Global Policy Forum

Don't Cramp the NGO's Style


By Tawanda Mutasah

Mail & Guardian
August 8, 2007

A couple of years ago a friend of mine from law school accosted me at a breakfast table in a Harare hotel. I introduced him to my breakfast meeting companion, the director of a Southern African regional NGO. Immediately after the introductions my erstwhile schoolmate charged at the NGO director: "You are going to give me a job in an NGO, aren't you?" The NGO director recovered just enough to ask why my schoolmate wanted a job with an NGO. "I just want the adventure," he replied, deadpan.

Perhaps on account of the kind of misconceptions of the sort that my schoolmate had about the NGO sector, Zambia's justice minister recently introduced a Bill in Parliament that, worryingly, extends government control over the civil society sector. Meanwhile, a few days ago, the government of Angola threatened to close a handful of human rights advocacy NGOs, including the Angolan office of the foundation for which I work, the Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa (Osisa), supposedly because of their critical human rights work.

The Zambian government argues that the NGO Bill is necessary to make the sector more accountable. But praise is showered on NGOs when, with government, and sometimes in its stead, they build schools and hospitals and ladle porridge on to the plates of hungry children. Addressing a workshop on aid effectiveness in Livingstone recently, Zambian President Levy Mwanawasa praised the role of NGOs in the implementation of the country's fifth national development plan.

In Angola, NGOs have been a pillar of the humanitarian effort during the war. In the past nine years of its work in Angola, Osisa has been treated as a good citizen when it has sourced funds for humanitarian and reconstruction work. But what happens when NGOs start asking why the poor have no food? Or when NGOs in Zambia become part of organised civil society, positioning themselves as citizens' platforms that demand accountability from the state? What happens when the Oasis Forum -- a civic group of Zambian churches and the Law Society of Zambia -- clashes with the government on the correct road map for the adoption of a new constitution because the Oasis Forum insists, as does civil society in Swaziland and Zimbabwe, on a genuinely people-owned process?

It is sad that the Zambian government has chosen to resolve this occasional conflict by introducing a Bill that narrows, rather than widens, civil society's space. If passed as it is, the Bill will join a gallery of the bad and the ugly that includes a few other African and non-African countries, such as Venezuela and Russia.

Witness the memory and continued de facto presence of Zimbabwe's NGO Bill that throughout that country's last election period hovered like the sword of Damocles over the heads of civic organisations. The 2004 Zimbabwe NGO Bill contemplated compulsory central licensing of NGOs, the formation of a controlling body formed and working at the behest of government and even restrictions on organisations undertaking civic education with funding from outside the country.

Sure, the NGO sector has its share of miscreants. There exist so-called briefcase NGOs, "mongos" (my own NGOs) and NGOs whose boards are made up of the infamous triumvirate of me, myself and I. There are also the "gongos" (governmental non-governmental organisations): where repressive states sponsor phantom "civic bodies" to displace or at least dilute the voice of bona fide autonomous people's organisations. But, if bad examples exist, so do a range of positive efforts and platforms whose strengths and achievements are considerable. Civil society is fundamental for democratic wellness. It encompasses social movements, women's organisations, faith-based organisations and many other actors who have been at the core of the human and democratic development of African nation-states. It is important to strengthen the potential of civil society to be a voluntary social space and training ground for democratic praxis among ordinary people.

The biggest points of contention in modern-day regulatory frameworks for the not-for-profit sector revolve around the autonomy and composition of the entity that oversees registration of NGOs. The Zambian Bill contemplates two NGO-based members out of a board of 10, the whole board being appointed by the government. Some governments want to introduce new legislation to deal with problems that could be addressed by a country's existing civil and criminal laws.

Advocacy work exposes NGOs to the societal contradictions underpinning the struggle against vested interests, causing discomfort among powerful interests in society. In the regulatory realm, experience has shown that this antagonism can be translated into government arbitrarily deregistering some not-for-profits or refusing to register others, no matter how clean and legal those organisations are. For some governments the power of regulations lie not in their use as tools of oversight but in their abuse for narrow political ends. In Southern Africa such abuse has been happening already in countries such as Zambia, Zimbabwe and Angola.

A more progressive approach emphasises self-regulation. As early as 1996, while working on a Southern African project on law and policy governing the not-for-profit sector, I found the non-governmental organisations coordinating committee of Zambia already leading the way by developing a code of conduct for NGOs. That effort showed a commitment to and an understanding of self-regulation. In the recognition and management of voluntarism in Southern African countries that aspire towards democracy, it is such efforts towards self-regulation that should take centre stage.

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