Lisa Vetten
Lisa Vetten

Budget votes revealing of state’s agenda

The annual budget speeches delivered by the finance minister provoke a bonanza of commentary and coverage — then the chatter falls silent. The budget speech is really an entrée that sketches the year ahead but does not provide the detail wherein the devil lurks.

Flushing him out means paying attention to the departmental budget votes now being presented in Parliament. These suggest that budgeting is quite political and revealing of the nature of relationships between state and civil society.

Consider only budget vote 19, which affects the department of social development, as well as the numerous nonprofit organisations it regulates.

About 0.4% of the national department’s budget is allocated to the welfare services programme, which is then distributed among 11 sub-programmes.

One of these is the victim empowerment programme, which, among other issues, deals with services to women who have experienced sexual and/or domestic violence. The centrepiece of the programme over the medium term is the department’s “command centre” for such violence, which was launched in March and highlighted during the minister’s budget speech last Wednesday. It appears to be a 24-hour call centre staffed by 75 social workers who counsel and/or refer callers to other services.

In 2013-14, when the centre was introduced, it resulted in a 1,140% increase in the department’s use of consultants, causing expenditure on this item to jump from R1.1 million to R13.9 million. This amount does not decline over the medium term. In fact, the percentage of the budget allocated to consultants (26%) during this period is greater than that allocated towards the victim empowerment programme’s staff costs (22%).

The centre might seem a welcome addition to the range of existing services were it not for the fact that a national “Stop Gender Violence Helpline” managed by Lifeline has been in existence since 1999 — also funded by the national and Gauteng departments of social development. This helpline costs R1.2 million a year, is run by a staff of 23 (as opposed to the command centre’s 75) and assists about 13 000 callers a year. The command centre, by comparison, expects to reach 2 400 callers a year — but this low number may be due to the fact that it is available only in five areas of Gauteng and two in KwaZulu-Natal. And, once again, services to survivors of rape and domestic violence are already provided in most of these areas by other organisations.

The call centre is not an isolated example of the department’s establishment of more costly duplicate services. And it isn’t unusual for the department to invest more in the funding of its services than those provided by the nonprofit sector. Indeed, this differentiation in the funding of services is at the heart of the legal battles in the Free State High Court between the National Association of Welfare Organisations and Nongovernmental Organisations and the Free State social development department.

The association has argued that it is discriminatory for the department to provide one amount for the running of its services — but a lesser subsidy to nonprofit organisations expected to provide the same services. This situation is the result of the department’s decision not to fund nonprofit services in full on the expectation that they will seek the shortfall from other donors. In the wake of the global recession of 2008, the withdrawal from SA of many global funding agencies, the paltriness of the private sector’s contribution, as well as shifts in both the department and the Lotto’s approach to funding social services, this is unrealistic.

The court ordered the department to develop a more equitable approach to the funding of nonprofit social services.

There is an ironic continuity with the funding of the non-profit sector historically. In 1997, the White Paper for Social Welfare noted that, in the past, “social welfare programmes were not considered to be critical social investment priorities and were under-resourced”. As a result, “salaries are extremely low, and working conditions and service conditions are poor for all welfare personnel”. This remains the case for much of the nonprofit sector.

Could it be that the desire to tell a good story about services of one’s own, rather than those provided outside of government, is trumping considerations of cost and equity? This is the intriguing question raised by close examination of the department’s budget vote.

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