“If you feel you are out of your comfort zone. We are all out of our comfort zone. The world is out of its comfort zone.” (Dr. L. Kwape; 2020)
Botswana has a history of social activism going back several years. In fact, civic society organizations and NGOs are more, or less, as old as the Republic itself; with many traditional such organizations predating the coming of freedom and self-determination. However, the sustainability of such organizations has been a key and topical issue for just as many years. In recent years a significant number of high impact community serving NGOs have regrettably closed down due to varying reasons; but chief among them, lack of funding, poor management, and institutional fatigue. Indeed, it is worth emphasizing that the life span and suitability of NGOs in Botswana has always been a fragile, and very often, contentious issue in Botswana public space before the bewildering arrival of the dreadful COVID-19 pandemic.
The arrival of Covid-19 has both ignited and brought into sharp relief the sustainability of NGOs and their relevance to both development practice and public discourse. If the NGO fraternity wishes for any reason to plan, or refocus its growth trajectory or readjust and assert itself in public it is important that we look closely at several things. First, the issue of relevance. Second, sustainability. Next, efficiency, and finally how we operate.
I want to argue that COVID-19 has provided an opportune moment for us to reassess ourselves, and perhaps, reorient our operational models going forward. Some people may disagree. But one thing is certain: Covid-19 has affirmed the necessity of such voluntary organizations in the development process. It has also proved and highlighted the undeniable significance of their strong, vibrance and relevance. During this period the role of NGOs in complementing our country’s COVID-19 response agenda has been acknowledged and celebrated widely.
There is no denying, for example, the health infrastructural significance of NGOs in rural areas and depressed urban ghettos; especially our efforts in issues where government has limited resources. NGOs have been critical in the distribution of COVID 19 Information, Education and Communication (IEC) material, the transcription of COVID 19 messages to brail and sign language, the translation of COVID 19 messages for target audiences; in COVID 19 public education awareness and screening and testing assisted and supported by the National AIDS & Health Promotion Agency (NAHPA). We have assisted immeasurably in the provision of much needed counseling services, the provision of shelter for GBV victims and in ensuring uninterrupted supply and access of medical supplies to patients, especially during hard lockdown periods. We were upon to help, we answered the call, and we are still the boots on the ground, providing essential care and using innovative systems, including the latest in tech and social media to help Batswana out of the most challenging problems arising from this disease burden.
However, one should also hasten to highlight that our contributions in this regard could have benefited the country and its noble citizens much more had we been genuinely involved from the initial planning stage. It is unfortunate that the role and space of NGOs in the national response was a not well defined, and a great number of NGOs lost a significant amount of valuable time and resources trying to negotiate their role and space in the response. However, we are grateful the majority of them end up squeezing themselves in and are currently doing a fantastic job to deliver to the best of their ability, and more continue to join our efforts.
Economists the world over advise that though COVID 19 is not only a health issue, and that it has gravely affected economies. Locally it is widely reported that the pandemic has consumed large amounts of government revenue, crippled a lot of revenue streams and has brought a significant proportion of our private sector to its knees. This means that the majority of conventional NGO funders; government structures, development Partners, the private sector and high-net families and individuals that used to support/fund NGO operations do not and/or will not have the resources sufficient to do so in the foreseeable future. It therefore goes without saying that the funds they would normally channel to NGOs support will most certainly not be there or in some cases reduced significantly. This is a clear indication that the survival and operation of NGOs cannot be business as usual going forward.
Like all other sectors, NGOs will have to adopt what is commonly termed the ‘New Normal’. What does the NGO ‘New Normal’ look like? It will have to be centered on a high impact principles of sustainability, proficiency and cost efficacy. NGOs will need to integrate a great deal of innovation in their operations and services. Some of the convectional ways of doing things will not fly anymore. Social entrepreneurship (SE) is one of the way NGOs have aggressively and relentlessly pursued going into the ‘new normal’ models.
SE has been defined and understood differently by different authorities. Some have defined it as a cause-driven business whose primary reason for being is to improve social objectives and serve the common good. Although profits are not the primary motivation behind a social enterprise, revenue still plays an essential role in the sustainability of the venture. Its background and objective is to ensure self-sustained community services by generating revenues through select business operations in partnership with the corporate world, or directing opening ventures for the same purpose in the open market. The profits are reinvested into the operational cost of the NGO to ensure, or at least boost its continued survival.
It is important to acknowledge the SE model is no longer a foreign, or far-fetched, model. Some NGOs in Botswana have started successfully implementing and championing it.
Tebelepele has set up a thriving Testing & Training Institute which undoubtedly boasts and diversifies its revenue streams and sustainability. In the same spirit BONASO in collaboration with the US Embassy, USAID and the Fullbright Programme, has embarked on a landmark ‘Breaking New Ground’ project. The national project seeks to socialize Social Entrepreneurship concepts, frameworks, business models and tools among interested ecosystem partners mentioned above. The project also seeks to explore possibilities for facilitating the right legal environment to establishing thriving Social Enterprises in Botswana which will ensure sustainable and adequate funding for CSO’s partners in Botswana. This is envisaged to contribute towards sustainability for CSO partners in Botswana by increasing their capacity to mobilise human, financial, and material resources domestically. The project looks at the need to establish strategic partnerships as well as strong sincere mentorship and access to affordable professional services by the CSO’s (BONASO; 2019).
Furthermore, experience in the Botswana NGO landscape shows that a huge majority of NGOs rely on one donor/grant for their survival. The risks associated with such a reality are obvious. Its dangers are very predictable. Overreliance on one source for survival is a not sustainable and the future under such circumstance is never ever guaranteed. COVID 19 has taught us that it doesn’t matter how water tight and lucrative the contract or Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) is, anything is possible. Without a doubt, ‘Force Majeure Clauses’ – will be a standard and prominent feature of NGO grant contracts and MoU’s. Force majeure clauses are contractual clauses which alter parties’ obligations and/or liabilities under a contract when an extraordinary event or circumstance beyond their control prevents one or all of them from fulfilling those obligations; (Moore; 2020).
As resources available for NGO funding continue to dwindle amid Covid-19 and other competing development pressures, NGOs might want to readjust and resort to other funding models, like, for example, ‘Resource Pooling’. Resource Pooling is a resource management concept used to define the act of grouping resources together (asserts, equipment, personnel, effort etc) for the purpose of maximizing advantage and minimizing risk (PMI; 2018). Experience with NGOs in Botswana shows that some organizations have strategic resources which are underutilized, but under such a resource mobilization model, underutilization can be avoided, untapped resources will be directed towards other efforts to significantly ensure widespread institutional sustainability of organization(s). For instance there are NGOs that were fortunate to have received large buildings as donations, most of these buildings far exceed the organisation’s operational capacity, therefore a significant portion remains underutilized and sometimes not used at all.
At the same time other NGOs are struggling with operating space and on the brink of collapsing. In actual fact, some NGOs have already closed shop due to lack of affordable office space. This is a clear case were NGO resource pooling would come to the rescue. NGOs with additional office space could offer space to NGOs in need of office, for subsidized rental or exchange of personnel services that the host NGO would otherwise have had to pay for from their already over stretched and dwindling resource base.
The other option would be for NGOs deciding and agreeing to engaging specialized personnel such as finance administrators / managers. By so doing a group of 3 to 4 NGOs could share the wage bill of such professional, with that individual scheduled to rotate among the NGOs on agreed dates to ensure financial procedures and processes are in order. Experience with NGOs in Botswana shows that most NGOs incur relatively high costs of maintaining and retaining certain personnel such as finance cardres yet critical interrogation of NGO operations and financial transaction shows that there is not major financial activity in most organizations, largely owning to single donor and single project dependency, and consequently most finance managers in the fraternity are largely a grossly underutilized resource.
I have had conversations with a few finance people that have served in the NGO space before; and majority of them state ‘feeling underutilized’ as their main reason for ditching the NGO environment. A large number of NGO captains will also attest to the factor that one of their most frustrating headaches is retention of finance cardres. However, international best practice indicates NGO resource pooling in this regard could provide longer lasting solution to this hurdle whilst advancing NGO sustainability at the same time. Resource pooling might also encourage NGO collaborative partnerships culture in Botswana. Collaborative Partnerships are agreements and actions made by consenting organizations to share resources to accomplish a mutual goal. Collaborative partnerships rely on participation by at least two parties who agree to share resources, such as finances, knowledge, and people. The essence of collaborative partnership is for all parties to mutually benefit from working together (Saltiel; 1998).
Experience shows that the culture of collaborative partnerships among NGOs in Botswana is very low and not common, and this may be due to the fact that resources available to support NGOs in the past allowed and encouraged this state of affairs. However, as stated earlier the resources that used to be available are no longer there and keep reducing by the day, therefore continuing as if nothing has changed will be suicidal.
NGOs need to talk to each other and partner with each other in a spirit of common good and long-term survival. NGOs without experience and presence in certain parts of the country should collaborate with NGOs that have experience and presence in those parts. The current practice is that NGOs opted to set up offices in areas they traditionally didn’t operate from, incurring all operational costs associated with this exercise, in some cases for short-term projects, instead of talking to NGO(s) already operating in that space to drastically reduce operational costs and increase chances of the initiative staying afloat after the grant period.
One of things NGOs in Botswana have been taking for granted is documenting and broadcasting of the amazing work they do for this country. NGOs need to invest a bit more time and energy on documenting and broadcasting their work. This may help us market our wonderful work to stakeholders locally and internationally. The internet provides a huge space and opportunity in this regard, and possibilities are limitless.
In conclusion NGOs must update, and upscale. We live in a world of great instability and many uncertainties. To cope and remain relevant we must change the way we do business. The problems of the modern world, from climate crisis to Covid-19, demand a new way of looking at the world, a new way of doing things. And if we are to lessen the pain and suffering inflicted by such pandemics and natural calamities we really ought not to be complacent.
Addressing Botswana during the early days of COVID-19, former Minister of Health – Dr. L. Kwape advised, “If you feel you are out of your comfort zone. We are all out of our comfort zone. The world is out of its comfort zone.”
This is the spirit NGOs in Botswana need to embrace. Discomfort is increasingly becoming an integral part of our lives. The new normal has arrived. NGOs have amazing strength and potential. Government realizes and accommodates this reality. Development partners know this and Batswana have long embraced us.
Let’s continue to do the good work. No matter the daunting tasks facing us today. The future lies ahead and that future is evident in our unified efforts to make this a better world. We will continue to have a democratic space to function as citizens, to do our moral duty.
But to succeed we must focus on one thing: Sustainable impact.