May 19, 2007

A discussion on SANGOCO: Hassen Lorgat (SANGOCO) and Kumi Naidoo (CIVICUS)

Filed under: interview,Theorising Practice_May 2007 — newritings @ 8:18 am

Hassen Lorgat: Kumi, thank you for making time for this discussion. I am keen that we talk about our experiences with civil society in South Africa, with SANGOCO, and in your case also internationally with CIVICUS. Most importantly I want to share with you the current state of SANGOCO and its future direction/s. I think we should keep the discussion informal so that people have a good sense of your perspective and to ensure that some theory is embedded in the discussion. You were the Director of SANGOCO for over three and a half years and so will be familiar with some of the challenges that we will reflect upon. In general we seem to have a perennial funding crisis in this sector but it does seem to be worse now, and this is in part due to the consolidation of democratic government in South Africa, and the fact that we don’t necessarily have an entrepreneurial orientation amongst NGOs.

Added to this, NGOs are often accused by government of being “unpatriotic” and or “donor driven”. In practice, we in SANGOCO, have very little funds to fund our activities as we are defined as a middle-income country (yes – despite massive internal inequalities and gnawing poverty in our society) and have over the years had to reduce our staff complement drastically (from about 22 a few years ago). We now have about four full-time staff members at our head office and we make use of interns and volunteers to meet our mandate challenges. We have a much smaller budget and forced to do a lot, with very little resources. We have also relocated our offices to the Central Methodist Church owned building in Braamfontein for which we are very grateful. We are attempting to do more and focusing increased attention on advocacy and campaigning as they allow for easier mobilization of our members working within different sectors. We currently have over 20 sectors and we work on various campaigns for education NGOs. We work in, for example, the Global Campaign for Education (GCE) and in the area of area of HIV/AIDS with the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC). In theory, the sectoral approach as well as working on advocacy and campaigning allows us to work smarter and do more with less, as the sad reality of NGOs are closing, is addressed by all in our society systematically.

Kumi Naidoo: Thanks Hassen for the opportunity, just a few initial reflections. When Governments says that because an NGO receives money from the outside it is a tool of foreign interest, it is dubious criticism. Taking this criticism to its logical conclusion we can argue then, that every developing country Government is a tool of foreign interest because many of them get massive amounts of international aid money. They might response to this criticism by saying that they are BIG, they are not subject to donor influence, but we now that this is not true from the Global Call to Action Against Poverty (GCAP) that SANGOCO is a part of. We also know that there are not only problems with the quantity of aid, but also with the quality of the aid. The flow of aid bilaterally only to governments is proving problematic as it serves to restrict the policy space for developing country governments.

Hassen Lorgat: So let’s explore this a bit. I am not happy with Government using the allegation of NGOs being donor driven but, given our difficulties, it is proving wiser for us to work with poorer NGOs and CBOs who give a lot of their time. Our membership is no longer the typical Section 21 organisations or trusts. Today we can be defined as a cross between a social movement and a poor NGO / CBO, we are finding, surprisingly much stronger connections with poorer people and poorer organisations. Having criticized the attack of being donor driven we must admit quite a few NGOs do indeed follow donor interests. When donors put forward a particular interest, for example, “corruption”, “the war on terror” and so forth, we find that many NGOs spring-up to run with that agenda. This is problematic and undermines the intrinsic respect and integrity of civil society.

Kumi Naidoo: In meeting the challenges of autonomy and integrity we must bring in the question of membership. I think one of the challenges for SANGOCO is that it needs to, ultimately, be able to draw a certain proportion of its income from membership contributions, even if it is only 10 – 15 % of its income. This would be the best statement from the sector that it values SANGOCO’s role and is willing to invest. The second challenge relating to resources is how to think of a culture where ordinary NGOs from Limpopo to the Northern Cape feel a sense that this organisation is ours. I think that one of the mistakes we made in the early days was to rely on sector networks. At the time we had a number of sector networks, such as the National Land Committee, the National Literacy Network, the National Rural Development Committee and the Urban Sector Network. Our perspective on governance at the time was that NGOs would get a voice through being either a part of a national network or part of a provincial structure. The provincial structure’s now appear to be slightly stronger then was the case in the early phase of SANGOCO. You now have staff members in some of the provinces, in the early days the only stable full-time office with staffing capacity was the Eastern Cape.

Hassen Lorgat: Let me fill you in on the provincial organisation. Over the past 3 years SANGOCO was forced to close off a number of the provincial structures, because it was found they were consuming a lot of the limited available resources. In addition, the funding crisis was biting them too, if not more because some of the provinces like Limpopo, Mpumalanga etc are where most of the poorest Bantustans were located, and therefore historically discriminated. However, what we also found was that many of them were forced to change and they started receiving grants for projects to sustain themselves thus forcing them to operate like NGOs in their own right and not a coordinating body of member NGOs. As a result of the changes, they often did not take up national and international issues and campaigns (as seen from a provincial base), which were the central reason for their existence. Our fundamental mandate is to fight poverty and inequality. We still have an office on Kwazulu Natal, that for various reasons played a minimal role in the 4th World Rural Conference held recently (we won’t discuss how civil society was effectively marginalized here).

We have reconnected with the Eastern Cape, but the membership is under 400. In the North West, we have some staff and they brought the membership to above 500 but most cannot afford to pay. For me, the central issue is accountability and we need to get political leadership in the areas to make this an organizational and political reality. We perhaps need to think about getting a minimum membership of around 600 NGOs in a province as a minimum membership and to supply a small skeleton staff. The truth is that many of the poorer NGOs pay their membership fees and demonstrate a greater commitment. The payment of membership fees is symbolic and does not cover the administration but I agree it will go a great way towards ownership. Other ways of ensuring ownership is people participating and working for the organisation without costs – activism in a word. The challenge with larger NGOs is that often they don’t recognize the need for solidarity.

Kumi Naidoo: We are looking at the national experience of national NGO networks in other countries. As you know, CIVICUS has a special initiative where we bring together SANGOCO type organisations so that they can learn from each other. If I look at the work and the experience of several countries that I have had the opportunity to work in, my sense is that the challenges that SANGOCO faces are not unique. It is often the same set of challenges and the linkage between ensuring that the national network is generally deep, democratic and representative on the one hand and is also linked very closely to the issues at hand and has the ability to actually draw in the appropriate resources to play its role. Let me test with you an idea that I have been thinking about and that is based on what I have seen and not based simply on my experiences with SANGOCO. Naturally, it is easier when you leave an organisation three / five years later you look back and say: ‘eish, you know when I was there I wish I could have redone that.’ Given what you have described, I think we should keep the conversation on governance and decision-making in SANGOCO. There are a number of ways that the leadership of SANGOCO could be constructed. Where there are national NGO networks, for example HIV/AIDS and the Women’s National Coalition, then they could have a seat on the board. The voice and vote should however not be automatic, as there should be a collective process of consultation and discussion to work out what are the minimum standards of operations that can be expected. You don’t want a situation where somebody comes in and claims to represent a national network without having a base behind. This will not strengthen SANGOCO at all. Similarly the provincial coalitions should be given also a special voice in any leadership structure. However, ‘terms of reference’ for the provincial coalition would need to be established. You could establish the number of seats relative to the number of members and also ensure that at minimum there is an Annual General meeting or some form of basic standard. You could also make SANGOCO more exciting and interesting for those NGOs who are not part of a national or provincial coalition, by allocating a certain number of seats for them. You could have one third for national coalitions, one third for provincial coalitions and one-third elected through an open process where NGOs can nominate through an independent nominations’ committee. A list could be drawn-up and sent out for postal ballots to all SANGOCO members. This will serve to include regions, as not many can attend NGO week or have the time and resources. It’s not prudent to rely completely on NGO week as the place to make the required decision.

Hassen Lorgat: You are raising the issue of ‘what is true governance’ in our development context. Based on my own experiences in the union, we tend to make some mistakes on how we think of governance issues. Sometimes we find ourselves in NGO groups that are amorphous, small and less accountable. But the reality is that we are often hard on ourselves because we have certain models of membership, accountability and governance. We had difficulty in calling NGO week, simply because we had to spend between R 400 000 and R 600 000 minimum to make it happen and funding, as we have discussed, is seriously lacking. To comply with governance requirements, we need resources. So, to comply with good governance I think we need the provinces and to get things moving, but more importantly we need to get out strategy right. Sometime I struggle to get people to appreciate the numerous campaigns that we are involved in. We are working on and with, for example, the Global Call to Action against Poverty, the Millennium Development Goals, the Basic Income Grant Coalition (BIG), TAC and the People’s Budget Coalition amongst others. We are trying to get provincially based comrades to mainstream activities as part of their specialized areas of focus. Part of this strategy must also be to work with our allies, in particular the unions and the faith based organisations.

Recently, we led issues around the question of the accountability of the World Bank and the IMF. COSATU and the SACC, I believe have more resources than us, and have parliamentary offices, etc. but we had to do too much as SANGOCO and its members. I am talking about the civil society activities coinciding with the Parliamentary Network on the World Bank (PNoWB) that raises the issues of broader governance that we work on with others, outside our country. During the “16 days of violence against women and children” we stood outside our offices in the main street in Johannesburg – Braamfontein (Rissik Street) – with placards everyday. We are demonstrating the kind of action that can be taken when we have little resources and only use placards, which articulated the different demands women and gender activists demand from the state and civil society. We need to campaign more appropriately and find the relevant channels in government and use some of the new available technologies for our campaigns.

Talking about the National Council of SANGOCO, it is important to acknowledge that it too expands and needs a lot more money just to meet! So it begs the question: Are we still now well governed? The answer is YES. Every time we take a decision, we consult that specific constituency that provides a mandate for that sector. For example, we were part of the ‘national civil society conference on HIV/AIDS’ that assisted in fundamentally shifting government’s position on the subject at a public level. SANGOCO, TAC, COSATU and the SACC and the National were there. Sometimes we have very well resourced organisations that do the same things we do and engage in relevant sector work, but they often don’t articulate principled positions. The link between resources and voice is quite complex, I think. Where we are failing is to get the cross sectoral – cross campaign lessons learnt shared, and to meet together nationally to reflect on the current state of play in the sector and globally and to define, and reflect upon strategies for the coming period.

Kumi Naidoo: The difficulty with the National NGO week is there and there are often so much demands and requests. On a lighter note, when I was with SANGOCO I had to go to the chairperson and indicate that I was finding it difficult to cope with the number of requests and invitations to events. This included invitations from government departments, NGOs for their AGMs and embassies. I made an appeal to share the representation with members of the Executive Committee. I indicated to the Chairperson that I was scheduled for breakfast, lunch and supper. The response from the Chairperson was, ‘why are you complaining, you must be saving a lot on groceries’. The point from this is that people often don’t see this specific role of SANGOCO, even though efforts are made to find relevant people from the NGO community to ensure relevant representation. I have been away from SANGOCO for over eight years and the fact that it is still operational should be appreciated. In many countries national networks have almost collapsed due to funding constraints. We should appreciate that because of our government and the transition, we have significantly more political space than many other national networks. This also means that there are different kinds of expectations from potential donors, for the NGO community and for organisations like SANGOCO. We should also look at experiences amongst some of the northern countries like Scotland, England and New Zealand. In some of these cases, over 50% of the core operational budget of the organisation is from Ministries responsible for the voluntary sector or for social welfare. In such instances, there is strong recognition of the added value of having a strong coordinating body. SANGOCO has much stronger relationships and credibility from the time that I was there.

Hassen Lorgat: On relations with COSATU, we were invited to a planning meeting around the issue of jobs. We were part of the process to get the jobs’ campaign moving. The effort is necessary and good, but puts an added strain on the core staff and raises issues on how to manage interns and volunteers for such activities. One of the oldest criticisms of SANGOCO, during the WSSD in fighting in the media, is around the issue of membership. The press has picked it up in the past and at times all people feel that they are members because they are in NGOs. We are trying to fix this by working on an Inkanyezi Guide Star – an autonomous data base project of which we are board members. Already we have received over 20 000 names from the DTI Section 21 list and we have also worked on the non-profit sector list from the Department of Social Development. We also looked at online possibilities to attract membership.

Kumi Naidoo: I think the contradiction and challenges will always be there and it’s just a matter of managing them. SANGOCO needs to take pride in influencing some major trends amongst the national NGOs communities. This is reflected in the whole questions NGO accountability and ethical standards. The SANGOCO Code of Ethical Conduct that was adopted in 1997 was valued in many other countries. It sent a message to CIVICUS and others that civil society organisations want to be taken seriously. They don’t want to be just cheap labour for the running of programmes, but want to have a voice around policy issues. The code served to indicate a commitment to standards of accountability in context where governments were emphasizing that since they were elected by the people they have a right to make and act on policy and hence questioning the legitimacy of NGOs. The second area of influence was around the Poverty Hearings held in 1998 with our allies in the Human Rights Commission and the Commission for Gender Equality. That report served to influence the global dialogue and was used in that respect. It is good to see something positive come from Africa.

Hassen Lorgat: We must be more thankful about the experiences we derived from THE STRUGGLE because the true test of civil society is to see how people working on smaller areas could come together with the same spirit for broader political change. Then, in the struggle against Apartheid we saw ourselves as activists coming together for a bigger goal. Today I think some of this may be coming back, as we see activists voluntarily trying to meet and find ways effecting policy changes in a professional manner. I think we are starting to do some of this by bringing on board interns and volunteers. On the People’s Budget Coalition, we had some good media coverage, as the public and the media beings to see all the main stakeholders participating equally in their own rights and together.

Kumi Naidoo: The media attention is related to the current leadership of SANGOCO and your specific competence in the media sector and it makes a very visible difference. In the mid 1990s there were some moments when were able to get the media to take our work seriously. The first was when there were debates on how NGOs are going to be funded in future. The second moment was when there was a men’s march against violence on women and children. The challenge for the network was how to focus on the generic and at the same time focus on the challenges of financing the sector and the legislation governing the sector. It is clear that from time to time, there will be issues that cut across the sector. The violence against women and children affected all of us and was not just an issue for the women’s movement. As there are many sector focused organized civil society communities, for SANGOCO it would be safest to take up issues upon request, rather then being proactive in defining generic areas of focus.

Hassen Lorgat: Today we are taking up many non-funded mandate issues. There are very little resources available for formal funding and many donors have stopped funding core activities. This is however a subject for a different discussion. We are active on matters relating to refugees. This is a difficult issue for us, but we are compelled to work with the churches and be involved with this terrain of struggle. It is difficult to focus just on policy issues, when we are faced with the growing everyday challenges of refugees. In many respects, this makes us a cross between being an NGO, CBO and a social movement. This work however allows us to reconnect with other organisations, networks and movements – but also raises issues around our own tactics and strategies.

Kumi Naidoo: I will say, particularly for national network of NGOs there are a couple challenges. The first is the issue of inclusiveness. That is, how do you actually create a context where an NGO big or small feels that the network speaks to them? I know that the SANGOCO leadership in the past and the present wants to do this and has faced resource and communication constraints. However, it should always be clear that if this is not done, there are limitations. Secondly, I think that a national network like SANGOCO needs to be focused on the needs of the larger NGO community, without necessarily loosing the courage to focus on those issues that require the collective voice of civil society to be heard. The third challenge is the relationship between NGOs and other parts of society. Whilst we sometime accuse government of working in a silo mentality and not coordinating properly, the reality is that often we don’t work effectively within civil society. We often don’t talk across sectors and don’t take advantage of the opportunities that arise when we talk across sectors and within our specific sector. The connection between NGOs, trade unions and social movements also requires focus. The forth challenge is in defining the relationship with government and to encourage it to be as enabling as possible. The challenge is how to get better engagements at the local level. Whilst SANGOCO is a national organisation, it could influence the policy discourse on engagements between municipalities and civil society organisations. The engagement between local government and civil society is sadly one of the biggest gaps we see around the world. Within CIVICUS we are reflecting on a different kind of strategy with the Unified Cities and Local Government Body. As this is made up of many local government bodies around the world, it would be prudent on getting them to agree on a framework for the interactions. Whilst we may have limited successes in the engagements with local mayors, it might be more influencing if we get agreement at the global level to secure the space for engagements with civil society that would also extend towards looking at the provision of infrastructure for such interactions.

Hassen Lorgat: The engagements with local government are important and we – in particular at the PBC have begun to think of action around it. Recently one of our member organisations in Westonaria could not get the local IDP (Integrated Development Programme) of their local municipality until we got involved. There are opportunities at the local level and we need to get more involved and perhaps target the issues pertaining to the people’s budget may present opportunities for local level democracy and action.

Kumi Naidoo: I am very moved and impressed by the commitment of the staff of SANGOCO. I think many people think that you have a much larger staffing capacity, given the range of different projects that you are involved in. However to be blunt, I do think that you can’t do justice to the many initiatives without having at least 10 professional staff, supported by volunteer committees of member NGOs. The volunteer committees would serve to assist and provide guidance to the professional staff member. Hopefully, the members of the committee will be prepared to supplement the fulltime person and also take on board some of the responsibility for being spokespersons on the issues that SANGOCO has to respond on. There is only some much that can be done by the leadership. Perhaps a workshop could be held to training people on interactions with the media and for them to know that they are doing this for the whole NGO community. This will also serve to ensure that there is more ownership. There has to be a plan and many of us will be supportive of the reorganisation and help to ensure that SANGOCO gets the resources it needs and deserves to fulfill its mandate.

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