Injairu Kulundu will be participating in our upcoming Thinking Africa Colliquim. Sally Matthews recently interviewed Injairu about her work and the role of NGOs in bring about social justice in South Africa. This is part one of two parts of the interview.
Injairu Kulundu is a creative practitioner, a politics, drama and arts-based enquirer, a social learning researcher and a singer/songwriter. She has worked with the Tantyi Youth Empowerment Programme, Arkwork Collective and the Environmental Learning Research Centre at Rhodes University. More recently Injairu had extended her praxis as part of the ACTIVATE! Change Drivers team.
Sally: Firstly, introduce yourself – how would you describe yourself and your current work position?
Injairu: I would describe myself as a creative practitioner, a politics, drama and arts-based enquirer, a social learning researcher and a singer/songwriter. I am particularly interested in platforms in which young change makers from diverse but interdependent communities can define the vulnerabilities they face, acknowledge the capabilities they possess and work together to collectively network around vital resources and opportunities that would be useful to them. I have previously worked with the Taantyi Youth Empowerment Programme, Arkwork Collective and the Environmental Learning Research Centre at Rhodes University. At present I am a member of the ACTIVATE! Change Drivers team where I am the team leader for the Western Cape node. ACTIVATE! is a network of young leaders equipped to drive change for the public good across South Africa. These young change-makers are finding innovative ways to transform their communities and the country as a whole.
Sally: You work with NGOs that aim to empower young people. How would you relate the work such NGOs do to broader struggles for justice?
Injairu: Every NGO I have worked with aligns the work that they do within the broader context of the acute social needs the country faces. These organisations have aligned their work to contributing to the field of justice by addressing inequality, gaps in access, the isolation of powerful social actors, and representation of voice. The difference here is that the work does not tackle social justice issues on a grand societal level but rather positions participants to better understand themselves and the context that they are operating in whilst connecting them to other young people such as themselves. The intention here is to catalyse collective power towards social justice.
Sally: What are some of the key general challenges facing NGOs working in South Africa today?
- Working in silos! If the desired impact of NGOs is to build a more just society they fall short of this because of their lack of collaboration with other like-minded organisations. Instead, an element of competition nullifies this possibility and diminishes the collective impact of their work.
- The first point mentioned is strongly linked to the fact that NGOs essentially create work for themselves. They are in a way social brokers that motivate their ability to deliver results around a particular social issue. These organisations are well placed to tackle issues of accountability within the existing ‘system’ but are not always well placed to ‘reimagine’ other ways of being. This in the words of Curtis White means that for the most part NGO’s perform privatized acts of governance. He clearly summarises the implications of these private acts of governance: “they are not in the business of revolution, they are in the business of risk management” (Chimurenga Chronic Green edition: 48).
- Bureaucracy is another significant constraint. Social change within this system is constrained by the ability of the bureaucratic process to acknowledge and legitimise the venture being promoted. For example, the processes that are inherent in order to change policy are governed by strong rules and regulations. While there are good reasons for many of these rules and regulations, they often marginalise those for who change matters from the process.
- The creation of false homogenous identities as result of NGO interventions. By this I mean to highlight the fact that the prescriptive nature of some of these organisations results in a ‘prototype result’ that diminishes complexity. For example, in a youth empowerment project there is an implicit assumption about what this young person should look like at the end of the intervention. This assumption is governed by the values of the organisation and their perspective of the most ideal way forward. This tendency to forecast the result of the intervention does not open itself up to many ways of being. Instead, one way of being (in which the supposed solution resides) is fetishized leaving in its wake a simplistic outlook that in some instances creates as many problems as it wishes to address. Such interventions create a situation where the lucky recipients of the intervention are well versed in the performative requirements’ of their allegiance. By this I mean that they know how they are supposed to act in order to be acceptable whilst also being well aware of what is not considered a ‘good way’ to behave. This is reminiscent of colonial times in which certain ‘grooming’ would allow the native to be considered ‘civilised’ in the presence of masters, but when he is back home he finds the space to articulate and be ‘real’ about who he is and what he really feels (Mbembe, 2007).
- NGOs are not always designed to be adaptable. Once the organisation sets its course there is little room left to manoeuvre around issues that arise later, but might be just as important as the ones they began with. NGOs lack the ability to mirror the complexity of life in the movement or development of their projects. Instead, they may artificially cling to their stipulated aims which can diminish the legitimacy of the project going forward. This point is directly linked to the issue of funding and how this frames the agenda.
Sally: NGOs often stress the importance of participation in the work they do. In your academic work you have highlighted the ways in which it can be very difficult for NGOs to actually fully involve their intended ‘beneficiaries’ in the design and implementation of their projects. What are some of the challenges NGOs face in this regard?
Injairu: The crudest foundations of NGOs come out from a colonial understanding of helping a designated needy group. We cannot ignore the impact that this history has on the way in which NGOs are run to date and the power dynamics that continue to play out. Regardless of the research and consultation that goes into the process of ‘identifying a need’, in practice the pitfalls of a benevolent colonial approach are still insidious. The challenge NGOs face is how to name the agenda (and amass the appropriate funding which is a huge responsibility) while still being legitimate custodians of people’s will. The process of acquiring funding for an NGO does not allow for the kind of flexibility needed to fully involve the ‘beneficiaries’. In actual fact NGOs are more constrained by playing to the tune of the funders and shifting the goal posts of their intervention to suit what will be seemed legitimate in the eyes of the funder. This is a conflict of interest that often plays itself out.
The result of this dance between NGOs and funders is a prescriptive tendency that minimises complexity within some approaches. It locks people into being brokered for a particular aim with a diminished sense of power that unwillingly folds in their participation. What further creates this unwilling complicity is the fact that there are often useful resources to be gained by participants. This dynamic does not create an environment where people can fully be what they want to be and say what they want to say. Instead, what people are ‘becoming’ or how they are evolving, or the new questions that they have as a result of the process are often silenced in the face of the transactions between NGOs and their funders. Even if they are not silenced then the feasibility of having their growing needs catered for is minimal.