Think Piece 2 – Consider us

7 April 2020 –

Talk to us, Mr President!

Should non-governmental organisations (NGOs) be distributing food to desperately hungry people? It’s a question that arose following news suggesting that NGOs were required to hand over any food donations they received to authorities for distribution – or, confusingly, get a permit every time they want to distribute food.

Well-known radio presenter Redi Tlhabi responded on Twitter with justifiable comments:

At times like these, you collaborate with allies, with organizations who have been feeding the poor; who have set up seamless, responsive & accessible grassroot structures. You don’t make it harder for them to feed the hungry.  Cutting [off] your nose to spite whose face?

The face in question is, of course, the poor, the vulnerable, the marginalised, the people who suffer first whenever programmes don’t work or corruption tasks hold or capacity is diminished.

Rather than reinventing the wheel, why, asks Mo Senne, is government not, rather, collaborating with NGOs that have a track record in working with communities? Mo is head of communications at #NotInMyName, an essential services NGO with a three-year track record of successful activism. In the last three weeks, she points, NIMN alone has reached some one thousand families, as well as individuals, with much needed food relief. The red tape is an added burden for a volunteer-driven organisation which only has four staff at its Tshwane offices.

There are some 240,000 NGOs in South Africa, says Cassey Chambers, operations director at the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG), which has been operating for 26 years.  Many are doing “incredibly important work,” she says, picking up the slack for government, providing services which, in reality, government should be facilitating: helping the victims of gender-based violence, like Rape Crisis and Masimanyane Women’s Shelter; offering public health veterinary services to township animals, like Community-Led Animal Welfare (CLAW); helping patients cope with overwhelming diseases, from rare genetic disorders to cancers and much, much more.

In most cases, these NGOs operate on a shoestring budget and a tiny staff, seldom getting any funding from either the Lotto Foundation or government. But now – now, just when demand is shooting skywards – things are even tighter. Why? Because with government offering special tax relief to those who contribute to the Solidarity Fund, says Cassey, corporates are switching their donations there.

Corporates, but not necessarily individuals. Many, many private individuals are deeply worried about the country’s crisis and would like to make a contribution – see, for example, the over 800 experts in mental health who responded to the call for debriefing healthcare workers when the pandemic takes off. See the people who drop off a steady trickle of food at CLAW for the communities it serves. They DO NOT want their donations to go to an ‘authority’, to sink into a pool of goods or funding which could (and, as we all know, has) be decimated by corruption.

Demand is indeed soaring. SADAG, Cassey notes, has seen the burden on its call centre double since lockdown began, fielding some 1200-1400 desperate calls a day from people who are cracking under the strain of lost jobs, urgent bills, anxiety about the future, all while cooped up in their homes. CLAW has seen a huge increase in family pets being surrendered by people with no income and no jobs, because it’s a choice between feeding animals and feeding people. Cora Bailey, CLAW’s director, says the clinic is being visited daily by needy people, among them emaciated women and young children whose skin is peeling off due to malnutrition. Chrislynn Moonieyan of Masimanyane Women’s Shelter says they’ve seen an increase in calls for help from victims of gender-based violence, although she fears that lack of agency and privacy for locked-down women prevents them from reaching out, and that the incidence has spiked more in secret than we are seeing.

“All this, while the normal need for our services continues,” stresses Cassey. SADAG is still getting people medical help for mental health conditions; CLAW is still bottle-feeding puppies whose mothers have died of poisoning; the Teddy Bear Clinic is still counselling and supporting abused children; Campaigning for Cancer continues to fight for appropriate and accessible care for cancer patients.

Here’s the thing: all of these NGOs I’ve named here, and many, many more, are repositories of a huge body of expertise, skills, capacity and continuous history deep inside communities. And yet it seems, says Cassey, that government doesn’t see non-profits as experts in their fields; our expertise and our capacity is not acknowledged and very often not sought – or even welcomed and heard when freely offered.

This expertise comes hand-in-hand, in many cases, with exactly the kind of grassroots and intimate networks that would allow government to target delivery of things such as education, information, health advice and food delivery with more precision and less muddle. CLAW, for example, has worked within very needy West Rand communities for more than two decades, and knows in granular detail exactly which families are the hungriest, which grannies have the most children in their care. NIMN knows how to map a community, winkling out the details of the leaders – the church minister, the local nurse, the stokvel member – who have the most influence and understanding of that community, and use them to provide relief supplies in the best way.

Reputable NGOs know what the needs are and where they are, says Cassey: “We know the faces, we hear the voices, we have an intimate understanding of the needs – and yet we seem to be invisible.”

Talk to us, Mr President; hear us. We can make delivery work for you and for all our citizens if you would just be prepared to let us help. Why reinvent the wheel? We ARE civil society, and civil society is desperate to help.

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