“Civil society organisations need to prepare for new opportunities and challenges” says Activator Juzaida Swain

South African civil society – quo vadis?

In tough economic times, civil society organisations need to find new and innovative ways to cut costs, find resources and work more effectively, writes JUZAIDA SWAIN.

(First published http://reconciliationbarometer.org/newsletter/volume-eleven-2013/south-african-civil-society-quo-vadis/)

Post-1994, the tasks of confronting social inequalities and driving development in South Africa have increasingly become the work of civil society organisations (CSOs). This sector is already saddled with a mammoth task, but now also faces challenging economic and political constraints that have forced some CSOs to scale down on their activities, or close their doors altogether. According to a recent survey conducted by GreaterGood South Africa, 80% of CSOs participating in the 2012 Job Losses and Service Cuts study have experienced significant declines in funding. This has also led to increased anxiety about the future health of the sector. The downsizing and closure of several established human rights and peace-building organisations in the country has forced CSOs, as well as government, corporate and philanthropic initiatives, to re-strategise and find new funding practices and alternative models, in order to keep to their mandates in a restrictive climate.

These new challenges raise a few fundamentally relevant questions for the sector. Who should ultimately foot the bill for the crucial work carried out by civil society? How best can the different role-players face the current challenges, and achieve both the support and reforms that the country and the sector so desperately need? How best should these challenges be approached, and what opportunities and new models exist that would aid in overcoming the sector’s current uncertainties?

A look at the civil society landscape reveals that, in the BRICS economies alone, there has been a major increase in the numbers of CSOs. The Yearbook of International Organisations estimates that there are approximately 3.3 million registered non-profits in India, 338 000 in Brazil and 460 000 in China – growth in the sector is particularly pronounced in these emerging economies. With about 90 000 organisations in South Africa working across a range of different focal areas, CSOs take on a substantive role as convenors, facilitators and advocates. However, these high numbers also mean an exceedingly competitive environment and a contest for financial support that plays out across the global stage.

Given these levels of competition, as well as contracting funds from many northern state funders and philanthropic organisations in the continued aftermath of the recession, many CSOs have looked to corporate social investment (CSI) initiatives as an under-tapped source of support. According to Trialogue’s 15th edition of The CSI Handbook, South African corporates spent R6.9 billion on CSI in 2012. Many corporates, however, have not traditionally funded peace and human rights work, and in fact seem to steer directly away from these areas. There is also a general misperception that CSOs which receive corporate funding are inherently working in opposition to the state, or actively undermining sovereignty. This view has begun to change, however, and many corporates are now both active contributors to governance and economic policy processes, and stakeholders and partners to CSOs.

In fact, partnerships for sustainability between civil society and the private sector should be valued highly now more than ever, and are needed if South Africa is to achieve its developmental goals and realise solutions for ongoing peace and reconciliation work. But these crucial partnerships can only produce the best results if government is also involved in agenda-setting and joint planning. Civil society also needs to be a part of multi-stakeholder platforms if these are to lead to effective practice. Bearing these considerations in mind, formalised efforts to align strategic priorities could translate into greater impact, compared with fragmented efforts of government, the private sector or civil society acting alone. South Africa may have some of the best laws and policies in the world, but problems with implementation are principal causes of recent protest and social unrest. Particularly in the wake of the fatal shooting of protestors at the Lonmin-Marikana mine last year, integrated efforts by all stakeholders could lead to greater stability and prevent future tragedies of this kind.

New opportunities for collaboration also exist through the explosion of technology and social media use, which has revolutionised the work of many CSOs. Citizens and organisations involved in the ‘Arab Spring’ uprisings, as well as initiatives such as the Right2Know campaign in South Africa, show just how powerful and effective social media can be as an advocacy and activist tool. Sceptics might question the mobilisation and advocacy capacity of organisations that work and build a following and support base primarily online, but the results speak for themselves. For CSOs working in a funding-constrained environment, this trend may increase cost-effectiveness, sustainability, and new, replicable modes of working. In fact, with such rapid technological changes afoot, it is becoming clear that organisations without a strong online presence may ultimately be left behind. Strategising and planning around these changes are critical, as is advocacy around increasing internet accessibility for those who aren’t currently connected.

Looking further into the future, the World Economic Forum (WEF) has developed four scenarios on the possible role of civil society organisations in the eventuality of failing economies and political instability. CSOs need to undergo intense and critical self-examination, and assess their roles in relation to both current and future possibilities. Those of us within the sector need to continually ask ourselves whether we are adequately prepared for worst-case scenarios, in which access to funding continues to diminish as a result of scarce resources, global competition and geopolitical uncertainty.

In a turbulent world, it is likely that CSOs will be forced to become more self-critical in order to prepare for new opportunities and challenges – not only in terms of funding practices, but also to ensure their continued relevance in ever-changing times. It is fundamentally important that CSOs begin looking now at new collaborations for sustainability, innovative fundraising and cost-saving tactics, and tests of impact and relevance, and not just simply invoice governments and corporates.

Juzaida Swain is programme officer for fundraising and strategy at the IJR.

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