OP-ED

The complicity of the donor community in NGO malpractices

By Carolin Gomulia 28 May 2018

A woman participates in a rally for women's rights organized by the #NiUnaMenos movement in Santiago, Chile, 11 May 2018. The march took place following several weeks in which various reports of rape, sexual abuse and work harassment came to light. EPA-EFE/MARIO RUIZ

Issues of sexual harassment, racism, sexism, discrimination, marginalisation, dehumanisation and corruption are not alien to NPOs. NPOs are microcosms of the societies they operate in, like any other institution or organisation.

The recent sexual harassment allegations in Equal Education have been a wakeup call for many individuals and institutions and it seems especially the donor community. Of course, it is never too late to correct one’s course, even though it is sad that survivors had to come forward before something is done. It is certainly right that if people who work on social justice issues for a living inflict harassment on others, that they are dealt with the highest measures of accountability.

Yet, I find the reactionary nature of many of the donors a big concern. There seems to be a lack of acknowledgement that they are part of the systemic issues that provide fertile breeding ground for this to happen.

Donors are the lifeblood of NGOs, which means once a negative story about an organisation breaks, it is very likely that its funding is going to be reduced or withdrawn. NPO workers are very aware of their dependence on donors – every day. This puts a lot of pressure on survivors of sexual harassment, on whistle-blowers and witnesses. If there is a case of sexual harassment in the corporate sector at most the reputation of the business might be tarnished, but it will not have to fear its demise.

Most donors require a host of compliance and due diligence documents before grants are awarded. This is done to cover their bases; I agree that NPO accountability is necessary. However, issues of discrimination, a culture of patriarchy or oppressive practices will not become apparent through documents and paper work.

Issues of sexual harassment, racism, sexism, discrimination, marginalisation, dehumanisation, corruption are not alien to NPOs. NPOs are microcosms of the societies they operate in, like any other institution or organisation. People come to work with their baggage, their attitudes and identities. Donors should know this, acknowledge it within their own institutions and come up with practices, tools and mechanisms to counter this.

In trying to come up with a proactive approach in which to proceed within the current climate South African NPO’s are operating within, I propose the following recommendations for the donor community. Over the last eight years I have been working with a wide variety of different donors. I know that they are not all the same. I am also not suggesting that it is the donor community’s fault if individuals chose to become perpetrators. I know that there are many donors who try to constantly improve their own practices but having been on the receiving end, I know that many donors don’t.

1 Be proactive rather than reactionary. If the alleged events at EE have been a wakeup-call then use that experience to think creatively and not narrowly when reviewing or putting new policies and procedures in place.

2 Do not think donors have the answers. Refrain from acting from a position of power because you have the money. The skewed power relations between donors and NPOs are already reasons for strange practices within NPO spaces. Consider a process of decolonisation of practise as a colleague of mine mentioned after reading this article.

3 Avoid making the list of compliance documents your grantees have to submit longer because of what happened. A piece of paper might enable you to reduce your legal liability but it will do little to prevent sexual harassment or any other forms of malpractices.

4 Ensure that you fund organisations in a way that they can breathe, can focus on their work and that they have time and money for introspection.

5 Get to know the organisation and the people who work there. Ask about how things are done, what the culture is within an organisation. Meet some of the people that actually do the work. Build a relationship.

6 Actively engage topics of racism, patriarchy and dehumanisation within your institutions and in your giving-receiving relationship. Acknowledge that donors are part of the problem.

7 Advocate for and support NPO accountability – not from a punitive point of view but assist the sector to pro-actively put mechanisms of self-regulation and reflection in place.

8 Work with the South African government to talk about NPO registration and how the mushrooming of NPOs can be stopped. Remember Life Esidimeni also happened not only because of government failure but because the NPOs involved were able to emerge easy, fast and with only very few measures of accountability. There are a number of loopholes in the system that need to be addressed.

9 If sexual harassment and other malpractices happen, ensure that the perpetrators and issues are dealt with, fast and decisively. Ensure that the survivors, witnesses and whistle-blowers receive the support they require AND that the rest of the organisation and staff compliment are supported.

10 Last, be part of solutions. Try and think outside the global development paradigm but shift your support towards social transformation. Fund activities that seek to find solutions to the difficult and messy problems that exist.

I hope that this list might spark some debate and a start to some new type of donor and receiver relationship. DM

Carolin Gomulia is the Senior Head for Fundraising, Strategy and Communications at the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation. She writes in her personal capacity

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