The death of civil society

US Ambassador Earl Miller testing for HIV
US Ambassador Earl Miller testing for HIV

More than a decade ago, the local civil society sector was thriving, with various organisations complementing government’s efforts in dealing with development challenges in health, education and other sectors. Today, however, civil society is a hollow shell of its former glory, with widespread organisational collapse. Staff Writers, MBONGENI MGUNI and GOITSEMODIMO KAELO report

The major driver of the demise, according to many, has been funding. Botswana was upgraded from a lower to an upper middle income country in 1991 and while the new status highlighted its economic miracle from one of the poorest in the world, it also brought untold misery.

At that time, the country was in the throes of the single biggest public health crisis it had ever faced.

Six years earlier in Selebi Phikwe the first AIDS case was diagnosed in Botswana, and the causal virus, HIV, ripped through a grossly unprepared public and private health system, rocking authorities.


As government scrambled to gather information and formulate a response, Non-Governmental Organisations came to the party, bringing research, dynamism and importantly, funding, to a public health sector that sorely needed it.

Until the outbreak in 1985, Botswana was one of the world’s fastest growing economies, powered by mineral discoveries.

The outbreak immediately impacted public revenues, while the effects of the disease on productivity, labour output and social cohesion would also begin to manifest.

While NGOs were present in the country at that time, dealing with issues as diverse as indigenous rights to the environment, it was within health and specifically HIV/AIDS that civil society made its first, recognised national contribution.

One of these NGOs, PSI International, quickly took the vanguard in the mass distribution of condoms countrywide, with the attendant campaign focusing on ‘prevention is better than a cure’.

Global sponsors would later fund other NGOs for countrywide campaigns and programmes such as voluntary testing, anti-retroviral drug uptake and the Prevention of Transmission from Mother to Child.  Other NGOs would later also take the lead in world quality research into a cure for the disease, which continues even today.

Today, many of the smaller NGOs that took up the HIV/AIDS fight, particularly those dealing with care of the infected and other social marketing programmes have either collapsed or are facing collapse.

With the upgrade in the economy’s classification in 1991, many sponsors cut back on their support and redirected to needier countries.  Those organisations that survived this gradual desertion soon ran up against another phenomenon, ‘donor fatigue’, as the fight against HIV/AIDS dragged on through the year.

For NGO Council chair, Bookie Kethusegile, the tagging of Botswana as a middle-income country, meant the dwindling of international donor funding and a negative impact on the livelihoods of many civil societies.

“With so many civil societies scattered across the length and breadth of this country, it is not easy for all of them to receive funding and continue to discharge their agendas and mandate,” she explains.

“The lack of funding has also affected the capacities of many of them.”

The situation has led to a curious phenomenon in Botswana where many NGOs are dormant, existing only on paper and without physical presence.  While their agendas and mandates remain, the lack of funding has meant they become a pale shadow of their former selves.

Ironically, the NGOs have been forced to turn to government for funding of their programme, with the state recognising civil society’s flexibility and proximity to Batswana.

Over-reliance on government funding also has its own pitfalls, Kethusegile notes.

“It is only natural that when you receive support from someone, you remain indebted to that particular person and be nice to him or her,” she says.

“That could affect the role of NGOs. While being nice to government is not a problem, it should not affect the freedom of NGOs to advocate, hold government accountable, and speak without fear or favour.”

The NGO Council chair says if capacitated, many civil society entities would be able to discharge their mandates and additionally, their influence in the development of the country would be felt.

“If capacitated, many could be resuscitated to continue to press government for reforms, confront corruption, advocate respect for human rights and promote and defend democratic processes and institutions,” she explains.

NGOs’ troubles, however, run deeper than a ‘simple’ lack of funding.  Over the years, the sector has suffered from gross maladministration, mismanagement and in some cases, even fraud, causing disaffection among potential sponsors and suspicion among beneficiaries.

At the height of their prominence in Botswana, when donors were falling over themselves to fund them, some leaders of NGOs found themselves hopelessly tempted by the lack of accountability and wealth of resources available.

A story is told of one director who, in concert with equally shifty board members, squirrelled away donor funds, supporting an extravagant lifestyle filled with the ‘finer things in life’.

“There are challenges of lack of accountability and transparency within the civil societies,” concedes Kethusegile.

“This has the risk of scaring away potential donors who may feel their moneys are not used for the intended purpose.

“In addition, civil society is also plagued by a lack of knowledge and skills. In other countries, NGOs are considered the reservoirs of knowledge, skills and qualifications.”

Kgosi Kebinatshwene Mosielele of Manyana believes NGOs can benefit from the expertise available within local authorities as both sets of organisations serve similar purpose.

“Instead of NGOs hiring specialists such as accountants, they could acquire these services from the council. This could also save them money.  They should work together and use the same expertise because they are serving similar interests,” he says.

Esther Moncho of Baha’i Faith believes the intended beneficiaries of an NGOs’ services should also lend a hand in its sustenance.

“We promote consultation with different individuals before a programme to help those in need is set up.  Volunteers and those who need help should come together as one and each play a role, before approaching donors.

“Those whom the programme is targeting, should own it. If NGOs invite donors when they have nothing, they are exposing themselves to manipulation and being forced to divert from their original mandate.

“Donors may want NGOs to do what they the donors come up with.”

Moncho says failing to articulate their mandates by NGOs has left many of them dormant as donors are drying up. She is also of the view that over reliance on government funding has affected many civil societies.     

Kethusegile, meanwhile, hopes the establishment of the NGO Council will lead civil society into a new age. The Council was established to facilitate a relationship between NGOs and government, while also tackling the life-threatening challenges facing civil society.

“It is a bridge between state and non-state organisations and will also act as referee between the two.  As the main national umbrella, we will be looking into issues of financing, to sustain these NGOs as they lack resources.

“NGOs in the country should also unify to so that they are heard with one voice,” she says.

The NGO Council comprises five members from government, four from the Botswana Council of NGOs, three from the Botswana Community Based Network and one from Business Botswana.

Plans are already underway to capacitate NGOs, with the Council keen on establishing an Endowment Fund and a National Lottery while also tapping into funds sourced from the Alcohol and Tourism levies.

“The Alcohol Levy should be used to help these NGOs working in the health sector, while trusts working in the tourism industry should benefit from the Tourism Levy,” Kethusegile explains.

Beneficiaries of the various NGOs will hope they pull their act together sooner, rather than later, as forecast tighter government revenues mean little support for civil society, even as new challenges such as Non-Communicable Diseases and climate change, spread.

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