Idasa’s demise a lesson for African NGOs

It was one of the few internationally recognised African organisations working in the realms of democracy and governance that not only monitored the quality of democracy but also held decision-makers to account. As such, its demise will be a severe blow to the quality of democracy in Southern Africa and will weaken the hand of citizens who want accountability from governments.

Idasa's leadership will tell you it failed because funds dried up. But this is misleading. The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development reports that between 2006 and 2011 official development assistance to South Africa increased by 40%. During the same period, governments and donors made repeated commitments to support civil society and accountability in Southern Africa. 

So what went wrong?

Idasa and many other African civil society organisations made two fundamental mistakes: one, they trusted the "good intentions" of foreign donors without lobbying for their interests, and, two, they mistook rhetoric for action. Organisations such as Idasa have fallen into the trap of thinking there are good governments and bad ones – the bad ones are African, against which civil society believes it should rally, and the good ones are those of Western donors, who deserve no criticism. 

This is a delusion. All governments are institutions and all governments need to be held to account.

Idasa's demise is accompanied by a failure to hold Western donors to account for their rhetoric. If African civil society simply insisted that donors put their money where their mouth is, it is unlikely we would see the demise of critical African civil society organisations in the way we do.

Although the African organisations focus almost obsessively on critique of their own governments, they have missed the fact that international non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have lobbied donors and positioned themselves to receive funding that should have kept organisations such as Idasa alive. 

It is little wonder that Human Rights Watch sits on a $100-million endowment from George Soros and African human rights organisations are now barely visible. It is little wonder that international NGOs have become professional, with chief executives commanding international salaries (often more than R4-million a year), whereas African civil society is imploding.

If there is any lesson to be learnt from this tragic loss, it is that in today's world African civil society must fight better for its own organisational rights and needs. If it would only find its voice, get back its grit, work better with government officials and start lobbying the international community, it would find donors more responsive and perhaps disasters such as the demise of Idasa would be less common.

Alexander O'Riordan is an indepenent aid effectiveness researcher in Cape Town.

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