The Covid-19 pandemic has brought with it many challenges that affect all of us in different ways. Its destabilising effects range from a global and local economic downturn, to poverty, unemployment, potential famine and inequality, to name but a few.
As a result, many people around the world have been left destitute and in serious need of aid. Although the devastation caused by Covid-19 has also been challenging for humanitarian organisations, it has highlighted again the important role they play, especially in times of crisis.
According to the United Nations, “the lack of access and restrictions placed by governments around the world has resulted in communities, civil society and local non-governmental organisations (NGOs) being the frontline of the response.”
Not surprisingly, the UN’s World Humanitarian Day on 19 August celebrates the contribution of groups who are delivering much-needed aid to people severely affected by the pandemic.
South Africa’s third sector is no exception. With more than 220,000 registered non-profit organisations (NPOs) and countless community-based organisations (not necessarily officially registered with the Department of Social Development), the sector remains vigilant in its efforts to ensure that poor and socially dispositioned communities are tended to during these challenging times. These organisations provide a variety of services to marginalised communities while employing roughly 800,000 people.
Due to the pandemic and the national lockdown resulting in economic challenges for all sectors of society, South African NPOs are experiencing cutbacks in donations and other sources of income such as fees for implementing both government and community programmes, as well as corporate social investment (CSI) projects. NGO Pulse, says the survival of many NPOs will “require smart leadership and creative fundraising efforts to prevent the downscaling of operations or staff losses”.
There is very limited research available to quantify the social development contribution of NPOs. However, the value of the services these organisations deliver to marginalised communities can easily be identified in the availability of, for example, food banks, soup kitchens and healthcare facilities in areas which otherwise would have been forgotten by the government. It is important to note that NPOs come in different shapes and sizes and can range from micro-voluntary associations with limited resources to grassroots organisations that are embedded in communities, to larger more professionalised organisations which perform extensive and often highly specialised services.
Veteran social activist Shelagh Gastrow points out that the value of NPOs can be assessed according to the following points:
- NPOs deliver services that the government, and therefore taxpayers, would be hard-pressed to provide. They should be seen as partners to government and civil society, in much the same way as business and labour;
- Community-based NPOs support social cohesion by helping people to work together, identify and articulate their needs, claim constitutional rights, engage with the authorities and mobilise during times of crisis. Community leaders often emerge during these processes; and
- NPOs, mainly the larger, better-resourced groups, play a vital advocacy role. They are able to conduct thorough research, shape national, provincial and local government policy formulation, campaign for changes in legislation and undertake court action.
According to Social Change Assistance Trust director Joanne Harding, the least-known value of NPOs is that “the… sector is a massive employment provider” and directly contributes to economic stimulation and growth.
Unfortunately, Covid-19 presents us with a lot of uncertainty and this is likely to remain an ongoing threat for the foreseeable future. This leaves NPOs extremely vulnerable, especially with regard to funding. Some are already experiencing a decrease in funding, or fear funding cuts in the future, as some local, as well as international funders, have withdrawn their funding due to the pandemic. This leads to additional job losses as NPO programmes, and the people they employ, depend largely on funding from external sources. Therefore, NPOs have to develop and implement fundraising initiatives in the hopes of acquiring new donors while at the same time delivering crucial services in various communities.
One example is the excellent work of Mercy Aids in the Fisantekraal area near Durbanville in the Western Cape. Their main vision is “to see all children cared for in such a way that they have ample opportunity to reach their God-given potential”.
Amid the Covid-19 pandemic, this vision is translated into providing food support for the people of Fisantekraal and Mercy Aids partners with various soup kitchens which feed 4,000 people per day. However, this is only possible with a constant income stream from donations which are slowly becoming less, resulting in ever-worsening social and economic conditions for the community. They are currently running a permanent fundraising campaign via Twitter, WhatsApp and other social media platforms to encourage both individuals as well as businesses to donate to their cause and help keep the soup kitchens afloat.
Although South Africa’s third sector is continuously disregarded as a vital role player not only in the country’s economy, but also in the broader society, NPOs remain vigilant and adamant to persevere during the worst of times to ensure that the socially dispositioned are not forgotten by government’s inability to address the social justice issues that continuously prevail in our society. And for that, we thank them. DM