NGO Influence on the Wane?

By Glenn Ashton · 29 Sep 2010

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Picture credit: World Economic Forum
Picture credit: World Economic Forum

The role that Non-Governmental Organisations (NGO’s) play in South Africa regionally is under unprecedented threat from several fronts.

Under apartheid, and particularly during its dying days, NGO’s had a massive influence on the emergence of the new democratic state of South Africa. Many NGO’s were de facto political instruments of the disenfranchised majority and they also had a profound reach into society as a result of the failure of the apartheid state to provide the services and outreach a normally functioning government is expected to deliver.

Many government ministers and civil servants cut their teeth in the NGO movement. Our transitionary phase saw many co-opted from NGO’s directly into government to get the show on the road. The relationships forged between internal and external branches of the liberation movements and NGO’s established their mandate and credibility and proved the worth of many of the best and brightest working in the field.

After 1994 NGO’s enjoyed a honeymoon relationship with both funders and the new government. They helped bridged the divide between state and the public by establishing vibrant connections between civil society and the incoming leadership. The Mandela years saw close co-operation between government and civil society, with a continual cross-pollination and assistance in establishing the foundations of the proposed developmental state that the alliance envisioned.

However the relationship soured as deputy-president Mbeki’s primarily exile-based ideologues gained traction, even before he formally assumed the reins of power. Mbeki’s time in office saw a de facto marginalisation of the views of NGO’s in many fields – health, co-operative governance, political oversight and environmental management.

NGO’s were no longer so much perceived as objective outsiders assisting in advancing the democratic revolution but more as non-party players interfering in party political processes. Many were rejected as being insufficiently versed in the nuances of the African Renaissance Mbeki and his acolytes wished to usher in.

The late ‘90s and early noughties saw NGO’s suffer from the twin curses of this political isolation and donor fatigue. The honeymoon period of the South African miracle was past, the rose-tinted spectacles were off and the realists, pragmatists, technocrats and networked tenderpreneurs started to taste the fruits of power.

Just as happens elsewhere in the world, it fell to the media, civil society and NGO’s to examine and reveal these shortcomings, exacerbated by the rather incestuous cadre deployment policies of the ruling party alliance. It is notable that because of the nature of the tripartite alliance, with the inclusion of the unions, the countervailing voice of organised labour has largely been politically subsumed, leaving political intervention to civil society organisations like NGO’s and civic organisations.

These interventions have tended to undermine and diminished the power and legitimacy of the NGO sector. Independent civil society organisations were perceived or portrayed as being allied to competing party political interests. 

Sometimes this was through their own making with NGO’s like the FW de Klerk Foundation and the Helen Suzman Foundation and their neo-liberal bias. Other organisations like IDASA were seen as being allied to opposition positions through either intentionally or inadvertently echoing DA policy. 

Other cases of political association have been somewhat more tenuous. For example the SA New Economics Foundation’s (SANE) proposal for a Basic Income Grant (BIG) was hijacked by the opposition Democratic Alliance as a policy position, which in turn undermined the non-political position of SANE.

NGO’s should, as voice pieces of civil society, remain at arms length from political parties unless a declared alliance exists. However, there is inevitable cross-pollination between political entities from their contact with civil society. As ideas are generated and shared it is inevitable that the most viable are absorbed and incorporated into the body politic, eventually being adopted as policy if they gain sufficient traction. 

However the long hiatus of cross pollination between civil society and the state during the Mbeki years was only broken after his Polokwane ousting. It now appears that NGO’s and civil society are more freely able to gain access to those holding the reins of power.

Yet NGO’s have not only been politically isolated. Several other international factors have had direct local influences. First is the swing toward more conservative government in the developed north. This has supported a more broadly neo-liberal free-market agenda and the subsequent marginalisation of supposed ‘lost causes’. 

Africa has long been unfairly portrayed as just such a case and the consequent reduction in developmental programme funding has retarded the potential for the continued expansion of progressive interventions.

Secondly, corporate interests disguised as Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) or philanthropy have become increasingly allied to state funding criteria. A prime example is USAID programmes, ostensibly meant to assist developing nations are in reality no more than domestic corporate economic support mechanisms.

The recent foray into Africa by the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation, now augmented by the fortunes of the Buffet foundation, has demonstrated the increasingly cosy alliances between USAID and State Department projections of power with those of private capital. 

The Gates Foundation is significantly invested in the Monsanto Corporation, the world’s biggest promoter and developer of genetically modified foods, and an aggressive player in Africa. It has appointed an ex-Monsanto VP of International Development as the senior programme officer of its agricultural development programme. This is only one such uncomfortable congruence between US policy, corporate promotion and ostensibly philanthropic CSR funding. 

The manner in which this funding actively undermines local democratic political structures by projecting its power into important national and regional political fora is striking. These linkages between undemocratic business interests and national interests strongly weaken the voices of democratic governance, of NGO’s and of civil society at large. The fact that corporate and USAID funded NGOs such as AfricaBio and the Kenyan Agricultural Research Institute are used as front organisations by corporate interests illustrates even more profound socially malign intentions.

On the one hand, there is decreased funding for NGOs and civil society voices and on the other, northern first world interests are increasingly intersecting in nearly invisible ways. The case above demonstrates how effective democratic food security projects that have adopted agro-ecological approaches are undermined. More sinister yet is how poorly devised; wasteful and externally driven technocratic programmes create precisely the opposite effect they are meant to. 

This is yet another example in a long history of the developed world perpetuating its mistakes in Africa and then blaming Africans for the failure of these initiatives. The externally projected ‘solutions’ further delay real solutions to local problems.

The recent economic contraction has further impacted funding to progressive NGOs in the global South. The influence of centre right political alliances continues to influence the political corporate nexus, further reducing the space for progressive voices to be heard.

While NGO’s must rely on strong domestic support to prevent erosion of hard fought rights, this is not always practically possible. The dialogue requires a more equal positioning and the inordinate power of the corporate political nexus intentionally erodes the influence of progressive civil society forces. 

There certainly are NGOs and forums that occupy both spaces. The right has its Free Market Foundation and the World Economic Forum, while the left has representative spaces like the World Social Forum. Yet the vast disparity in power between these two echoes the profound inequality between the tiny but inordinately wealthy global elite on the one hand and the majority of the global poor on the other. 

The fact that the elite represent the vested interests of less than half of one percent of the population while the poor represent at least half illustrates the injustice of the divide. South Africa is simply a local microcosm of the global fault lines dividing our profoundly unequal global economic system. 

While the Zuma administration has become more receptive to inputs from NGOs and civil society, the real challenge of the socio-economic divide remain unaddressed. The post Polokwane shift to the left has permitted the influence of the corporate political nexus to remain in place. Until this fundamental flaw is addressed we stand to increase, not diminish our levels of inequality. 

The intentional marginalisation of NGO’s and civil society voices, through removing resources, which do not actively support the corporate-political status quo, places the democratic counterbalance of this vital sector at risk.

Ashton is a writer and researcher working in civil society. Some of his work can be viewed at Ekogaia.

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