The End of Hope: SA Civil Society's Race to the Bottom

By Alexander O'Riordan · 20 Oct 2014

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Picture: Narrator Online
Picture: Narrator Online

A cursory scan of the NGO job boards confirms the widely held assumption that South Africa’s civil society organizations are struggling to get funding. Organisations appear to be in crisis, jobs are hard to get, salaries are markedly below market norms and rumours abound that established NGOs are on the verge of bankruptcy. Last month, for example, the press reported that the Treatment Action Campaign publically protested rumours it was on the verge of bankruptcy; many others are rumoured to be struggling too.

Consensus on the street is that this is about a lack of funding. Indeed even donors complain their funding is shrinking and our own government reports funding challenges. The problem is these assumptions are entirely incorrect. Government is actually increasing its wage bill and has a record budget and the situation is not much different with many donors too. Take for example UNHCR that pays close to R1.6 million a year to post their junior representatives to the hardships of Cape Town (see for a salary calculator) whilst the very organisations it funds cannot ‘afford’ to recruit fundraisers and proposal developers on dramatically lower salaries.

What is going on is not at all about funding, but entirely about the quiet implosion of South African civil society organisations that are steadily sliding from what were once African leaders to what are increasingly just low cost, uncritical service organizations exploited by unscrupulous international organisations and opportunistic government departments. Simply put when donors agree to higher salaries for international NGOs than South African ones, they create a market in which international NGOs always have the resources to simply poach talent from Southern organisations.

The funding myth does not gel with the fact that in 2012, South Africa received just over R15 billion of aid, the second highest receipts on record. If you take into account depreciation of the rand, official disbursements to South Africa could quite possibly well hit a record in 2013 despite the high profile withdrawal of the UK’s development assistance (which incidentally is being contested by the UK’s own parliament).

Globally, financial crisis, global doom and gloom aside, aid hit a record high in 2013. The Paris based Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development just reported that official development assistance grew by 6.1% to R1.5 trillion in 2013. Even more interestingly the bulk of the increase was shouldered by ‘emerging donors’ such as the United Arab Emirates and South Korea. While the European Commission disbursements dropped a whopping 11%, the real stars are ‘new donors’ such as the U.A.E that disbursed almost R60 billion, Turkey R36 billion, Poland R5 billion and Israel R2 billion. But before jumping to the conclusion that the developed world is done for, consider that Japan increased its spending by a third and the UK with a population only a fraction of the US’s is now spending half as much.

As the global economy recovers, it is quite likely that traditional donors will recover too, which means that aside from 2013 being a record year for international aid, the medium term future looks bright too. And, new funding streams are coming online: the climate facility, for example, is projected to be spending over a trillion rand a year by 2020 making it comparable in size to the aid industry as a whole.

There is another interesting contradiction that deserves attention. Despite all the global and South African rhetoric on donors wanting to divert funding away from ‘middle income’ countries, the OECD reports that donors will likely focus 2014 spending more on middle-income countries. In fact, the OECD regularly complains about the fact that despite commitments to the contrary, aid is being directed more at middle income than low income countries.

In the world of global philanthropy the picture is more interesting still. As a journalist on yahoo news reported last month, it is almost like Bill Gates and Warren Buffet, the two wealthiest men in America, “cannot give it away fast enough”. Bill Gates has already given over a third of a trillion rand to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation but his wealth is growing even faster than he can give it away; this year alone his wealth increased by R100 billion. At the same time Warren Buffet, the second wealthiest American, is in a similar position having given away over R250 billion (which incidentally he gives to foundations that do not even carry his name) while his net worth is higher than ever.

One way to reconcile the difference between this funding boom and the perceived lack of resources is to argue that funding is going more to the South African government and international organisations rather than to local civil society organisations. In fact, this is an explanation I have long, and incorrectly, argued for in the past. A close look at the OECD data for South Africa, for example, illustrates that some of the more successful international NGOs registered here received upwards of a quarter billion rand a year. The truth is that South Africa’s civil society is losing out to international funding not because donors have cut back or changed priorities. Sadly, South African civil society is losing funding because it is failing to compete and more importantly for the average South African fundamentally failing to develop or attract funding for an ambitious vision on how to deliver social justice.

Plainly speaking there is no great discovery here. Pretty much everybody in the sector would agree that in the mid-nineties the gates to participating in public debate on our developmental needs, were as wide as the heavens. Today, however, it is almost that the entry to dialogue is so small that you would have to tear the very skin from your flesh to be able to get into a meaningful public debate with government on South Africa’s most pressing needs.

At the same time, South African civil society has quite happily drunk the cool aid in tacitly agreeing to cut salaries and de-professionalise their own organisations. While donors do not blink at financing international NGOs to recruit highly qualified fundraisers, researchers and project designers, local civil society has allowed them to drive salaries and operational costs forever lower turning South African organisations into largely bankrupt, mute and cheap service delivery organisations. Call it the Walmart approach to civil society, but funding from donors like the UN pretty much embody the principle of keeping the supplier on the verge of bankruptcy to ensure absolute and complete uncritical compliance.

There is no shortage of funding for civil society in South Africa. What we are lacking is an ambitious vision to attract funders such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation who are actually looking for ways to spend their money. What we need are critical voices that condemn our government when it prefers to encourage donors like the UK, Denmark and Switzerland to leave rather than consult the sector on what it wants.

Finally, what we need is to push back on our development partners and insist they finance the calibre of staff that will ensure South African organisations can win global competitions rather than simply hope for funding out of pity or the need for international NGOs to have a ‘local partner’. Embedded in South Africa’s many civil society organisations are many excellent visionaries and NGO leaders but unless the sector as a whole thrives, they will either find themselves out of work or inevitably take a better offer at an international NGO or organisation thus hastening the decline of civil society in South Africa. 

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

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20 Oct

A Very Interesting Observation about How Donor Power Works

"keeping the supplier on the verge of bankruptcy to ensure absolute and complete uncritical compliance"

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DaleTM Verified user
22 Oct

What Civil Society, What Donors?

Hi Alex,

Thanks for your piece. However, your analysis of South African civil society and donors appears to be informed by a positionality that does not recognise and see any of the myriad political, organisational and ideological differences that characterise both SA civil society and (even if to a lesser extent) the collection of donors who fund them.

As such, your analytical lens concentrates on what many of us - who have been involved as activists and staff in a range of social movements, community organisations and small progressive NGOs - call CONGO's (corporate NGOs). These components of SA civil society have long tried to 'compete' with their international counterparts, whether as applied to salaries, 'professionalism' and insider influence with the politically and economically powerful. And they have been (and are presently) losing out precisely because the character and content of the political, socio-economic and organisational environment within which they operate has radically changed over the last two decades.

Such civil society organisations are probably already, or are well on their way to, 'imploding' but this should not really be surprising given that most have simply lost touch with their own 'environmental' reality. Further, the 'competitive' donor game they have been playing all these years has ensured that, for the most part, they have always remained 'uncritical service organisations'. That's what happens when the 'market' logic is dominant. It's why a Director of a CONGO in South Africa can complain about getting 'only' R50 000 a month (as opposed to double that for international CONGO staff) when those they are supposed to be seeking social justice with and for, can never dream of making that much in a year.

For those other CSOs in South Africa who, since the carnage of the immediate post-apartheid period in the mid-late 1990s, have largely been stable in relation to donor funds and activists-staff, there is no 'end of hope'. This is because they have organisationally and politically adapted to the changed 'environment' (translated: they have retained and often enhanced their critical voices) and forged relationships with smaller, progressive donors who do not dictate their agenda and who also support activist-oriented CSOs who are simultaneously 'professional' and who try their best to operate by a set of principles that is as far detached from competitive 'market values' as is possible in our capitalist world. Simply put, they have chosen not to drink the corporate donor 'cool aid' and, I would hazard a guess, have absolutely no desire to come up with an "ambitious vision to attract funders such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation".


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