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Donald Trump’s impact on South African civil society could be far-reaching


Shelagh Gastrow provides advisory services to the philanthropy sector, higher education advancement and non-profit sustainability. She works with individuals and families on how to integrate their wealth and their values into meaningful and effective philanthropy. From 2002-2015 she was founder and executive director of Inyathelo and focused her efforts on strengthening civil society and universities through programmes to develop their financial sustainability whilst promoting philanthropy in SA. Her work has gained public recognition locally and internationally.

There is one constant about most donors, whether philanthropic, corporate or aid agencies – they tend to be fickle. By SHELAGH GASTROW.

Every non-profit organisation has a story to tell about a committed donor who has suddenly abandoned their project to chase after the new trend or flavour of the month. We have seen trends come and go – currently international funding to sub-Saharan Africa is falling, while support for the Ukraine and countries in the Middle East such as Syria and Lebanon have seen funding increase.

When it comes to international aid, there is no doubt that it is tied to the foreign policy agendas of various countries and any organisation that accepts such funding needs to be aware that this is so.

As global political shifts change at an increasingly rapid pace, it can only be expected that foreign aid priorities will also change and current partners can certainly be left high and dry. Financially it is not healthy to be tied and dependent to international aid agencies for a long period of time.

When it comes to trends, we are seeing a move away from HIV and Aids. According to an article commissioned by the Open Society Foundations, there has been a drop in donor support for this sector, with the report pointing out that HIV “is not popular among human rights donors” with Aids no longer even on the agendas of women’s rights organisations. In turn, funding for issues relating to women’s rights and gender rights has also declined.

While organisations dealing with environment and global warming are gaining in support, in South Africa funding for environmental groups appears to remain static.

Other trends show that the corporate sector is averse to funding human rights organisations because they fear a backlash from government, although we are seeing a small shift in South Africa towards organisations that are currently critical of government.

The big winner in South Africa is undoubtedly education and this covers a wide range of opportunities for donors, from research, teacher training, education management, school facilities, activist organisations that promote educational rights, organisations that offer afternoon activities for children, early childhood development, university programmes including academic development and financial aid as well as a whole range of other issues.

Understandably, there is now concern about the effect that the Trump presidency could have on the funding of South African non-profit entities, particularly those that have been heavily dependent on USAID and PEPFAR funding over the years.

PEPFAR is the acronym for The President’s Emergency Plan for Aids Relief — a United States government programme to deal with HIV and Aids globally. The 2016 budget amounted to just over $1-billion and appears to have been the largest government programme focused on one disease. Originally conceptualised and developed during the presidency of George W Bush, it focused on 15 African countries, including South Africa.

Subsequently PEPFAR developed a partnership model where it works with local governments in more than 85 countries around the world. It is reported that more than 11-million people are on anti-retroviral treatment, thanks to the PEPFAR initiative. In addition, it has attracted additional funds from partnerships with other governments as well as private philanthropy.

It is clear that President Trump is not enamoured with the idea of foreign aid, especially funding countries that are critical of the USA. According to the US government’s Foreign Assistance website, an amount of $268 912 000 was budgeted for South Africa in 2017, R256-million of this being earmarked for health.

However, Trump’s administration has produced a budget blueprint relating to foreign aid that includes substantial cuts (close to 30%) in order to focus on critical issues within the US (including the funds for a wall between the US and Mexico).

This has therefore created a sense of anxiety amongst those organisations that receive US funding. The cuts may or may not occur, but it appears that the key areas affected will be the United States’ contribution to the United Nations, (thereby impacting on peacekeeping in Africa) rather than PEPFAR.

So far, Donald Trump has indicated support for programmes relating to HIV and Aids and this funding does not appear, at this stage, to be facing any major cuts.

At the same time, the Trump administration is aligned with a conservative element in the US body politic and the HIV and Aids agenda could be affected by this alignment. For example, there could be a requirement that organisations that benefit from the funds focus on programmes promoting abstinence as a priority, rather than the use of condoms or actual anti-retroviral treatment.

The issue of USAID funding and other sources of support from the US government is only one element that the impact of Trump’s accession to the Presidency will have on South African civil society.

Most social justice groups in South Africa are funded by US-based private philanthropic foundations. The values to which these foundations aspire are currently under attack within the US and foundation boards are starting to review their grant-making, asking themselves where their priorities should lie in the current circumstances.

For many, this means refocusing within the US and cutting funding for initiatives in other countries. This could well have an impact on pro-democracy funding in particular in South Africa.

South Africa itself is in a Trump moment in that we are overwhelmed by fake news, fake analyses and a predatory elite gathering up their treasures under the columns of smoke produced by fake fires.

Local donors and philanthropists need to review their giving practices to ensure that valuable civil society organisations do not collapse under an international funding withdrawal. While the need in our society is very broad and human welfare is a major component of that need, thought must be given to those organisations that are defending the very essence of our democracy or we may well be on the welfare train for the foreseeable future and beyond. DM


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