17Oct2008 - Government calls on Civil Society to beat the war on poverty prepared by Ann Bown
It is the season for non-profit organizations to meet and gather for talk-shops in South Africa but the most crucial forum was the All Hands on Deck – War Against Poverty conference hosted by Department of Social Development at the behest of the Minister of Social Development, Minister Skwyiya and the National Development Agency. Over 250 nationally represented non-profit organizations met in Boksburg to review and respond to the Governments’ anti-poverty strategic framework and to contemplate changes to the two legislations impacting on the non-profit sector.
A main focus for the three days was for government to commence dialogue with civil society; NGOs (non-government organizations), community based and faith-based organizations to find ways and means in responding to the poverty challenges and to build onto the important foundations of the Millennium Development Goals. Further attention would be to evaluate progress and to advance the enabling environment for the non-profit sector in South Africa and possibly the continent.
The keynote address was made by the Most Reverend Archbishop Njongo Ndungane, one of the loudest voices in the country on poverty, who articulated his conviction to do even more in the fight against poverty and that efforts must be intensified after the recent undertaking of poverty hearings in nine provinces of South Africa. He stated that “what emerged from the ‘life stories’ of indigent people was that a lack of food is the key problem. Lack of food has caused loss of human dignity and the erosion of family and societal values, people are resorted to desperate measures in order to sustain themselves and their loved ones, such as eating from dustbins, begging on the streets and resorting to prostitution or engaging in criminal activities.” The Archbishop added “‘that it is surprising in the 21st century, when there is so much wealth, technology and knowledge – there are still people in this world who have to suffer the injustice and indignity that comes from hunger – the current global economic crisis will dramatically increase this phenomena and lead to more suffering – it was therefore imperative for civil society to come together and jointly work with government and the private sector in finding solutions”.
Certain groups continue to find themselves in poverty. These groups include, women, particularly those who are single parents, children, the youth, the aged and families where one or more family member has a disability. Trends also show that there is growing inequality between the poor and rich members of society, associated with race, gender and location.
The newly revised Anti-Poverty Strategy has an overall objective to eradicate poverty but it doesn’t state by when. At the centre of the fight against poverty is for the creation of economic opportunities and enabling or empowering communities and individuals to access these opportunities.
Central to this resolve is the ending of intergenerational poverty through improving the economic situation of households. This broad approach to poverty allows for engagement with the reality of poverty and the combination of things that should be done to deal with it. Words, words, words.
Nothing is stated about a first step being the eradication of hunger, creation of food gardens and efficient food distribution for our people to sustain themselves, which the good Bishop referred to earlier.
A number of NPO’s, both large and small, stated that they didn’t feel that the governments anti-poverty strategy would be successful without full endorsement and commitment from civil society to speed up the process. There is no doubt that community based organization can deliver quality services and practical solutions to tackling issues relating to poverty, HIV and Aids and other socio-economic problems. However, the revised strategy has quite a few assumptions; that CSO’s have unlimited capacity, which is not the case and this alone is a hindrance to getting on with the implementation. It also assumes that the private sector has an open cheque book, another fantasy.
Defining the role of civil society within the pro-poor campaign would depend on adequate resources and funding to be readily available as well as the ability of the sector to implement such grand plans on behalf of the state. Civil society organizations are already heavily committed to social needs and coping with dwindling funds and reduced budgets. It is believed that collectively the human caring and welfare sector self-generates between 15%-18% of the R16 billion raised by the non-profit sector per annum, which is too little in meet the growing social needs and demands culminating from South African communities.
Existing grant distributors such as the National Development Agency (NDA), whose mission it is to contribute to poverty eradication and elimination, would need to increase their Mickey Mouse budget of R155 million per year and widen their network with many more community/grassroots based organizations, which is not the case at the moment as it currently channels funds via larger nationally represented Non-Profit Organizations like IDASA, The Valley Trust, SCAT and others. Other distribution agencies such as the National Lottery Distribution Trust Fund would also need to sharpen their sword and become more highly effective and efficient in the funding process and encouraging smaller CBOs to qualify for grants.
It was indeed unfortunate that the host, Minister Skweyiya could not attend in person due to cabinet matters and that other scheduled speakers also never pitched, causing untold dismay and ultimate disrespect to the attendees. However an eloquent Mr. Zane Dangor, Chief Operating Officer of the Department of Social Development and well-known social activist presented the prepared speech on behalf of the Ministry and elaborated on the thinking behind the theme “All hands on deck – War against poverty” for this land-mark conference. The address hastened to state the alarming increased levels of poverty and vulnerability with regards to our children of which 60 percent are now living in the bottom 40 percent of South Africa’s poorest households. There is no doubt that action must be immediate, people are dying, children are crying but is Government really making this a priority or are calls to yet another (emergency) cabinet meeting more important?
During the September 2008 poverty hearings a practical solution was made by one young man from the Eastern Cape “It would have been better if government could capacitate us, more especially with skills to engage in meaningful agricultural activities. If we could prioritize farming, have home gardens, at least grow food for ourselves.”
Good governance, accountability and skilled people are scarce in the non-profit sector and this alone will ultimately impede and stifle the effectiveness of the Anti-Poverty Strategy shaped by government. It will require more open dialogue and for the growth of civil society structures to be made a priority in order to shout the first battle cry. Civil society will need encouragement to take the lead on behalf of government and government will have to be courageous and take some risks.
Stand-Up and Take Action against Poverty
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