottery will continue to fail in meeting their mandates.

There are many individuals, organisations and groupings that are already actively engaged in attempts to improve the system. The research will be used by the FPA to bring committed parties together to strategise a way forward. We are eager to support Ralph Freese, who wrote an open letter to the Minister of Trade and Industry recently about the state of the lottery He is demanding that we benchmark the efficiency of the lottery against SARS, that there is total transparency around all lottery activities and finances, and that the service is regularly evaluated by beneficiaries. The research reminds us that our NDA objective is specified as "the granting of funds to Civil Society Organisations".

A secondary objective of its mandate is "that the NDA is to be the mechanism for building relations between the state and civil society" by promoting "consultation, dialogue and sharing of development experiences". The NDA should be acting as the vehicle for our engagement. In 2010, the NDA budget was cut from R146 million to R86m. If you subtract half for the cost of running the organisation, and then divide it by nine for the number of provinces supported, you get as an answer the "drip-drip" of funding to civil society. The NDA should be facilitating a productive relationship between civil society's efforts and a developmental state. After 10 troubled years, the NDA has been reduced to a small delivery mechanism for the Department of Social Development.

The FPA will be promoting a campaign to build a well-resourced NDA able to meet its original inspired mandate. The European countries that have funded civil society in South Africa give 0.7 percent of their GDP to international aid. If South Africa committed only 0.1 percent of our GDP to the NDA for civil society funding, this would amount to over R7bn a year. To read the research or get involved go to www.fpa.org.za James Taylor is a practitioner in the Community Development Resource Association, and a member of the FPA, the Social Change Assistance Trust, the Rural Education Access Programme, and Inyathelo - The South African Institute for Advancement.