From darlings to death's door

People in the Middle Ages were fascinated by outside forces they thought decided one’s wealth and health, or lack thereof, and the wheel of fortune was one metaphor commonly used in the period. Sadly, nongovernmental organisations (NGOs) in South Africa are also prey to an external wheel of fortune.

This fortune has little to do with ability, track record, correct accounting or reporting using the latest language, the most modern templates or the glossiest paper.
During my 15 years as the chief executive of Project Literacy, I have seen the organisation grow, shrink, grow, shrink, grow exponentially and then shrink to the staff of 16 it now has. This contrasts bleakly with the 76 permanent staff and 500 contract facilitators it had at its peak.

None of these shrinkings was intended, nor was any of them good for the organisation or those it serves. Project Literacy has been blessed with a succession of involved, intelligent and empathetic trustees and directors but, through some of these troughs, especially the most recent, they have stood by wide-eyed because no logic can explain the fate dealt to the organisation.

How did Project Literacy—a 38-year-old organisation dedicated to combating adult illiteracy by delivering a wide range of adult basic education and training (Abet) programmes to educationally disadvantaged adults, with adult education centres, teacher training, curriculum development and community outreach—arrive at its present depleted, skeletal state? To understand this, we need some history.

Darlings of donors
During the build-up to the demise of apartheid, NGOs working in the Abet and early childhood fields were the darlings of foreign and local donors. One sector was to deal with the “victims of apartheid” and the other with building a new generation free of fear and prejudice. Nationally about nine organisations of a similar size to Project Literacy received massive amounts of money to upscale their delivery—that is, to build a new curriculum and collectively write some of the best adult-learning materials the world has ever seen.

The South African Joint Education Trust (JET) ploughed millions into building organisations with multi-year funding programmes. With its head office in Pretoria, Project Literacy opened provincial offices between 1993 and 1999, and worked with about 100 community-based organisations. It was as if rain had brought flowers to the Karoo.

The European Union (EU), USAid and the Royal Netherlands embassy equalled or exceeded monies invested by JET. Universities such as Cape Town, Wits and KwaZulu-Natal offered research, honours and master’s programmes in adult education. Many from the ANC and Cosatu as well as progressive educationists were building the new curriculum that would propel adult learners with adult knowledge into building a new economy.

In 1994 then-president Nelson Mandela’s government launched 10 key areas of focus for the new government. One of these was adult education and the scourge of illiteracy. But the only area not allocated a new and impressive budget was ... adult education. Those in the know began looking for other jobs.

The first to pull the carpet was big business, which made it clear that they had funded JET as an interim measure until the new state could take up the responsibility of delivering decent education. Jet would transform itself into a grant manager and not a grant-maker.

Foreign donors then ran so fast up the hill to the Union Buildings that many didn’t have time to attend farewell parties with their NGO comrades, struggle friends and confidants. Money and wide-eyed consultants were hurled at a somewhat bemused new government. USAid was more polite and hosted two sets of NGOs on visits to the United States in 1996 to learn how, in a normal society, NGOs could survive by selling services to the local, state and federal government in 1996. “Self-sufficiency” was on everyone’s lips.

Grouping NGOs
The EU, by far the biggest spender but with the poorest bureaucracy, hit on the idea of grouping NGOs into sectors and funding them rather than individual organisations. But among these were organisations with long histories and ideological differences, run often by strong and independent thinkers—and they were suddenly all meant to love one another for the greater good. It was a recipe for disaster.

In the adult education sector the National Literacy Co-operation set itself up in the 1990s to compete against its affiliates and soon ended in a quagmire of chaos and corruption in 2000. Project Literacy downsized dramatically and decided to wait it out for government to start issuing tenders.

Many others couldn’t wait that long and the period 1995 to 2002 saw the death of, among others, the English Literacy Project and Tell (Jo’burg), Use, Speak and Write English (Cape Town), the Eastern Cape Adult Learning Project (Port Elizabeth) and eventually the Natal Adult Education Agency (Durban, Pietermaritzburg and Empangeni). By 2000 Project Literacy had closed all the adult education centres it had managed and funded, leaving 2 000 learners stranded.

After a two-year wait, during which we did a huge amount of work producing learner materials, but which brought the organisation to its last legs, we won a tender to provide learner books and train educators in outcomes-based education in the Northern Cape. This was followed by similar tenders in other provinces and eventually large tenders with parastatals.

Slowly, the mining houses, long-time providers of poor-quality products, began to embrace the new order and “outsourcing” was now the word on the lips of many a human resources manager. For Project Literacy the dream was becoming true—it could all happen as USAid had promised, we thought. The organisation grew and stood like the Empire State Building. The Robin Hood dream of serving the rich to pay for the work we did with the rural poor was possible too.

The wheel of fortune spins again
But in this perfect scene the wheel of fortune was soon to spin again. The talk on everyone’s lips became the National Skills Fund and Sector Education and Training Authorities (Setas) that would drag South Africa into the modern service economy. Snapping at Project Literacy’s heels were small providers with dubious, photocopied, second-hand materials and a coterie of profit-making companies—some offering good services, though, and they were more practised in speaking the language of business than we were.

Provinces downgraded their interest in Abet, many tenders were not reissued or renewed and business played a waiting game to see how they could squeeze money out of the Setas to pay for something that they saw primarily as a social intervention with little benefit to production or workplace competency. Again Project Literacy was forced to downsize and wait.

After some years of looking at their belly buttons, the Setas were launched with great aplomb, smart offices, many staff, illustrious boards and unrealistic Abet targets. Project Literacy won many of these initial tenders and was one of the first organisations to be accredited by the education, training and development practices Seta to offer a national diploma in adult education in 2002. The new age of professionalism was upon us with a new, full and unrealistic curriculum and endless meetings with target-driven project managers who were besotted by “through-put” to impress boards and Parliament with numbers.

On to this often confusing stage stepped black economic empowerment and broad-based black economic empowerment. Even now, although we serve a 100% black audience and have a majority of persons of colour on our boards and staff, many cannot understand that an NGO does not have owners—not black or white or pink. In the tough hurly-burly of service provision, the concept of a “non-profit” organisation seems whimsical and quaint to many.

In this scenario, the National Lottery provided a new but unreliable funding source and corporate donors became more inward-focused on communities around their mines and factories and in their workplaces. Driven by fear and the promise of a place at a government banquet, many built schools, funded public celebrations, upgraded hospitals, filled potholes or provided traffic management where there was none.

A “bang for its buck”
The old idea of altruism championed by the Kelloggs, the Fords and the Oppenheimers was increasingly a thing of the past. Corporate social investment became increasingly self-congratulatory and blurred with marketing objectives searching for impact and wanting a “bang for its buck”. Career-minded “professionals” replaced compassion and plain reason with business acumen and trotted out business school gospels such as “the triple bottom line”, “impact studies” and “sustainability strategies”.

The end of the first phase of the national skills development strategy in 2005 saw another 18-month wait while new targets were set and endless consultations reviewing the past and the future ensued. This lengthy process resulted in another downsizing and then another upscaling.

In the new round the National Skills Fund became a new funding opportunity to pay for work with the poor and marginalised. Again it was not steady and no real follow-through was ever seen. Learners passed one level and, in the absence of a new contract, were left in the lurch, each clutching a certificate and a T-shirt. Funding agreements from any source for one year only do not a change make.

With the advent of the Jacob Zuma administration in 2009 and the move of the National Skills Fund from the department of labour to higher education and training, there was another two-year gap as civil servants hid below the parapets, and agreements that had previously been signed were withdrawn, only to be reissued six months later.
Service providers such as Project Literacy bled to near death. As one lifelong trustee said at one of our board meetings: “If you go to the Saturday-night dance in your best red frock three Saturdays in a row and no one wants to dance with you then you must eventually get the message, which is: ‘Go home, have a good cry, burn your dress and do something else.’”

It doesn’t have to be like this. Multi-year funding from the government and the Lotto would see a dependable, high-quality delivery partner. Secure staff work harder to deliver a world-class product. Abet, or second-chance learning or basic maths and English, or whatever you want to call it, are going to be with us for a long time to come. If we are serious about building young people in further education and training colleges, the provision of language and numeracy skills must be part of the deal.

Someone has to pay for the provision of these services to the poor. Foreign donors who collectively contribute less than 1% to South Africa’s budget will regret their role in the demise of civil society as a voice for fairness and the provision of services to those marginalised for many reasons. This will never be a country where the switching-off of donor funds causes a collapse of the state, surely? Proper planning, level-headed thinking and good controls can make a Shangri-La for all.

So, for now, Project Literacy is committed to spin the wheel of fortune one more time and begin to build new capacity to deliver on a large contract with the National Skills Fund.

Andrew Miller is the chief executive of Project Literacy.

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