Zimbabwe's embattled NGO sector feels pinch

Taking strain: Food rations for needy villagers are not flowing in, as few nongovernmental societies are able to respond to pleas for help in areas such as the flood-hit Masvingo province. (AFP)

Taking strain: Food rations for needy villagers are not flowing in, as few nongovernmental societies are able to respond to pleas for help in areas such as the flood-hit Masvingo province. (AFP)

Zimbabwe’s civil society organisations are reeling from a severe financial squeeze blamed on donor fatigue caused by the country’s nagging political deadlock that has dragged on for years.

The situation has not been helped by the general global financial crisis, with a number of nongovernmental (NGO) organisations reportedly scaling down operations because of lack of funding.

Over the past decade Zimbabwe has had a growing NGO sector that was heavily involved in various activities, ranging from social justice, food aid, health services and education to providing water purification tablets during a severe cholera outbreak. But this is changing.

Impaired humanitarian efforts at the Chingwizi transit camp in Masvingo province, where more than 20 000 villagers have sheltered after the area was hit by floods several months ago, prove just how much the NGO sector is struggling.

The camp has been hit by food shortages, lack of tents, sparse educational materials and appalling sanitary conditions. But few NGOs have responded to the government’s desperate plea for help.

Speculation has been rife in the NGO sector that some influential Western donors are no longer willing to continue pumping their money into a seemingly faltering political agenda.
The Zanu-PF government has long accused NGOs of working hand in glove with the Movement for Democratic Change to dislodge President Robert Mugabe and Zanu-PF from power. The latest infighting in the MDC is understood to have caused the donor community to tighten its purse strings further.

United Nations 
The United Nations communications specialist in Zimbabwe, Sirak Gebrehiwot, said the UN is one of the major channels for development aid in the country. In 2013 the UN had delivered over $370-million with the support of donors, but it had no co-ordinated efforts planned for 2014, he said.

“Owing to the general improvement of the humanitarian situation in Zimbabwe, there is no co-ordinated humanitarian appeal process for 2014. The UN activities continue to be geared towards the building blocks for sustainable development,” Gebrehiwot said.

The UN would not be drawn into discussions about alternative funding for NGOs.

Cephas Zinhumwe, the chief executive of the National Association of Nongovernmental Organisations (Nango), downplayed the situation, saying it is far from being a national crisis. “For our operations as Nango we are working as normal, but to assess how bad the situation is presently is very difficult. The situation will be clear in the next two months when we hold the Nango annual general meeting,” Zinhumwe said.

“Right now I cannot say which member has scaled down operations or has changed direction due to the issues [funding problems] being raised, but certainly the issue will be clarified or made clear at the annual general meeting.”

Global problem
But Rashweat Mukundu, a consultant working in the country’s NGO sector, said funding in general is declining, be it for human rights and democracy or social development programmes. But he said it is more of a global problem. “This is not a phenomenon in Zimbabwe alone, but a global issue. This is related to the fragile global economy and NGOs will have to streamline and find other sustainable means to survive. The call is for the corporate sector … to also support NGO work,” he said.

A European Union diplomat accredited to Harare, who asked not to be named, said: “We have indicated that the international community has cut food aid for the estimated 2.2-million Zimbabweans that are in urgent need of food. The relief has been able to provide for about half of that number.”

Dumisani Nkomo, the chief executive of the Bulawayo-based Habakkuk Trust, said the issue of reduced funding has unsettled the NGO sector, resulting in some organisations retrenching staff. The reduced funding is partly attributable to the international community’s donor fatigue with the country’s political crisis, he said. But the drying up of donor funding is to be expected in light of the global financial crisis.

“The most drastic changes happened about five years ago when we had to downsize staff drastically. Otherwise, it’s business as usual for us because we are not 100% dependent on donor funding.

So we are coping, as we have alternative resource generation projects,” he said.

The minister of media, information and broadcasting services, Jonathan Moyo, said at a recent Media Institute of Southern Africa meeting that it would be prudent for local NGOs to approach the corporate world for funding instead of relying of foreign donors.

But the corporate world and the government may not be the best places for NGOs to seek partnerships. They are also in the middle of an economic crisis, with big business scaling down to absorb losses and the government battling to find money to pay civil servants.

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