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This resource is hosted by the Nelson Mandela Foundation, but was compiled and authored by Padraig O’Malley. It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.

NGOs not puppets of donors


Terence Smith, Ismail Davids and Glenn Hollands: COMMENT 7 Nov 2005

On at least two recent occasions, President Thabo Mbeki is reported to have questioned whether NGOs in South Africa are being manipulated by foreign donors and the extent to which civil society in South Africa is independent. As a network of NGOs committed to democracy and free speech, we feel compelled to respond to the president's attack on the credentials of NGOs.

Mbeki's statements were made in the context of the upcoming African Union peer review of South Africa and civil society's push for greater representation on the panel that will review the state of governance in the country. The views expressed by Mbeki reiterate the government's ambivalent line on NGOs, particularly on matters related to contested development strategy and NGOs' oversight role. The roots of the government's open distrust of NGOs extend to the pre-Mbeki era. In a speech to the ANC's 50th National Conference in December 1997, former president Nelson Mandela, usually renowned for his support for a strong independent civil society, made a scathing attack on NGOs, in which he accused elements within the NGO sector of working with foreign donors to undermine the government and its development programme, and of lacking a popular constituency or membership base among the population.

Mbeki's latest remarks have once again stirred up the perennial debate about the role of NGOs in South Africa and their relationship to the state, donors and communities. We respect the president's right to raise this important debate as it is something that both the government and NGOs need constantly to reflect upon.

What concerns us, however, are the government's repeated unsubstantiated public statements about the agendas of "certain" NGOs and donors that cast a shadow over the integrity of all NGOs and foreign donor agencies operating in the country, many of whom have shown their commitment to democracy and development in South Africa over several decades. As the views of the president command considerable weight within communities, his generalised critique of NGOs unfortunately serves to undermine the credibility and legitimacy of NGOs in the eyes of communities with whom NGOs work on a daily basis.

The concern about foreign donors setting the agenda of civil society organisations is valid, in South Africa as in all other developing countries. Nevertheless, it is erroneous to imply that this is necessarily the case and that NGOs are unable to assert their independence within the unequal power relationship between funder and recipient. It is also naive to assume that donors enter developing countries without specific agendas. But, these "agendas" are not necessarily sinister and usually align with mainstream aims and values within South African policy and law. In the area of governance, for example, few would dispute the goals that many donors are assisting South African NGOs to pursue -- such as consolidating and deepening democracy, promoting participatory development, protecting human rights and promoting clean and accountable governance.

The obvious point that must also be made is that the South African government itself is the recipient of large amounts of foreign donor support, mostly in the form of bilateral and multilateral aid. Does this make government the puppet of these foreign donors? Are these donors shaping the government's agenda?

The difficulties encountered by NGOs in attempting to access financial support from the government are well known. For many NGOs, foreign donor support is indispensable to sustaining services and support for many poor communities, who find little relief within government programmes.

There unfortunately appears to be a view among influential elements within the government that NGOs seek merely to criticise and discredit the government (read "ruling party") in whatever it does. This form of political insecurity and the presumption that NGOs should be pliant servants of the government's development agenda is unsophisticated at best and suggests a worrying propensity for the centralisation of power and an increasingly intolerant form of political leadership. It is important to acknowledge that many NGOs (and indeed foreign donors) played a significant role in supporting the struggle against apartheid and in bringing to power the government we have today. In the free and open democracy we now have, NGOs and other organs of civil society have the right to criticise the government when they believe it is not abiding by the letter and spirit of the law, and where it is not adhering to its constitutional obligations towards citizens. In the South African political context of one-party dominance and a largely ineffective parliamentary opposition, it should be acknowledged that political pluralism rests heavily with the voices from below expressed through a diverse range of NGOs and other civil society organisations.

The government has the right to voice concerns about NGOs and other actors within civil society. We need a robust, vibrant dialogue between the government and civil society in a democracy. But, unsubstantiated criticisms of NGOs that smack of political expediency do little to enrich a constructive dialogue.

Terence Smith and Ismail Davids are researchers at the Foundation for Contemporary Research in Cape Town. Glenn Hollands is the manager of the Local Government Transformation Project at Afesis-corplan in East London.

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