Opinionista Shelagh Gastrow 22 August 2018

Civil society and government – can they work together?

In South Africa there is clearly no concept of civil society engaging with government on its policy, practice and accountability. It seems as though although the term nonprofit is used, our government still views civil society organisations through a charitable lens. Yet, increasingly, we are seeing government departments approaching nonprofit organisations and the private philanthropy sector for assistance.

This August the UK government produced a Civil Society Strategy with the strapline Building a future that works for everyone. There have been a range of responses, both negative and positive, but it is clear that the UK government is seeking help and partnerships when it comes to “charities’ role in public services”.

In the UK all nonprofit organisations that provide community services are called “charities”, a term that is not frequently used in South Africa with good reason. The concept of charity implies simply providing services to the poor, the homeless, orphans, the destitute and the abandoned, particularly through voluntarism. As a result, such organisations are treated accordingly as objects of charity with expectations of having to beg for money from the public to attain their objectives.

In South Africa we tend to use the term nonprofit organisation. These provide public benefit services using a different business model: all funds are reinvested in the social purpose of the organisation and are not paid out to shareholders. We also use the term civil society organisation. This applies to social service providers who work with welfare, but also to advocacy and policy groups that play a more political role such as investigative journalism, in human rights and organisations promoting systemic change to effect social justice.

Commenting on the UK’s Civil Society Strategy, Patrick Butler in the Guardian Today pointed out that the strategy meant that the UK government would open the way for charities to provide public services, which include a wide range of services from social care, libraries, housing, community integration, employment opportunities, financial exclusion, children’s services and so on.

The Civil Society Strategy is complex and includes a range of opportunities for charities and individuals to participate. The chief executive of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations indicated that this meant the government showed “strong recognition of the role that civil society plays in tackling some of today’s greatest challenges, and of the need to ensure its involvement in developing new solutions”. However, this strategy is not just about recognising the role of civil society – in some ways it is a hard look at government cutbacks and the fact that in future many services will simply not be available.

How would the UK government answer to the public when services have to close? In fact, government policy has resulted in greater need for social services. This appears to be a quick step with a suggested quid pro quo for civil society – including invitations to participate in policy development where it kindly indicates that “charities and social enterprises should be fully confident in their right to speak in public debates, and to have a strong role in shaping policy and speaking up on behalf of those they support”.

Ministers two years ago attempted to introduce a ‘gagging clause’ on charities which received public funding, preventing them campaigning in so-called ‘political’ issues,” Butler points out ironically.

When perusing the executive summary of the UK government strategy on civil society, it is interesting how it views the roles of citizens in building a society, including all the good things about citizen participation.

The government’s vision is for all people to be able to thrive, connect with each other, and give back to their communities. We want to build a society where people have a sense of control over their future and that of their community,” it states.

The UK government pledges to work more collaboratively with “service providers, the private sector, individuals and communities in a place; we will make more sensitive and appropriate policy, we will achieve better social and economic results, and we will make brilliant places for people to live and work in”. This may or may not be jargon, but it is a vision.

In South Africa we have an active civil society with mixed success in its relationships with our government. There appears to be no vision of how government should engage with civil society or its role in our democracy. On occasion, government has expressed its frustration with civil society organisations and viewed citizen action as threatening.

The Nonprofit Organisations Act No. 71 of 1997 provides a framework, but it is more technical and there is no overlying picture of any type of strategy or vision for the sector, nor any analysis of how it fits with our democracy and body politic. The purpose of the act is to “provide for an environment in which nonprofit organisations can flourish; to establish an administrative and regulatory framework within which nonprofit organisations can conduct their affairs”.

NPOs are really just seen as service providers and the objects of the act are “to encourage and support nonprofit organisations in their contribution to meeting the diverse needs of the population”. It basically talks about an environment in which NPOs can flourish, but it is mainly about the administrative and regulatory framework in which they can “conduct their affairs”.

It does mention that an object of the act is to promote “a spirit of co-operation and shared responsibility within government, donors and among other interested persons in their dealings with nonprofit organisations”.

However, there is clearly no concept of civil society engaging with government on its policy, practice and accountability. It seems that although the term nonprofit is used, our government still views civil society organisations through a charitable lens.

An extremely interesting statement in Chapter 2 of the Act is as follows:

State’s responsibility to nonprofit organisations. Within the limits prescribed by law, every organ of state must determine and co-ordinate the implementation of its policies and measures in a manner designed to promote, support and enhance the capacity of nonprofit organisations to perform their functions.”

This is an important element of the act, but it has largely been ignored. Throughout the act the driver is always government and how it regulates civil society, including issues relating to organisational accountability. Yet, there is no view of a partnership, where civil society could have a say in policy or hold government accountable.

Yet, increasingly we are seeing government departments approaching nonprofit organisations and the private philanthropy sector for assistance. International aid has largely dried up and there is a scramble to find alternatives. Government has not created much of an enabling environment for philanthropy and there is simply no tax benefit for establishing an endowed philanthropic foundation. Yet, this is where some government departments are looking for support.

There is also little understanding that philanthropic money is unlikely to be handed over to government departments, no matter how promising and exciting their projects might be. There is a huge amount of resistance to providing funds to government as a result of corrupt activities, the throttling tender processes that mean that funds are held up in bank accounts and not used on time (or never used). If there is to be collaboration, mechanisms need to be found to reduce risk to philanthropic funding or, alternatively, the grant-makers will need to take special precautions and pay against invoice.

Taking into account the need for the government to tighten its belt, it would do well to think about a vision for collaboration and engagement with our civil society, one that is a true partnership with respect for what each brings to the party. DM

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