Some media think the MDDA is the best thing that ever happened – but others got tired of waiting for help. Sharlene Sharim investigates for The Media magazine.
When you’re desperate and in need of cash, waiting even a day can feel like an eternity. Try waiting for up to a year.
Many community stations and publications depend on the Media Development and Diversity Agency’s (MDDA) funding for their survival. To date, the organisation has supported more than 341 projects, amounting to roughly R128 million. And while several stations and publications laud the agency for its support, others have found their experience with the MDDA fraught with delays. So what’s the hold-up?
Upington-based Radio Riverside applied for funding to produce programming in June 2008. “Our request was approved in December 2008 – so the process leading to approval, in our experience, was not a problem,” says station manager Thabang Pusoyabone. It has, however, experienced delays in signing the contracts and also in between receiving tranches.
Pusoyabone says the contracts were only signed off in August 2009, adding that the station was often told that key personnel have to sign, and they were not available. Radio Riverside received the first instalment of its grant 11 months after its application was approved.
And there have been further delays.
The MDDA releases funding in instalments and, before successful applicants can gain access to their second or third tranches, they have to report back on how the funds were spent.
Though Radio Riverside has submitted its reports, Pusoyabone says its MDDA project officer hasn’t assessed it yet.
It has been waiting since September 2010 for the next tranche to be released and, as a result, have had to stop the production of its programming. He points out that “when there are delays due to the lack of payment from the MDDA, it compromises the project”.
Radio Graaff-Reinet tells a similar tale. The station submitted its proposal for funding in February 2008. It’d been off air for several months and, as a result, ICASA asked to have its licence revoked. But, having successfully defended its licence to the Complaint and Compliance Committee, the station faced a new set of challenges: pay its debts and go back on air or face permanent closure.
Station manager André Swartz says the MDDA was informed of ICASA’s ruling, and its proposal was approved. But though it had strict deadlines to adhere to, Swartz says “we didn’t see that money for months after we started up again”.
Others, however, describe an altogether-different MDDA.
“The MDDA has been nothing but good to us,” says Thomas Alexander, station manager at the Eastern Cape-based Lukhanji FM. When the station struggled to secure the funding it needed to get off the ground, it was the MDDA that came to its rescue. “We would not have been around if not for them,” he says.
Cape Town TV’s Karen Thorne says: “The MDDA truly works in a capacity-building way.” She adds that the agency gets that community media face certain challenges and works with them. CTV received funding from the agency in August 2008. Thorne says it submitted its request six to eight months prior. Of the wait, she says it wasn’t particularly long. “Not if you compare it to other funders. It’s a standard amount of waiting.”
Franklin Huizies, former CEO of the National Community Radio Forum (NCRF), sheds some light on the matter. Though he believes the high turnover of MDDA staff during the past few years has contributed to the delay in responses, he says: “The low capacity and non-compliance of community radio stations is the biggest contributor to the delay in transfers that frustrate so many stations.”
He explains that community radio stations are mostly registered as non-profit organisations. And though this means that they are not compelled to comply with the Public Finance Management Act (PFMA), the MDDA requires their compliance.
There are scores of strings attached to MDDA funding but, as CEO Lumko Mtimde points out, they serve an important purpose as the agency has been achieving consistent clean audits from the Auditor General.
Mtimde admits that the process “is quite detailed and can take time”. But he says: “Fundamentally, we’d not want to loosen internal controls and end up facing challenges in respect of financial management. We are, however, increasingly exploring ways of simplifying our requirements – whether they are application or reporting requirements – but within tighter internal controls.”
Huizies, however, points out that there is a lack of understanding of PFMA criteria by many of the station’s governance and management structures, which results in high levels of statutory non-compliance.
But Mtimde says the MDDA takes great care to prevent itself from “putting money into a leaking bag”. For example, the agency convenes workshops to assist stations and publications “to understand the obligations that they have to abide by in terms of complying with the funding agreements” they have with the MDDA.
So what could be causing the delays?
One station manager – who didn’t want to jeopardise his relationship with the MDDA, or his station’s chances at receiving future funding – asked not to be named. But he believes that the MDDA is “undercapacitated for the job they’re doing”. He has learnt from his previous experience, however. “The next time we receive funding, I won’t assume that it will come automatically once the tranche has been spent. We will plan ahead and find ways to fund our project in the months between waiting for tranches. Otherwise one could find oneself up the creek without a paddle.”
One Cape community newspaper editor says: “One does not know what criteria they follow, because they just don’t communicate, basically. It’s very difficult to understand what you are doing right or wrong because they don’t tell you.” The newspaper submitted its application to the MDDA more than two years ago, and is still waiting to hear back from it.
But Mtimde says “delays are minimal and replies are reasonable”. Furthermore, he says the MDDA “have the system and the capacity to run and manage grant funds”, adding that its grant funding cycle is “tried and tested”.
During the application process, Mtimde says much depends on the completeness of the application, the cooperation of the applicant during the due diligence process (which establishes the authenticity of the information provided), the quality of the required information and the schedule of board meetings.
“In most cases, people don’t provide all of the required information.” Most applicants, for example, don’t include tax clearance certificates to their applications, says Mtimde. “Unfortunately, if they don’t comply, we cannot process them.”
The MDDA board also only meets four times a year – in January, May, July and October. This means that if you miss the August deadline, your application won’t be presented to the board in October, but only in January.
But, on the other hand, if you comply with all of the agency’s requirements, make the board meeting and have your proposal approved, Mtimde says the MDDA will send you a draft contract within two to three weeks of the decision being made.
As he points out, though, all correspondence happens in writing – and because the organisation deals with historically disadvantaged communities that often don’t have access to e-mail, sending correspondence via snail mail can also add to delays.
“We cannot – however much as we’d like to – release any funds until such contract is signed by both parties.” Mtimde says, in some cases when contracts aren’t signed correctly, it “becomes a nightmare”.
As for the delays between releasing tranches, Mtimde says stations deviate from the funding agreements, which prolongs the release process. “You need our permission to deviate, as we need to check if the deviation is justifiable within your business plan.”
The MDDA is, however, says Mtimde, beginning to introduce monthly reporting in an attempt to facilitate adherence and discourage delays that stem from projects forgetting to submit their reports. It is exploring ways of simplifying the reporting so it helps – and not overburdens – small projects.