Defend Truth


Time for an honest reckoning with those who sustain abusive behaviours in NGOs


Koketso Moeti has a long background in civic activism and has over the years worked at the intersection of governance, communication and citizen action. In 2022, she was announced as a Mulago Foundation Rainer Arnhold Fellow. She is also an inaugural Collective Action in Tech Fellow; an Atlantic Fellow for Racial Equity; inaugural Obama Foundation Fellow and an Aspen New Voices senior Fellow. Follow her on Twitter at @Kmoeti

Fear of alienating funders or ‘big men’ in NGOs is in no way a reason to collude with power structures which facilitate cover-ups of abuse in organisations which often owe their existence to a purportedly caring attitude towards people.

The recent revelations of sexual misconduct by high-level staff at the non-governmental organisation (NGO) Equal Education and alleged cover-ups regarding sexual abuse in other organisations has led to a variety of responses from donor institutions.

Some donors called for the strengthening of processes within the organisations they fund, while others were satisfied with the establishment of an investigative panel by Equal Education to look into the allegations.

None of the responses, however, is enough. Powerful men will find ways to simply go through tick-box processes and in some cases abuse them. What must be addressed first and foremost is the power imbalances within the NGO sector.

One area that can foster power imbalances is the power that comes with funding from donors. Any man who has – in fact or in perception – sway over very large sums of funding will be able to neuter any policy that seeks to protect the vulnerable. And the existence of these men is evidenced by the common use of phrases such as “civil society mafia”, “blue chip organisations” and “civil society cabal” to refer to them and their networks.

Yet there seems to be no explicit reflection right now on this obvious dimension of how “big men” and some organisations came to hold so much power and how it enables people to look the other way when abuse like sexual misconduct occurs. Nor how -isms like sexism, racism and homophobia play a role in fostering inequality even within social justice organisations.

As Nicolette Naylor, head of Ford Foundation South Africa, recently wrote:

It’s time we dispelled the myth that social justice organisations are squeaky clean and have no racism, no sexism, no homophobia.”

Indeed, this is something many, particularly black women, have been saying for some time.

In 2016 at the annual Public Interest Law Gathering (PILG), black lawyers in the public interest litigation sector released a set of demands, a move which led to the formation of the Black Workers Forum (BWF).

The BWF has over time raised the issue of racial representation in the sector and the need for transformation. Alongside this was sexual misconduct and the need for follow through when incidents were reported.

In a radio discussion with long-time black women leaders in the sector, the idea that there has been silence is interrogated. Feminist organiser, Kwezilomso Mbandazayo, for instance, said:

We are not really silent, it depends on who is listening, who wants to listen and who suddenly picks up that there is talk…”

This is affirmed by most of the reporting of incidents of sexual misconduct, some of which details the consequences faced by those who had spoken out. And for those in or with proximity to the sector, including myself, this is “not the first time I hear this” has been the prevailing response to the reports.

Apart from the examples cited above, many of us have heard and read black women openly questioning the flows of power in the sector and reflecting on our experiences, including the bullying and silencing even by those in donor institutions.

Perhaps most shattering is how we’ve over the years also had to bear witness to what the head of Oxfam South Africa, Siphokazi Mthathi, described in a Facebook comment as “the stories in the vaults called black women’s souls”.

While Naylor notes that it is unhelpful to focus on the specific cases and organisations, perhaps these specific instances offer us useful insight into the ways those employed in donor institutions sometimes operate in what the Women’s Legal Centre has described as part of the “collective collusion to silence women’s voices”.

After all, it is in response to these cases that claims are being made that it is time to dispel a myth that for many of us has always been just that.

The intention is not to dismiss the responses of donors. In fact, it is an attempt to encourage careful consideration of the gaps in what may be well-intentioned responses, so this moment is not inadvertently used to erase the fact that people, particularly black women, have not been silent.

Or, even more devastatingly, invoke what we have been saying in ways that shield how the structures of institutional power and access have been central to enabling certain individuals and the cultures formed in some organisations.

Diminishing the power requires, first of all, transparency. I would therefore suggest that all donors disclose, in a transparent and easily accessible form, not only their grants to organisations, but their cumulative funding to organisations linked to individuals (founded, directed, or co-founded by an individual or their former close collaborators), where that cumulative amount is more than 5% of the donor’s annual disbursements.

Without such disclosure and transparency, necessary processes will always be at risk of being undercut by a legitimate fear that holding certain individuals to account will put in jeopardy the very existence of certain organisations.

For example, radio host, Eusebius McKaiser recently made reference to an organisation with a man in leadership who is “well-loved by the funders. One of their fears around this person is that when he leaves, the money will also leave”.

This sentiment was affirmed by long-time activist and head of Actionaid South Africa, Fatima Shabodien, who noted how the concentration of funds in the sector have played a crucial role in colluding with and building the power of this very small group of men.

An honest reckoning with the importance of managing relationships between individuals is also necessary. Human nature, along with the nature of the sector generally, means that relationships between us are formed. Employees of donor institutions therefore need to be very aware of how their relationships can and are used to foster an environment of impunity enjoyed by certain leaders in the sector.

To be sure, this isn’t to suggest that sexual violence and misconduct are unique to certain organisations. As many have noted, all our organisations exist in a country in which patriarchal violence is woven into every aspect of our society. Addressing this however will need us not only to hold the perpetrators accountable, but also the individuals and institutions that sustain their behaviour.

This is an ambitious ask of donors, but we, black women in the sector, deserve no less. Now is a time for deep reflection on the complicity of donor institutions and use the moment to do the hard work of beginning to dismantle some of the uneven power relations that exist in the sector

This and using their power to ensure that the processes being undertaken in organisations first and foremost protect victims and sanction transgressors are some of the ways they can begin to do right by those whose stories we know and the ones we may never know. DM


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