Friday, 27 November 2015

The State of the Non-State

Depending on your nationality and perspective, you may call C4L a “non-state actor”, or a “non-government organization”, or a “nonprofit”, or a “private voluntary organization”, or a “civil society organization”.  What we once called “civil society” is now being called “civic space”.  I learned this recently when I attended a briefing by CIVICUS, an international NGO, big brother to C4L – on the state of civil society.  Its members large and small come from 165 countries so it operates on a scale that means that its research sets the “gold standard” for non-state actors like C4L.  Some learning points from that briefing help me to update you on the state of C4L.

First there is the concern about “defending our space”.  Or as CIVICUS puts it “a cynical raft of measures to shut them up and shut them down”.  C4L‘s offices have been broken into five times over the past twelve months.  In one such “burglary” they took our three cumbersome desk-top computers and left ten training laptops behind!  Obviously they were after data not hardware.  CIVICUS reports that 96 countries “significantly violated” civil space in 2014.

Then there was mention of a new award for “brave philanthropy” (to be added to the existing categories for the Nelson Mandela – Graca Machel Innovation Awards).  C4L folklore includes a 2011 poster campaign which was aimed at the January murders.  Every year since 1998 at least one whistle-blower was gunned down.  Three lived, but 14 perished.  So we designed a poster with the familiar face of Jimmy Mohlala (one of the 17) as a background screen, onto which the 17 names were listed, by year.  The poster was titled 17 Reasons to Demand Transparency.  That’s all.  Not one January since, starting in 2012, has this re-occured.  We cannot take all the credit for there were other measures including a once-off “Whistle-blowing Week” in November 2011 and a government enquiry.  But we have to engage the powers.  Service delivery is not enough – but it does validate our right to speak out with a prophetic voice.

I noted at the briefing that the ‘Right2Know’ campaign has documented at least 17 whistleblowers who, in 2014, lost their jobs, faced legal harassment or were killed because of attempts to expose corruption.  Come to think of it, that was the year that C4L published a calendar on African Heroes of Faith.  This tracked voices from Tertullian in North Africa to Tetane in South Africa, over 19 centuries.  It was Tertullian in fact who famously wrote: “The blood of the martyrs is seed."

Talk show host Steve Allen said that in South Africa, checks and balances have a different meaning.  “The Mafia and crooked businessmen make out cheques and the politicians and other compromised officials improve their bank balances.”  This is a near and present danger.

CIVICUS makes another good point: “Domestic civil society does not have the capacity to defend itself against attacks on civic space if donors have systematically underinvested in local organizations.”  This question of resourcing is a special focus of its 2014 report.  And with good reason because of significant changes on the nonprofit’s compass.  For example, The European Union is now the biggest donor of all (not USAID – which ironically emerged from the Marshall Plan to aid Europe after WWII).  But another one is on the rise… can you believe that China used more cement in the 2011-2013 period than the USA used in the whole 20th century?  I am old enough to remember widespread severe famine in China, forcing it to look outside its closed borders for wheat.  Canada made a donation, but it was more than kindness!  Within 20 years, China had become the biggest buyer of Canadian wheat, and by then more wheat was flowing west off the prairies than east, the traditional export route.

Recognizing that “aid” is not always altruistic, non-state actors get this good advice from CIVICUS: “CSOs need to develop the confidence to not seek funding from sources that compromise or cause excessive deviation from their missions.”

On this point I often cite the case of Candy Lightner founding MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Driving).  “In 1980 Candy Lightner’s twelve-year-old daughter, Cari, was killed by a drunk driver – a repeat offender. Brought to trial, the driver was reprimanded and released. At the time, Lightner was a real estate agent in Sacramento, California. In her 1990 memoir, Giving Sorrow Words she wrote: “I promised myself on the day of Cari’s death that I would fight to make this needless homicide count for something positive in the years ahead.”

“MADD works through its chapters in all fifty states and ten Canadian provinces, and its many international affiliates. While drunk-driving fatalities have declined, MADD believes they remain unacceptably high, and so the organization continues its campaign to educate, prevent, deter and punish. It has caused judicial reforms throughout the United States. MADD helps victims, monitors the courts and works to pass stronger anti-drunk-driving legislation. With a worldwide reputation for vision and effective action, today’s MADD enjoys unprecedented success as a charitable organization.”

The irony is that Lightner resigned in protest some years later, because the focus of MADD was shifting to a stance against alcohol - against drinking.  Some call this “mission-creep”.  She objected, saying that drinking can even be good for you, the problem is abusing alcohol.  It takes courage to engage the powers.  And it takes courage to keep the tiller going straight ahead, even when tempted to chase resource flows in another direction.

This raises a phrase I learned at the CIVICUS briefing – “the tyranny of donors”.  Apparently it was coined by the CEO of the Ford Foundation?  This is not surprising when you learn that only 13% of ODA is allocated to non-state actors.  And only 1% of that ODA arrives at “southern partners” like C4L.  We are at the bottom of the food chain!  The other 12% is spent on the “fundermediaries”.  This explains why CIVICUS researchers are looking for “metrics” that are not simply “northern”.  Its gold standard must strive to be relevant even in the South.

One of those metrics is Volunteering.  Clearly this is very different in a context of high youth unemployment, that in the affluent North.  One reason, for example, that American youth join the Peace Corps is because it is always a plus on your CV.  Whereas youth in South Africa are “protected” from exploitation by labour laws that require employers to pay them a Stipend.  These employers are of courses NGOs, NPOs, PVOs and CSOs.  This is the state of the non-state.

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