Spain’s financial intervention in Catalonia threatens third sector with disaster

NGOs dealing with drug addiction and mental health fear they will not receive the subsidies they were promised

Dozens of programs designed to tackle substance dependence, mental health issues, HIV, voluntary social projects and the promotion of gender equality are currently facing an uncertain future, including uncertainty as to whether they will be able to pay staff salaries or settle their debts this year. Meanwhile, the NGOs are awaiting Catalan government subsidies that are yet to arrive. The freezing of the Catalan government’s accounts on September 20 has paralysed payments and financial aid, while the political turmoil has halted the granting of new subsidies still pending for certain departments, which were already subject to delays.

According to the Board of Third Sector Organisations, the current situation is a dangerous combination for hundreds of non-profit organisations and charities that have been working all year long in the hope of receiving funding, which currently appears as if it may not actually arrive. Together with The Confederation (the association of social employers), the Board has sent a letter to Spain’s Ministry of Health and the Treasury warning of the risks posed by the delay in payments in terms of the day-to-day running of the NGOs and the people they serve. According to the letter, a copy of which was obtained by ARA, some 500 entities are currently affected by the application of Article 155 and four areas have seen their programs struck: voluntary work and civic action, youth work, mental health, substance dependence and HIV, and gender equality. The Confederation’s president, Joan Segarra, warns that "the viability of many projects is being jeopardised".

The threat of programme closures

One area which is particularly hard-hit by the blockade is that concerning drug dependence. Catalonia’s Department of Health had even not begun to process applications for 2017 grants when the government’s accounts were taken over and they have subsequently been frozen. As the president of the Catalan Federation of Drug Addiction, Felisa Pérez explains, "Payments are always late, but we always received them in November. The organisations bank on getting that cash". At a meeting last week Pérez criticized the Health Ministry’s response: "We were told that they won’t be paying any subsidies this year and that they’ll see if they can pay retroactively in January, with the Spanish government’s permission". The sums pending range from €10,000 to €100,000. Pérez warns that the charities won’t survive a whole year without the subsides and that they basically depend on public funding to ensure they can continue the service they have been providing up until now. Some thirty organisations have found themselves in this situation, eight of which are also pending receipt of the 2016 government grant, which they are hoping to receive soon.

One such organisation, which prefers to remain anonymous, outlined the financial difficulties it is experiencing. 80% of its budget depends on public funding to provide assistance to people with substance abuse problems, but the ministry has yet to pay them their 2016 grant, and the call for 2017 grants has not begun. A spokesperson for the charity declared that "we have to decide whether we can carry on and make do while we wait for the money to arrive or if we have to start shutting down programmes that are currently serving active drug-takers and that are vital to society".

10 million euros for social projects

The Federation of Catalan Social Action Organisations (ECAS) has issued a warning: "There is a real danger of a chain reaction and that everything that hasn’t been officially approved never materialises", announced its president, Sonia Fuertes. At present, 25 organisations belonging to ECAS have been affected by the financial blockade, with agreed subsidies ranging from €2,500 to €65,000. The bulk of this sum will come from some €10 million that the Spanish government has already been asked to release. The organisations run programmes to do with civic action, leisure and youth groups, among others.

The organisations affected in this instance include the Casal de Infants (“Chidren’s Home”), which runs three projects, all under threat. The NGO was due to receive €94,000 from the Catalan government between 2017 and 2018 —for the first time the programmes extend over more than one year— for initiatives involving volunteers, training and socialisation programs for minors at risk of social exclusion and also an awareness programme carried out in schools to highlight this issue. "They are key projects for our organisation, benefitting thousands of children and young people", stresses the director of the Casal d'Infants, Rosa Balaguer.

The AFEV, a social organisation run by volunteers, has also seen its most important programme threatened with closure: The Tandem, a social mentoring project. It is an initiative aimed at providing young people with "a positive role model they can talk to and meet, who will help them with their homework and provide them with guidance. A need which is often not met by anyone else in their social circle", explains the head of the AFEV, Laia Bernúes. The programme is currently helping 140 youngsters, but without the subsidy —€26,000, representing 18% of its entire budget— it may have to be downsized.

An overly-precarious model

The organisations all agree that the current situation exposes the precarious nature of the sector, indicating the need for a change to the existing system of subsidies. According to Fuertes, "Many charities operate in places where the government does not, meaning this requires a different system, with a more structural relationship". She went on to say that "You can’t stop an activity that plays such a vital social role". The director of the Casal de Infants is also critical of the current way the system works: "They tell you whether you’ll have the money or not when the year is almost over, when the projects are underway and the funds have already been spent".

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