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Evidence-Based Social Impact is a Largely Ignored but Critical Pathway to Redress Structural Causes of Poverty

South Africa is the most unequal society in the world. Shamefully, we wore this badge of dishonour well before the Covid-19 pandemic. The stark inequality in our social order became significantly more visible when our nation was suddenly plunged into a state of disaster, a year ago. Under lockdown level 5, millions of people who depended on a daily and weekly income for survival joined millions of others who were destitute and vulnerable well before Covid-19.

At the centre of our nation’s deeply-rooted structural inequality are two core problems – poor education and poor nutrition. Since 50% of our youth do not complete grade 12, skills shortages and unemployment are escalating. Because of low education levels, most people earn meagre incomes and will not be able to afford a sustainable livelihood. Unexpected disasters like pandemics leave poor people most vulnerable.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) regards poor nutrition as the most significant threat to the world’s health. They state that, overall, under-nutrition is the single largest killer of children under 5 years (45%).

This is supported by the University of Cape Town’s recently released 2020 Child Gauge report that refers to our current state of under- and over-nutrition as “the slow violence of malnutrition.” The report emphasises that nutritional insecurity is one of the main reasons why we are stuck in a low-growth trajectory with little prospect of significant gains over the medium term. It highlights that one in four children in South Africa are stunted (too short and underdeveloped for their age) because they are not getting enough nutrients for healthy growth and development and that “most South African children now live in communities where healthy food are no longer available or affordable.” This inequality trap guarantees that only a few succeed and the rest experience a lifetime of hardship, which entrenches itself over and over again as poverty is passed on to future generations.

We need our government to create an enabling environment for inclusive growth, but its track record is dismal. Poor performance and deep-rooted corruption of state-owned entities like Eskom, SAA, PRASA and SABC do not inspire confidence. While business is a key driver of economic growth business confidence is declining. Released last week, the RMB/BER Business Confidence Index (BCI) for the first quarter of 2021, shows that seven out of ten senior executives expressed dissatisfaction with prevailing business conditions. This is up from six in the previous quarter and is a clear indication that businesses are following a cautious approach and will likely not hire more staff at the required pace, at least for the foreseeable future. With unemployment at 42%, when considering its broad definition, the inequality divide will only widen, given our current crisis. This will lead to further generational poverty, for most of our people.

However, there is another pathway to better education and nutrition outcomes in under-served communities – the social impact of the collective efforts within the non-profit sector. This has largely been overlooked as a vital driver for change. Traditionally, the non-profit sector is viewed as a charitable segment where benevolence is granted to people and organisations that seem to do some kind of social good. Unfortunately, most charities do not keep reliable records, do not manage their finances well, do not have good governance in place, cannot demonstrate their impact and are not transforming into viable contributors to social change. To their detriment, they have been criticized as being the recipients of funds for which they have little measurable results to show for their efforts.

Yet, every day, all across South Africa, thousands of organisations in the NPO sector are involved in a myriad of empowering and impactful work that includes:

  • providing education services for adults that are working to obtain their matric certificates,
  • implementing after-school care education programmes for children and at-risk youth that help them with their homework while keeping them off the streets and from joining gangs or doing drugs,
  • skills development programmes for the unemployed that help them prepare CVs and complete job readiness preparations,
  • social enterprise activities like recycling and other environmental awareness programmes,
  • re-integration programmes for ex-offenders and rehabilitation programmes for drug addicts,
  • care for abused women and children that help them rebuild their lives, learn life skills and successfully find employment opportunities,
  • providing medical and social care for thousands of child-headed households that would be destitute were it not for their intervention,
  • providing health care services encompassing pre- and post-natal care as well as services that help people living with HIV/Aids to eat healthy food before taking their medication and
  • providing nutritious food through thousands of community kitchens and food parcel programmes to stave off hunger.

While they are not in a position to aptly demonstrate their impact in poor communities, their laudable efforts cannot be ignored. They provide vital services that stave off hunger, support educational and personal development and give vulnerable people a fighting chance. While not sufficiently documented, there are thousands of success stories of vulnerable people who were able to thrive because of receiving the care and support they needed.

Encouragingly, there is a growing number of NPOs undertaking evidence-based Social Return on Investment (SROI) studies. By tracking relevant social, environmental and economic outcomes, SROI studies enable organisations to measure how much change or value their efforts create. A growing number of corporates seek to direct their Corporate Social Investment (CSI) or Socio-Economic Development (SED) budgets to outcomes that generate positive, measurable social and environmental impact. But SROI is complex to calculate. It requires specialists to do the evaluation and can be expensive.

Examples of measurable impact can be found in the recently released FoodForward SA Social Return on Investment report – a first of its kind for Africa. Conducted by Impact Amplifier, a specialist in the SROI space, the report evaluates the impact of FoodForward SA’s foodbanking model and sheds light on how foodbanking brings about social change.

The 91-page report reviews the impact of FFSA’s activities from 1 March 2019 to 29 February 2020 and includes statistics that dispel the myth that feeding people does not address the structural causes of poverty. The study, which involved 80 of FFSA’s beneficiary organisations (BOs) across three provinces, was compiled by conducting case studies, site visits, interviews and surveys through a representative sample of its BOs. It assesses whether the food provided by FFSA made a difference and demonstrates how quality surplus food is used as a catalyst for social change in vulnerable communities. Of the participating BOs, 57% provide services that fall under youth and community development which includes orphans and vulnerable children, 35% provide educational services and 8% provide health care services.

The report includes findings relating to key stakeholders that participate in FFSA’s Second Harvest and Warehousing Distribution programmes as well as its FoodShare Digital platform. These key stakeholders were grouped as either Food Producers & Food Retailers or Beneficiary Organisations. The impact generated occurs across both groups of stakeholders at differing points of the value chain and involves the collection of surplus food and the distribution thereof.

The four outcomes, identified in the report, are:

  1. Reduction in carbon emissions
  2. Diverted waste (edible surplus food) from landfill
  3. Meals served to vulnerable people
  4. Continued support of beneficiary organisations

Some of the findings from the study include:

  • More than R1,6 billion worth of SROI was generated from FFSA’s activities in the 2019/2020 financial year.
  • For every R1 donated to FFSA, SROI worth R98,07 was generated.
  • 47% of respondents noted that, if FFSA were to stop its support, they would have to adjust their feeding programme significantly, while 41% of the BOs said that they would have to stop theirs.
  • More than 87% of the respondents said that FFSA positively contributed to their food budgets.
  • If BOs did not get support from FFSA, their meal cost would be 34% more.
  • 81% of the BOs said that their attendance would drop if FFSA discontinued support.
  • For every kg of food donated, R117 worth of food value was created, as the BOs were able to serve more meals.

The report findings demonstrate that FoodForward SA’s mission-driven foodbanking ecosystem is a critical lever to accelerate growth and optimise social returns. It is a valuable contributor towards building a more inclusive and sustainable economy and provides a cost-effective pathway to eliminating the structural causes of poverty.

Andy Du Plessis

Managing Director of FoodForward SA

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