The problem with IEJ

Since early 2018, I have expressed – mostly privately and sometimes publicly – criticisms of and reservations about the newly established Institute for Economic Justice (IEJ). Some people appear to be under the impression, so they’ve told me, that this is ‘personal’. Not at all; no more than it would be ‘personal’ if I was critical of Person W because as a bystander I saw them pickpocket Person B. But these and other reactions/narratives indicate that I should clearly state what I believe the problem with IEJ is; that is the purpose of this piece. The purpose is not to persuade anyone either way but simply to put across my experiences and reasons for my position. If I get around to it, I may say more at a later date about what I think the IEJ reveals about parts of South African ‘left-wing’ civil society more broadly.

Background: the problematic dominance of conservative economic analysis

In the last couple of decades, the South African economic analysis and policy space has largely been dominated by conservatives, who have consequently also gotten away with low quality analysis and dubious policy proposals. Much of this has happened under the banner of shallow rhetoric and tired tropes. Many individuals (including myself) and some organisations, with varying political views, have criticised examples of this bad conservative analysis year in and year out. But it has persisted and for whatever reasons, institutions that ought to have provided credible, consistent alternative analysis and commentary of better quality have failed to do so, or failed to gain traction. The result being a tedious succession of exchanges between arrogantly mediocre conservative economists, strongly aided and abetted by the business and mainstream press, and loud but equally empty rhetoric from left-wing organisations such as trade unions and political parties. Key public institutions like the National Treasury and Reserve Bank have developed post-apartheid institutional cultures most closely aligned to the conservative end of the spectrum. Resulting in a neat conflation of conservativeness with credible economic policy by these institutions and most of the media – who at best do not know enough to judge either way, and at worst suffer from the arrogant conservatism of the poorly trained and poorly informed.

For these and other reasons, there has been a long-standing need for some kind(s) of counterweight to this problematic culture that enables what are arguably sub-optimal economic, and other, policies. What has been evident to me at least since my undergraduate studies in economics in the early 2000s is that a shift requires left-wing analysis and research that can match, or exceed, the quantitative sophistication of the analyses produced by SARB, Treasury and their stablemates in academia. For that reason, in the past I encouraged a number of my left-wing students and ‘activists’ I came across not to turn their backs on quantitative methods; if they had the intention of further study in economics, I recommended getting some substantive training in these methods – whatever those methods’ actual usefulness for answering economic questions.

An introduction to the IEJ

With this background, it should not be surprising that when I was told about the idea of a research institute aimed at providing relatively sophisticated research and analysis in support of left-wing/progressive agendas, I welcomed it. That was the case when, by a chance meeting via a mutual acquaintance, I spent a few hours (in 2017 as I recall) with one of the initiators of the Institute for Economic Justice (IEJ). And in that discussion, I was forthcoming in sharing a number of ideas I’d had over the years for a range of specific initiatives required. In doing so, I made – with hindsight – a number of mistakes:

  1. I assumed that the initiative, and its initiators, had a certain respect for the intellectual separation between academic work/research and advocacy
  2. I assumed that the initiators recognised the importance of what’s often referred to as ‘positionality’ – in general and especially in an area which ultimately concerns policymaking in the interests of the majority of South Africans who are black and women
  3. I assumed that the white male initiators were doing this as a part-time or extramural activity, that a much broader, demographically representative group would be involved, and that the initiators would not be the final directors of the organisation
  4. And finally, I assumed that the institution would play a supporting role to actual civil society organisations that could lay some credible claim to representing at least a subset of black South Africans who would speak for themselves.

These assumptions were based on my own views about how it might be appropriate to work in this kind of area, but it was naïve at best to assume these views were shared. Such assumptions partly followed from a deliberate decision to give the founders the benefit of the doubt, despite some reservations about their respective familial and professional associations with men in civil society who had been involved in some arguably rather revealing scandals. It seemed unfair to damn the IEJ founders by association…and perhaps that remains true even if it turns out, after the fact, that it would have been the right decision.

 

Existing civil society spaces

I continued with this approach of giving the founders of IEJ the benefit of the doubt as they began to involve themselves in long-standing civil society spaces I was working in – most particularly, the public finance space. The main such space had evolved in name, participation and structure, but in recent times was largely the initiative of a number of (mostly black) women who had been working in related spaces (public finance and civil society) for some time. It is now called the Budget Justice Coalition. There were very clear statements about what the purpose of the space was and how it operated:

  • The purpose was to build capacity amongst CSOs on public finance oversight and thereby also develop the basis for collaborations to lobby and influence policymakers
  • Conduct needed to be respectful, non-hierarchical and democratic, aware of positionality and ultimately in line with the purpose of the spaces created.

You can find a full statement of these principles at the bottom of this webpage: https://budgetjusticesa.org/about/.

These fundamental principles aligned nicely with my own view of an appropriate role for myself in these spaces: sharing the academic and policy expertise I had (from my training, government experience and recent work at the Parliamentary Budget Office) to the extent that it was useful for the people and organisations involved. I had/have clear views on many public finance issues in terms of what I think is likely to be in the interest of South Africans at large, but it was absolutely clear to me that these should not be imposed on these spaces, nor should I seek greater influence or authority for my views from getting endorsements.

Indeed, there were a number of occasions where I had to state explicitly that it would not be appropriate for me to take leadership positions in advocacy, nor would it be appropriate to have my individual submissions (e.g. to Parliament) endorsed by CSOs – as much as I welcomed the implicit support the desire to do so implied. I should perhaps have paid more attention to the fact that this was more often interpreted as rebuffing attempts for collaboration, than it was seen as being in keeping with the principles stated above.

Anyway, it was in this space that it became evident how inaccurate, and far too generous, my assumptions about the IEJ founders were.

 

Revealing true colours

At the beginning of 2018, which seems something of an age ago now, a number of CSOs involved in the initiative mentioned above organised pre-Budget workshops to prepare representatives of various left-wing CSOs for analysis of the forthcoming national Budget. I was involved in the organising, partly based on prior participation in such efforts and partly through a new, formalised project funded by the EU to improve CSO engagement with legislatures. IEJ were the newest on the scene but it made obvious sense (including to me) to have them involved in some way.

It is worth noting, though, that as I remember it their participation was proposed by an individual at another CSO – let’s call him ‘John’. Neither at that time, nor later, did John indicate that he had any personal relationship with the founders of IEJ.

Let me fast forward here to save some time. Overall the workshops went well, but afterwards I was sufficiently bothered about something I had seen that I sent a message to the IEJ co-founder I’d originally spoken to, confronting him about his conduct, that of his co-founder and John. Specifically, prior to a consultative session in which the group was intending to make decisions about the way forward, this individual surreptitiously called his co-founder and John outside to have a strategic discussion – unaware that I had noticed them doing this. (Bear in mind the background to this CSO group above and the fact that these three were all white men). On returning to the session, they began to raise points from the floor.

The principle for making contributions in that concluding session was that only one representative from each organisation could speak for a fixed period of time. The first dishonesty was that the two IEJ co-founders insisted on being allowed to speak separately on the grounds that IEJ, supposedly, was not up and running (contradicting statements made elsewhere).

The second, was that – with the benefit of what I had seen – all three made contributions that pushed in one particular direction but while giving the impression that they were independent. That direction, I suddenly realised, resonated closely with what one of these IEJ co-founders had told me individually: their first priority was to elevate IEJ’s profile in order to secure its status and more donor funding. After the workshops a similar dynamic emerged in email exchanges. The IEJ had no interest in the slow, painstaking process of putting together a group submission and instead went ahead and drafted its own (which really meant one person’s document) which it then put to the group. And John was the first to enthusiastically endorse the IEJ submission and role. These were additional dishonesties, because the IEJ representatives said nothing about the desire to use this pre-existing initiative and substantive public interest issues to raise their profile, and John neglected to mention – as I later discovered – that he was the best friend of the person whose organisation and submission he kept endorsing.

Given the heavy workloads and limited time of the organisers, the prospect of someone taking responsibility for the submission was gladly accepted with an apparently naïve good faith. (I cannot be too harsh here because after all I was also guilty of giving the relevant individuals the benefit of the doubt at the outset). So it was that one, not especially well-qualified or experienced individual in the public finance-legislature space, made himself the figurehead for left-wing civil society opposition to the government’s proposed VAT increase in 2018. Not only did he draft the submission with little input, but also presented it to Parliament on behalf of these CSOs – clearly with no qualms about his own positionality despite ‘wearing multiple hats’ (as he acknowledged in the relevant presentation to Parliament) and being a white man from a privileged background who had no legitimate claim to represent any South African besides himself.

Because of my original lengthy conversation with him about the IEJ and what I had seen, I decided – as mentioned already – to confront him privately rather than publicly after the workshops. He all but admitted the self-interested agenda I put to him, but aggressively denied that issues of positionality in this carefully created space should impede him and the ambitions of his two collaborators. The conduct I observed violated many principles of the space in which these individuals were operating. Among those one can find on the BJC site are those requiring that participants “are open and honest with each other”, “are characterised by integrity”, “are committed to emulating equality and inclusion in our processes”, “have humility”, “respect the multiplicity of organisational approaches to achieving social change”, and so on.

There are two other instances of problematic conduct by the IEJ founders that I have heard about from others. One concerned using contacts in civil society to pre-emptively attempt to discredit individuals making allegations of sexual harassment. Another concerned rude and abrasive behaviour in a civil society workshop to the point that the professional facilitator complained about the conduct. Reportedly, the culpable individuals were taken to task by their peers on both. Yet that appears to have done little to materially affect their power or status in the organisation or the organisation’s credibility. It is unclear whether the Board was ever informed about such matters.

Avoiding IEJ and initiatives it controls or has significant weight in

Having confirmed my own suspicions by engaging directly with one of the individuals concerned, I have since sought to avoid any interaction with IEJ, initiatives it controls or initiatives where it has any significant weight. Sadly, that means I had to largely sever any involvement with the Budget Justice Coalition. There is an obvious irony in this, but personally the only consequence of no longer being involved is: less work on public interest issues and more time for my career-enhancing academic work.

I summarised my stance as follows when I was approached more than 12 months later (in early 2019) to be involved in one aspect of the Rethinking Economics for Africa (REFA) initiative:

I am not really comfortable with IEJ as an organisation. I know there are good people internally and on the board, but in my view (and that of others) it replicates a problematic CSO model in South Africa that should be left in the past. Some categories of problems were exposed with the Equal Education saga last year. Given this, while I think initiatives like IEJ and REFA are needed in SA, I do not want to be involved with IEJ as it is currently led.

I should add that I also don’t really think it’s appropriate for REFA to be controlled by one institution, not least a problematic one. There is also the matter of how the REFA festival was handled last year, with the effect that a very clear message was sent (in my view) by the way involvement appeared to be determined – reflecting the interests, cliques, positioning and prejudices of the organisers; not primarily expertise on the supposed issues at hand.

While I appreciate that none of the issues I raise (past or present) may be within your control, they are important. To put it bluntly: I can’t involve myself even with ostensibly worthwhile initiatives and good people if I know that ultimately the final strings can still be pulled by people who I believe to be problematic. If/when the top leadership of the IEJ changes, feel free to get in touch again.

REFA, as part of the broader Rethinking Economics movement, is also a great idea in principle. But the fact that it is ultimately controlled by the same people controlling IEJ is deeply problematic.

Recent developments and (non-)prospects for change

As far as I can see, the founders of the IEJ have continued in precisely the vein they started in: pathological self-promotion that seeks to take over other initiatives and control people who’ve been involved in such work for longer periods, under the justification of promoting ‘economic justice’. And one must give them credit: they have been very successful. Helped to no small degree, like similar predecessors in South African civil society, by the power that accrues in resource-starved spaces from donor money. Unlike in the United States where one might need to pretend to be a black woman in order to profit from work supposedly of benefit to marginalised communities, in South African left-wing civil society it turns out that it’s entirely possible for a few, not especially accomplished or insightful, white men to make a comfortable living and dramatically increase their professional profiles by anointing themselves representatives of the pursuit of economic justice for black South Africans. And then receive significant donor funds, along with endorsements from supposedly credible individuals and organisations, for this act of non-benevolence.

In the last year or so there appears to have been a slight shift in strategy by IEJ, with the problematic individuals reducing their self-promotion a little and putting others in public fora. I suspect this is in response to awareness of the above concerns from a number of individuals. They nevertheless appear to retain final control of all aspects, directly or indirectly, of IEJ. And REFA is correspondingly still controlled by these individuals. For myself, I have no interest in any association with people of this kind or those who endorse them.

An obvious source for change ought to be the IEJ board, the members of which purportedly subscribe to progressive notions of leadership elsewhere. To my knowledge, however, the board was created by the founders rather than the founders being appointed by the board. Furthermore, some board members have long-standing reciprocal/mutually beneficial relationships with the founders and therefore do not have an interest in appointing individuals to manage the organisation who would be more consistent with the principles they espouse.

More broadly, there are certain power-brokers in civil society who have for a long time participated in such dynamics themselves and work hard to use their roles – including in the media – to secure the legitimacy of such individuals. Ironically, the author of the article linked to calls for ‘economic democracy’ but fails to mention that the initiatives he endorses are led by unelected white men; what kind of economic democracy is that, one might ask? Furthermore, though he bemoans alleged dismissive treatment of those he endorses by the business press this is largely false: whereas the media almost entirely ignored the black women-led initiative that preceded the IEJ by many years, within the 18months of IEJ’s launch, one of its co-founders was widely personally profiled in the business press, invited to participate in policy discussions led by conservative organisations, and both co-founders were widely cited and invited to speak as authorities on left-wing positions on economic matters. In an astounding case, one columnist and former editor of Business Day represented a document by one of the IEJ co-founders as representing the views of left-wing civil society as a whole. (I might note that the document contained a few glaring technical errors: confirming that the author’s status cannot be justified even putting positionality issues aside). The claim thus holds little water. Indeed, if one looks at the evidence it is hard to separate these individuals’ self-interest from their purported activism…

As I have alluded to above, it seems this kind of conduct – hypocritical as it is – has become normalised in left-wing South African civil society. Almost thirty years into the country’s democracy, the position of those who have endorsed IEJ is implicitly that black South Africans need to be led to economic justice by white men substituting an actual mandate with merely their unapologetic self-promotion. This is grossly hypocritical. I do not hold the view that white people – men or otherwise – should not have any involvement in these discussions. Evidently not, since I remain actively engaged with these areas myself.  But I really cannot see any defensible basis for white people of any background leading these initiatives and even less so when on multiple occasions they have violated basic principles of conduct on which such activity is supposedly premised. And I have little tolerance for those who endorse or enable this and yet still want to shout about representation or demographic injustice issues in other parts of society.

Update (22 March 2021):
#1 Since the original post was written, the IEJ has changed its Board (or at least changed the details of Board members provided on the website) – only 2 members of the original board seem to remain but despite that the issue of beneficially reciprocal relations does too. How Board members are appointed, and by whom, remains unclear. One of the co-directors is now referred to as a ‘senior policy specialist’ – leaving it unclear who the other ‘co-director’ now is.
#2 I notice that the IEJ website claims that “The IEJ was launched…in September 2018”
. It is easy to find public information indicating that the IEJ was operating long before that, as per my remarks in the post. For example, see these minutes from a presentation to Parliament in February 2018: https://pmg.org.za/committee-meeting/25892/

Author: peripheralecon

Public sector economist, extra-mural academic

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