Funding Civil Society in South Africa: Where Does the Money Go?

By Alexander O'Riordan · 3 Apr 2013

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Picture: P V Pleasant
Picture: P V Pleasant

Last week South African NGO, The Institute for Democracy in Africa (Idasa) announced its closure for lack of funds. Many have asked how this could happen when donor funding to South Africa is at a ten year high?

Participating donors report their financial disbursements to the OECD as part of a coordination and anti-corruption mechanism. Using the OECD QWIDS database, one can see that in 2011, donors reported $1.2 billion in disbursements to South Africa with $90 million (around R820 million) for “governance and civil society”.

However, upon closer examination, the data clearly illustrates that in terms of donor spending, in the ‘governance and civil society’ sector, donors are not supporting local NGOs. While donors may be committed to the sector in principle, the data shows that more money goes to government and donors' own activities than to local NGOs.

The data shows that of the $90 million, only $21 million went to what the OECD classifies as national, local or regional NGOs at an average payment of $154 000. This means that of the total $1.2 billion disbursed to South Africa, less than 2% is recorded as for local NGOs in the governance sector.

The largest payment was $2.1 million to the Southern Africa Trust from the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID), but after that payments fall off significantly. By the time we are down to the tenth largest payment, the amount is $400 000 and decreasing quickly, meaning there is little evidence of significant institutional funding to South African NGOs in the sector.

Furthermore, of the payments listed as going to local or national NGOs, closer inspection reveals they are actually spent on related projects such as “Research on State Enterprises” and “Capacity Building of Municipal Associations”. Thus, not necessarily grants to NGOs.

Where did the remaining $69 million for “governance and civil society” go?

The database lists five disbursements to international NGOs averaging $255 000. It also lists 88 payments to government or government related projects to the value of $37 million or an average of $421 000 per payment. The biggest average payments in the sector went to the United Nations (UN) systems at an average of $700 000 each and a total of $4.9 million for seven projects. Additionally, universities and research institutions received fifteen payments averaging $79 000 to a total of $1.2 million. The remainder of the payments to the sector is listed as “other”.

In summary, 92.5% of donor funding to South Africa was not intended in support of governance or civil society (although NGOs do receive funding in other sectors for service delivery). Of the remaining amounts, 5% went to government, universities and the UN systems. But only 1.8% of funding was ever intended for local NGOs and of that most cannot be traced as being received by local NGOs.

Some might argue that donors are not truly committed to governance and civil society in South Africa, but this argument only makes sense if there were evidence of extensive and failed lobbying to get donors to better fund South African civil society. A scan of the internet clearly shows that there is far from overwhelming attention paid to the need for greater funding to local NGOs. It is, thus, unfair to only criticise donors for their allocations when local NGOs in the governance sector have done so little to lobby for their own institutional needs.

There is no doubt that excellent work has been done, including by Idasa itself, but we are evidently not succeeding in ensuring funding for critical South African civil society. Here it is essential that we recognise the difference between funding for service delivery that is still available to many South African NGOs and that to support advocacy, democracy and rights organisations. Funding for the latter needs to be mobilised for the sector as a whole. And this is where part of the problem is - we are not successful enough at speaking to and defending the interests of the sector.

As analyst, Dr. Dale McKinley pointed out in in a recent article published by SACSIS, “The Case for Strategic Coalition Building in Civil Society”, we need to call for coalition building and start working towards an advocacy and lobbying programme for critical civil society in South Africa, i.e., those that are involved in contesting political spaces that demand greater accountability.

In this regard, it is quite possible that South Africa’s donors themselves would partner on such an initiative, especially since international donors have reaffirmed their commitments to rights and democratisation following the Arab Spring. To get there though, we need to keep speaking about what is happening in the sector, we need to monitor trends more objectively, we need to get better organised and start building a coalition with like-minded organisations and we need to reach out to our donor partners who I imagine are just as concerned as we are. We should also be calling on international NGOs to earmark a portion of their resources to be sub-granted to local organisations.

Furthermore, we still need to keep an eye on the competition South African civil society faces from international NGOs. For example, on March 28 this year, the UK Daily Mail reported that International Rescue Committee (IRC), a global humanitarian NGO that does most of its work in conflict and post-conflict countries and with refugees, recruited David Miliband as its new Chief Executive. The UK is in the process of diverting its funding from middle income to countries in crises and Miliband happens to be a former UK Foreign Secretary and the brother of possibly the UK’s next Prime Minister.

It does not require extensive analysis to draw the conclusion that the IRC sees Miliband as a strategic asset. IRC’s apparent attitude to recruitment and resource mobilisation is not unique and not to be derided. A simple Internet search reveals many other organisations recruit highly qualified chief executives that bring with them strong relationships and influence with donors more so than a command of the organisation’s particular work.

South African civil society also has dynamic and well qualified executives but if we are to compete more effectively, we evidently need greater and deeper alliances with and to get access to the sort of decision makers that our competitors do. Whether we like it or not, South Africa’s critical civil society needs to tool up to operate in this competitive international environment.

The immediate future looks very challenging. With the rise of China and its perceived ‘no questions asked’ attitude towards development, critical civil society may increasingly be marginalised both here and north of the border.

Furthermore, there is little evidence that international foundations that claim to support the sector will be a source of significant funding in the long term as evidenced by the winding down of funds from American foundation, The Atlantic Philanthropies. So while we could be optimistic about private philanthropy from the likes of Patrice Motsepe, South African NGOs and broader civil society groupings still face an uncertain future.

Clearly the sector is at a critical juncture. Let us hope that the shocking demise of Idasa will be a wakeup call and more attention will be paid to supporting those critical voices and civil society advocates that have been warning of this challenge for some time now.

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

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Mymoena Scholtz
9 Apr


Very sad reading this. Idasa came to visit our project a couple of years ago, and even sent another organisation from one of the African Countries for ideas. We never heard from anyone of them. Sad that we are doing such a great job to build our civil society and funds is right under our noses, but we cannot have access to it. We built our organisation from the ground with no funder to support in the first few years.

Mymoena Scholtz
[email protected]

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