President Cyril Ramaphosa has rapidly mobilised life-saving financial support for small and medium enterprises, strengthened social support mechanisms for poor and vulnerable people, and catalysed philanthropy at scale to tackle this crisis.

The president has earned plaudits for leveraging public and private resources at an early stage of this crisis for SA and the rest of the continent. To date he has secured pledges of more than R2.2bn for the new Solidarity Fund from the country’s leading philanthropists and he established the AU Covid-19 Response Fund with pledges of $12.5m from member states and private banks.

President Cyril Ramaphosa. Picture: GCIS
President Cyril Ramaphosa. Picture: GCIS

While we applaud the president’s quick action in both instances, we recognise that our country has comparatively little practical experience in dealing with major humanitarian crises of this magnitude and is largely unfamiliar with the terrain of large-scale humanitarian relief efforts. Unless we are careful, there is a very real danger that the initial speed, efficiency and generosity with which these relief funds have been established will not necessarily translate into effective humanitarian action.

We understand this is a steep learning curve for everyone — in effect designing the aeroplane while flying it at the same time. There is little margin for error in a humanitarian crisis where even small mistakes can lead to preventable loss of life and suffering. As a contribution to the national effort, we offer several suggestions for improving the use of public and private resources to the Solidarity Fund:

Composition of the board

There is insufficient representation on the board of the Solidarity Fund from non-profit civil society organisations. In fact, there is not a single representative from health, social welfare, faith-based or humanitarian organisations. No specialists in water, sanitation and hygiene promotion. Not even experts in food security or gender-based violence — sectors identified as immediate spending priorities. To complement the skills and expertise of board members from the private and public sectors it is imperative to add representatives from the third sector: credible, experienced and capable representatives from non-profit organisations (NPOs) who can contribute not only invaluable technical expertise but also much-needed civil society perspectives.

Strategic approach

The Solidarity Fund made a rapid decision to earmark R120m for food relief for 300,000 vulnerable households in response to the economic and social effect of the lockdown. Without wishing to second-guess this decision, it poses critical questions:

  • How did the fund determine that this was the most urgent priority?
  • What evidence or baseline studies informed the decision?
  • How does this complement other food security initiatives already under way?
  • How will the fund select its partners and conduct due diligence?
  • What risk mitigation measures are in place to prevent corruption, fraud and diversion of resources?

There is undoubtedly merit in responding quickly in a crisis. But moving forward without a coherent strategy, technical expertise or adequate risk management can easily lead to major difficulties further down the road that may impede future humanitarian action. A defined but flexible intervention strategy will help the Solidarity Fund choose priority sectors; adopt criteria for the selection of fund recipients; create mechanisms for the right level of accountability on the use of resources; and identify appropriate risk-mitigation strategies.

Transparency

There is a need for proactive, transparent and regular public communications to all stakeholders affected by and responding to this crisis, not limited to an elite group of business and government leaders, as has been the case so far. The fund must hold regular media briefings, optimise social media channels and appoint a lead who can champion more transparent, regular and informative communications. This is essential for governance and accountability — not only to the billionaires and businesses providing resources but also to implementing agencies and beneficiaries across the country who rely on those resources.

Public disclosure of funds pledged, received and spent

A humanitarian crisis is no excuse for failing to disclose information about charitable donations in a transparent and timely manner. In SA we have a long history of misuse of donated funds in charitable and political party funding. The Solidarity Fund must make full disclosure of all donations immediately on its website and later through audited financial reports. This includes disclosure of the total amount pledged and total amount of cash actually received from donors; disclosure of the names of all donors who make contributions; and a commitment to a full disclosure of all disbursements to recipient organisations. The Solidarity Fund has the opportunity to create a new benchmark for transparency in the use of public and private philanthropy in SA.

Humanitarian co-ordination

In the early days of this crisis there has been duplication, competing initiatives and a general lack of co-ordination by a multiplicity of government and nongovernment agencies (NGOs) at national, provincial and local levels — all attempting to do the right thing. It is bewildering if you try to track it. It’s even more confusing if you want to access food parcels or other social assistance from a dizzying array of uncoordinated humanitarian actors. And yet some communities in poorer parts of the country have been completely overlooked. The Solidarity Fund can contribute to improved co-ordination of well-intentioned responders by convening clusters of key stakeholders working in different sectors and levels of intervention, much like the UN humanitarian cluster system. This will prevent duplication of effort, ensure equitable distribution of scarce resources and encourage the effective use of data to identify local needs in this crisis.

We remain convinced that non-profit civil society organisations can strengthen the quality and effectiveness of humanitarian relief efforts under way. While impressed with the speed and scale of philanthropy unleashed so far, we recognise that a coherent, effective humanitarian response requires more than just good business and government leadership. It requires the active participation, expertise and leadership of non-profit organisations that specialise in addressing the needs of poor and vulnerable communities.

• Mohamed is executive director of Inyathelo, the SA Institute for Advancement. Winslow, an Inyathelo board member, is a management consultant who has worked with international humanitarian agencies such as Oxfam and Save the Children. This is an abridged version of a longer article available at www.inyathelo.co.za.

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