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Life Esidimeni and agents of benevolence: How the non-governmental became governmental

Yonela Diko is currently the Spokesperson of the African National Congress (ANC) in the Western Cape. Prior to assuming his role in the ANC, he worked in various companies in the private sector. Between 2007-2009 he worked for one of the Leading Retirement Fund Companies, NBC Holdings as an Employee Benefits Consultant. After that he joined the Corporate Strategy and Industrial Development (CSID), an Economic Research Unit housed under the School of Economics at Wits University. He did his BCom degree at the University of Cape Town majoring in Economics.

The tragic and totally avoidable deaths of 94 mentally ill patients in Johannesburg after being removed from Life Esidimeni into NGOs across Gauteng found me in the middle of trying to understand this relationship between NGOs and government, through assessing the 11 Provincial Departments of the Western Cape Government.

I will present my complete report soon but one of the issues that have stood out for me in this provincial department assessment is the complete dependency of the Western Cape Provincial Government on NGOs to execute its government work. Until this assessment, my understanding had been that non-governmental organisations often give assistance to people who have been affected by social disasters and social neglect. These groups tend not to get money from governments. That’s why they are called non-governmental organisations (NGOs).

How did we get to this point that NGOs are effectively an extension of government? For example, the Western Cape Provincial Department of Human Settlement is transferring over 50% of its budget to NGOs. They are currently “partnering” with a number of NGOs via the National Upgrading Support Programme (NUSP). Nine NGOs are actively involved. They have also pledged R10-million to Slum Dwellers International (NGO) to support the upgrade of informal settlements. Then there is the Department of Community Safety in Western Cape which transferred R63.3-million of its 2016/2017 budget to NGOs to whom it refers as safety partners. The theme of NGOs operating in this way runs across the 11 Provincial Departments of the Western Cape.

How did non-governmental become governmental?

Over the last decade we have witnessed a growth spurt in NGOs and you would be forgiven for thinking the world becomes a more caring place every day. Historically, the not-for-profit groupings that today fan out across the world were seen as helping in primarily ensuring the voices of the most marginalised are heard, with government pushed to build enough capacity to reduce poverty. Today, the Western Cape Government outsources every single thing to NGOs, rendering them a government by name only. NGOs that were supposed to hold government accountable are the ones being held accountable by the government. The Western Cape Government has become non-governmental.

The common factor uniting NGOs, apart from the fact that they were neither government agencies nor businesses in the traditional sense, is that they would have an avowed mission to work for a social good – whether it was as torchbearers for human rights, the environment or just old-fashioned development. Although this would not have been their traditional duties, entrusting any social responsibility into the hands of the NGOs should imply a more caring and more responsible hand.

Fast-forward a few decades and we witness an explosion of NGOs. The spur was the rise of neoliberal ideology. Predatory capitalism and the so-called free market were the answer; government needed to be hands-off with regard to all notions of public provision (healthcare, education, the lot). Increasingly, governments began looking to NGOs to provide cheap services. However, rarely does government funding to NGOs match the scale of the task.

Later, aid to “developing” nations also began increasingly to be funnelled via NGOs rather than through government organs, locking the NGOs into agendas of their international donors. Between 1975 and 1985 the amount of aid taking this NGO route shot up by 1,400%. Since then NGOs have ceased to be the blameless agents of benevolence and today we charge them for killing 94 fellow South Africans.

Suzanna Arundhati Roy, an Indian author popularly known for her novel The God of Small Things, describes this NGOs’ march of the last decades as follows, “Armed with their millions, these NGOs have waded into the world, turning potential revolutionaries into salaried activists, funding artists, intellectuals and filmmakers, gently luring them away from radical confrontation. With the fragmentation of the Left under the neoliberal attack, much of the energy that could have gone into fighting the powers-that-be went into forming the NGOs – they became repositories of a residual idealism.” Roy goes on to call the NGOs “an indicator species”, saying: “It’s almost as though the greater the devastation caused by neoliberalism, the greater the outbreak of NGOs.”

Along with governments and corporations, the two torrents of power in the global landscape, NGOs are seen as a third force. But are they a countervailing force, striving tirelessly for social justice and the underdog? Poverty alleviation may be the rhetoric but in practice little that is lasting has been achieved on this front by NGO activism.

There is the compromising nature of their funding to consider – today contributions from governmental and intergovernmental aid agencies and from corporate donors often form the largest chunks of their income. Their language becomes all about forming partnerships with these interests, rather than challenging them. Work within the system, and business will transform the lives of the poor. In fact, what this means is that not only does the DA’s Western Government allegedly intimidate its staff complement to share their views, they have moved into the NGO space and the following these NGOs command, demanding, through taxpayers’ money transferred to NGOs, DA alignment in order to continue being the beneficiaries of their generosity. This means all those who believe in these NGOs are subjected to daily indoctrination to guarantee funding.

In a recent article Dhananjayan Sriskandarajah, the secretary-general of Civicus, a global network of civil society organisations and activists, wrote: “We have become a part of the problem rather than the solution. Our corporatisation has steered us towards activism-lite, a version of our work rendered palatable to big business and capitalist states. Not only does this approach threaten no one in power, but it stifles grassroots activism with its weighty monoculturalism.”

So if we are to avoid a repeat of the Life Esidimeni circus, government must start building its own capacity to deliver to our people and stop depending on NGOs and private sector partners. DM


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