In August Minister Bathabile Dlamini hosted the Non-Profit Organisation (NPO) summit. This discussion comes at a most opportune time in South Africa.
NPOs are facing huge funding crises as their donors are reeling from economic crisis elsewhere in the world. Even before the global economic crisis, we know that many have suffered a funding loss over the last 20 years due to the predominance of funding for HIV/AIDS projects. Not that support for prevention and treatment of HIV/AIDS is not important - of course it is. But the fact remains that one side effect of the HIV/AIDS infections in South Africa, was that NGOs doing good work in other areas suffered funding losses.
And now the economic crisis in Europe has exacerbated the funding crisis. This was one of the major issues being addressed at the summit. And the fundamental question is, why should the South African government be involved?
The simplest answer is because they help government do its job.
Whether an NGO compliments government's work by applying its policies or whether they expose us in the media or challenge us in court for not having done our job, the net effect is that they help us perform better.
As examples of the above, consider the amazing educational and preventative work done by many NGOs in the field of HIV. Or the help that victims of rape or child abuse get from NGOs to navigate the bureaucracy of the state in accessing support and protection. And I am sure it could be argued that but for the pressure from Section 27, government might still not have delivered textbooks to learners in Limpopo. And none of us would have even known about it.
The second response to the question of why government should be involved is because NPOs provide the best vehicle for citizens to actively participate in the shaping of policy and its implementation. A reactionary view would say that citizens participate through the ballot box once every five years. But a progressive view would advocate that part of our developmental challenge is to ensure that South Africans are empowered with the knowledge, the resources and the will to participate in the positive construction of our democracy.
Government cannot achieve this alone. We need organised formations to assist with people education and mobilisation on the ground.
I am of course talking about the genuine NGOs who have been set up for a non-profit purpose, and with a particular objective in mind, usually to assist people on the ground with education, or para-legal assistance or lobbying governments or acting on their behalf. I am not talking about those fly-by-nights whose leaders seem to afford the most luxurious international lifestyles at the people's expense. Like all in our country who do wrong, the latter should be subjected to intense scrutiny of the law.
But the majority of NPOs have been initiated because a need was recognised in the community in which they work; a need which government is not able to fulfil. This government has delivered very progressive policies which should help protect even the most marginalised. But we must face the fact that in the implementation of these policies, our own inefficiencies impede the delivery.
And while there will always be those who abuse the funds that they have and there will also always be those who have a hidden agenda, the bigger picture that we must not lose sight of is this – that the majority of them fill a crucial gap in societal structures.
Just recently I heard the most devastating news - that Rape Crisis is closing. In a country which still bears statistics of rape way too high for a country not at war, for a country where the majority of police stations are still not properly equipped to cope with the occurrence of rape effectively, it is a tragedy that we can't ensure that organisations like rape crisis can't be kept alive.
As the talks following the summit continue, I hope they address some of these issues and find some lasting solutions, not only to the funding crisis most NGOs are in but also recognising their positive contribution to building an equitable and progressive society.
Tasneem Carrim is Chief Director: Policy & Media Analysis and Research in the Government Communication and Information System.