'NGO uses donor funds to fight legal battles'

About R1,5-million in donor funds intended to benefit poor and marginalised adults has been spent on legal costs in an unresolved dispute racking a leading adult-education NGO.

Allegations of poor governance levelled against the board of the Adult Learning Network are at the centre of the dispute. Established eight years ago, the network is a national non-profit organisation renowned for its work in adult-education policy and advocacy and the training of community-based health workers.

As a result of the network’s internal strife, a major foreign donor has withdrawn its support and the NGO’s future now hangs in the balance.

Seven of the network’s nine board members have conflicts of interest detrimental to the organisation, insiders have told the Mail & Guardian. Two are employees of the Department of Basic Education, two work for the department’s Kha Ri Gude mass literacy campaign and another three run independent projects that benefit from departmental contracts.

These government ties have undermined the organisation, former network staffers say.
They argue the network should be an independent voice in adult education, challenging official policy rather than kowtowing to it.

Relations in the network soured in March 2008 when the board suspended its chairperson, Vumile Danile, and treasurer Lin Helme, both of whom had requested an investigation into the board’s governance. The two have pursued a series of legal actions since then at their own cost, whereas the network’s board has retained legal representation at the NGO’s expense. In legal papers seen by the M&G Danile and Helme attempted to compel the board to appoint an arbitrator to resolve the dispute. They say the network’s founding document, which the M&G has also seen, compels the board to do so.

The extensive and continuing legal action “could have easily been avoided if the board had followed the rules in their [founding] document”, Farrell Hunter, the network’s former national manager, told the M&G.

A core network donor, the German company DVV International, withdrew its R1-million annual funding last year. The organisation’s Southern Africa representative, Wolfgang Leumer, said relations between the network’s board and DVV had soured over the “illegal” suspension of Danile and Helme, the “abusive” way the board handled the dispute and the non-renewal of Hunter’s contract.

“We are very sad that the only success story in the adult basic education sector has been subjected to such destruction from its own board,” Leumer said.
University of Johannesburg adult education expert Ivor Baatjes said the saga “brings to the fore the weaknesses of the board and shows that the interests of the poor have been

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