Idasa's Demise, Broken Donor Promises and Africa's Naive Civil Society

By Alexander O'Riordan · 27 Mar 2013

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Picture: Idasa
Picture: Idasa's Executive Director, Paul Graham, courtesy Idasa/Flickr.

In a March 26 press statement, the Executive Director of The Institute for Democracy in Africa (Idasa), Paul Graham, announced that the venerable South African democratisation and rights organisation would be closing. Idasa has been in existence for over twenty years, played an important role at the end of apartheid and is a major loss to civil society in South Africa.

However, it is also important internationally. Idasa is one of the widely recognised African democratisation and rights organisations that not only monitored the quality of democracy but also held decision makers accountable. Idasa's demise is thus not only a blow to South Africa, but to the region as a whole.

Graham explained in his press release that the collapse of Idasa was due to the inability to "garner the financial support necessary to continue its work in a sustainable manner". This fits neatly into the common law myth that international donors are reducing funding and that resources are drying up in South and Southern Africa. But, in fact, this is nothing but a myth.

Data drawn from an OECD database clearly demonstrates that in most Southern African countries, aid has risen dramatically since 2002. In fact, in South Africa aid has more than trebled making it one of the fastest growing industries in the country.

Looking at OECD data (the OECD QWIDS database), aid to Southern Africa increased in all but two countries, Angola and Mozambique, between 2002 and 2011. Aid disbursements to Botswana, Lesotho, Namibia and Zimbabwe are all up over 340%. And disbursements to Swaziland increased almost 800%.

More importantly, donor reported spending in South Africa increased 348% this decade - an increase from US$337 million to US$1.2 billion in 2011. It is notable that this is not due to a once off spike in spending. In 2002 aid disbursed to South Africa was US$338 million, in 2005 US$638 million, in 2008 US$1.1 billion and in 2011, US$1.2 billion.

This is a notable increase despite the financial crisis.

While the money continues to flow and even accelerate, it is worth noting that both governments (including our own) and donors have made repeated commitments to support democratisation, civil society and accountability in Southern Africa. In fact, the latest aid effectiveness conference in Busan, South Korea in 2011 resulted in an international commitment to "Encourage CSOs to implement practices that strengthen their accountability and their contribution to development effectiveness". These sentiments have been repeated by donors for decades and have recently been reaffirmed by the European Union in its 2011 Agenda for Change, which also commits to supporting civil society, democratisation and fundamental rights.

So the question is: How is it possible that if funds are increasing to Southern Africa and if donors are committed to democracy and civil society that Idasa fails due to a lack of funds?

My analysis is that Idasa and many other African civil society organisations make two fundamental mistakes: Firstly, they have trusted the 'good intentions' of foreign donors without lobbying for their specific organisational interests and secondly, they have mistaken rhetoric on democratisation for action. What this has meant is that instead of actively lobbying for funds for African civil society, donor officials are left to decide where to put the money without pressure from African civil society organisations.

The truth is most donors I speak to want to give more funding to organisations like Idasa, but face lobbying pressure from other sectors. The private sector, for example, lobbies donors to use their resources to improve market access, international lenders lobby donors to subsidise lending with budget support and international NGOs lobby for more funding to be allocated at headquarters and through trusted international NGOs.

African NGOs, on the other hand, seem to think it is sufficient to lobby only for the needs of their beneficiaries rather than for their organisations as a whole. Sadly this seems part of a trend in South Africa with civil society failing to prevent the demise of the Transitional National Development Trust, Interfund and funding lines that went through the ecumenical church.

In the meantime, international NGOs have tooled up and are better prepared for the sustainability challenge. Heads of international NGOs like the International Rescue Committee and World Vision command salaries of over four million Rand a year and these salaries are justified because these executives are positioned as lobbyists and fundraisers.

But in South Africa, the trend seems to be in the opposite direction. In fact a cursory comparison of NGO salaries to even government's implies that any good NGO worker would be better placed to move to government rather than stay and work for their organisation. It has become so bad that it’s almost commonplace for employers to tell disgruntled NGO workers that if they want better pay they should join government.

It is little wonder, for example, that Human Rights Watch manages to raise a US$100 million endowment from George Soros and African human rights organisations are now barely visible. With the demise of Idasa it seems now we will increasingly rely on international NGOs to protect democracy in Africa.

What needs to happen is a reset of relationships between African civil society, donors and governments. Civil society needs to recognise that all governments are institutions; all governments need to be held to account. Moreover, the demise of African civil society is very clearly accompanied by a failure to hold Western donors to account for their rhetoric. If African civil society simply insisted that donors put their money where their mouth is, there are very strong signs that funding would be allocated. To do so, however, African civil society must learn to fight more for its own organisational rights and needs. In this regard, it is time to recognise that African civil society needs good alliances with African governments who share common concerns that donor funds create international organisations rather than local ones.

African civil society must find its voice, get back its grit, work better with government officials and start lobbying the international community for a greater share of the resources. And in this regard, if all better focused on where the money goes rather than what policy is stated, Idasa might still be here.

O'Riordan is an Aid Effectiveness and Donor Funding Researcher.

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Ann Bown
28 Mar

IDASA's Demise

Does this mean that local donors, and for that matter others on the continent, are just not into Democracy? Direct funding to South African non-profits organizations from the North has been a trickle for some years yet the OECD Qwids dashboard indicates this isn't so; it lists most of the DAC members as allocating their funds to national NGOs in South Africa! So please, will those NGOs who benefitted from US$1. 2 billion please stand up and be counted?

Respond to this comment

28 Mar

IDASA's Demise

While I agree IDASA's downfall is a significant loss to one of the continent's more renown democracy NGOs, to expect African governments to embrace funding for such organizations, when other needs are arguably more pressing, might be asking for too much too soon. It took Western governments quite some time to be convinced that it was in society's best interest to fund watchdog and civic education groups. In Africa, as in many parts of the developing world, to be in opposition to government is to be its enemy or at least its competitor.

To expect that foreign donors will be held accoutnable for steady funding to African good governance groups is wishful thinking -- as their foreign assistance budgets shrink so does their will to fund organizations that engage in the less tangible outcomes of aid such as governance.

However, as China's alternative model of development, which empahsisizes economic development at the expense of political and social rights becomes increasingly attractive, the Western governments must not shrink in their roles and responsibilites of promoting their values and beliefs in democratic governance in Africa. And, African NGOs need to constantly remind them of this.

However, in additon to the insight that the RSA government offer better remuneration than many local NGOs, in the case of IDASA I can't help but to wonder if there were other reasons for its downfall -- that had to do with more mundane matters such as poor internal control systems and personality clashes among leadership.