Ashley Westaway will be participating in the upcoming Thinking Africa colloquium. Sally Matthews interviewed him recently about the role of NGOs in Grahamstown and more generally.
Ashley Westaway is the manager of GADRA Education, a Grahamstown based public benefit organisation which provides key education services and advocates for transformation of the school education system. One of its key projects, which is discussed below, is the GADRA matric school which provides matric students with an opportunity to rewrite their matric in order to pass (if they failed the first time) or to improve their results. Ashley is also a research associate of the Environmental Learning Research Centre at Rhodes University. He has written on land reform, rural development and rural politics with a particular focus on the Eastern Cape. He used to work for the Border Rural Committee (BRC).
Sally: Do you think it is worth having the category 'NGO'?
Ashley: One of the reasons why the debate about NGOs is a bit of a dull debate is that it assumes there is a coherence to the notion of NGOs. and yet all the term refers to is a non-governmental organisation, but there are an infinite number of possible varieties of NGOs. I think it’s more useful to ask any kind of organisation, however it is categorised ‘What are appropriate ways for organisations to operate?’
Sally: And what would your reply to that question be?
Ashley: Well, I think accountability is very important, particularly if people are being employed by the NGO and if there are structures such as a board or an advisory committee or whatever the case may be. There needs to be clear accountability. Accountability issues are very important because they clarify issues like mandate and credibility. I also think it’s best for organisations to operate where they are. I was very frustrated at the end of my time working for the BRC [Border Rural Committee] having to travel all the time to the Ciskei, stay for a couple of nights and come back. I find it much more sensible and don’t have the same anxieties working where I’m living. I don’t have a theoretical argument for that, but it makes it feel like a more natural situation. I know I drive in and out of Joza [part of Grahamstown’s ‘township’] all the time, but it’s one city and one can’t be everywhere so one is somewhere in a place but one is working in that place as opposed to driving 160km.
Sally: Following up on accountability issue, whereas the state is at least in theory accountable, NGOs increasingly do the work the state should be doing, but they don’t have the same accountability to the people. They can’t be voted out. Are there ways to address this? It’s very hard to hold NGO leaders accountable.
Ashley: I think those issues are real. A lot comes down to the management structures and how much they’re prepared to open up and if they want to operate in a transparent way. I think that’s what happened here [at GADRA]. I like having strong governance structures around me. I like having people like Ken Ngcoza and Margie Keeton as part of the board – very capable and strong characters who don’t’ always agree with what the management is saying.
Sally: But what you’ve said relates to accountability to board members, whereas accountability issues are also relevant, but difficult, in relation to the so-called beneficiaries of the organisation. There are particular challenges especially in an organisation like GADRA which works with young adults and children. To what extent can or should they be able to hold the organisation accountable?
Ashley: You see this is why it becomes difficult to talk in general terms because if one takes this organisation and let’s say there are different programmes in this organisation where accountability works differently. Take the GADRA matric school – this year we received 550 applications for 140 places, so what we can say is that the community is saying is that we want this service.
Sally: So you’re saying that this is one way the community gives a message that this is an organisation they want and approve of and therefore holds you accountable through their response to your offer of services?
Ashley: Yes, at the matric school we have parent engagement programmes, we have student evaluations processes, we have parent evaluation processes. We put in these mechanisms to learn from what parents and students are saying to offer a more effective service.
But the issue of service provision is a very interesting one. In a sense that’s the similarity between the processes that I was managing in the rural development sector and what I’m doing now in that I think the most interesting space to operate in is this intersection between service delivery and advocacy. If the GADRA matric school was not there and was not delivering the results it is delivering then it’s very unlikely that GADRA education would have been asked to convene a forum of high school principals. In a sense by delivering that service we show up in very stark terms how dysfunctional public high schooling is in the city. So the results are an advocacy statement on their own, but delivering that service also gives us credibility and possibilities to do the advocacy work we could otherwise not do. I’m very interested in that space.
Sally: That’s interesting because some argue that what is needed is for the government to function better and that this means that it is better for NGOs to be involved in advocacy in order to try to change the way the government operates rather than to provide services which ‘mop up’ where the government fails. But you’re saying that you can do advocacy more effectively if you provide a service because that gives you credibility.
Ashley: We have options that Equal Education does not have because we provide direct services. That’s not to say that you can’t advocate if you don’t provide services, but if you do provide strategic services you can advocate in ways others can’t. In our analysis of the schooling crisis, it’s fundamentally a problem of accountability, so what we are trying to do in order to shift power within public schooling is to mobilise parents and principals in particular – those two constituencies. We were asked to convene the principals’ forum and then on the basis of building up trust with the principals we have been allowed in public high schools to work directly with the parents of those schools. These are the kinds of things I’m talking about. I’m not talking about going to court – that’s another kind of advocacy. I’m talking about working in a city and trying to shift power by deliberately organising constituencies that are currently sidelined by the alliance between bureaucrats and teachers so that we can build up a different kind of counter-hegemony around parents and principals to challenge that. That experiment we’re engaged in the city would not be possible if we did not run the GADRA matric school.
Sally: Grahamstown has a long history of NGOs and charity work, but the town still has all the problems these initiatives are trying to address. Is this an indictment of NGO work?
Ashley: The other way of asking the question is what would the city look like if there wasn’t that NGOs work? We don’t know what the answer to that question is. What we can say in relation to the matric school is that there would be half of the number of working class bachelor passes if there was no GADRA matric school. So from the perspective of an 18 year old child from a poor family, the GADRA matric school represents half of his or her chance to achieve a bachelor matric pass in the city so it’s massively important from that perspective.
Sally: Grahamstown’s educational achievements are not well above the average in the Eastern Cape, but we have more NGOs than most towns in the Eastern Cape. So why are we so bad?
Ashley: No, I don’t think it’s about Grahamstown being so bad, it’s just about Grahamstown being bad just like the rest of the province is bad. The area I used to work in, Keiskammashoek, in the Ciskei is worse. I’m always talking about the stats because they’re frightening. If you look at the comparison of former Model C schools [relatively privileged former white schools] to township schools [free or very low fee schools catering mostly for poor black students] in relation to percentage of bachelor passes: 78% of the candidates who wrote matric last year at PJ Olivier, Victoria Girls and Graeme College [i.e. the three former white schools all of which charge fees] got bachelor passes. You take the six township schools and only 11% of those who wrote got bachelor passes. That translates to a total of 60 bachelor passes, compared to the 52 of the GADRA matric school, for example.
Sally: So you didn’t count GADRA in either of those categories?
Ashley: No, because we’re an independent school. We pay our teachers ourselves. Those numbers as terrifying as they are, are better than the numbers at Keiskammashoek. You don’t really see the inequalities there because there are no former Model C schools, but their statistics are worse than those of Grahamstown’s township schools.
What I think is important, though I don’t want to be judgemental, is that there is a lot of ineffective NGO work. Each organisation must ask the question of whether what they’re doing is effective or not.