Business Times

NGOs again in focus amidst new proposals to control them

Non-governmental organizations – local and foreign (NGOs and INGOs) – have always been the favourite whipping boys of present and past governments but apart from the occasional foray into the critical arena, there hasn’t been any significant clamping down on these agencies apart from the struggle that Sarvodaya had during the ‘Premadasa’ years.

Now the government is planning new regulations and comprehensive amendments to the 1980 NGO Act (which has had a few other amendments since then) to, according to government officials, bring it in line with ‘modern-day needs and development’. According to Newton Perera, Additional Secretary to the Ministry of Internal Administration under whose control NGOs come, a draft Act has been prepared by the Attorney General and that would be studied by a Committee of Ministers.

NGOs and INGOs have grown to several hundred from a few dozens in Sri Lanka since the ethnic conflict broke out in the early 1980s. Since their growth, governments and the authorities have accused them of stepping out of line and getting involved in politics. “It is inevitable that the government wants to control the activities of NGOs. But we knew this was going to happen eventually. We will lose our free hand,” says Jehan Perera, Executive Director of the National Peace Council (NPC)

Recently Prime Minister Ratnasiri Wickramanayake and Minister of Resettlement and Disaster Relief Services, Rishard Bathiudeen were both quoted in local media as saying new regulations are being drafted to control NGOs. While most NGO officials treat this as a never-ending contest with governments, Dr Perera believes the government is serious this time and would bring in regulations to have a stricter control over NGOs, particularly international ones.

“This has nothing to do with the issues relating to defeated presidential opposition candidate General Sarath Fonseka. This concern (over NGOs) has been there for a while now),” he said. Most of the attempts to rein in NGOs happens after a political event and in this case, the joint opposition backing of Sarath Fonseka at the presidential poll, led to accusations by Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa that the US and Norway had been inolved in Fonseka’s campaign. The two countries vigourously rejected the claim. The western international community is seen extending its influence in Sri Lanka through INGOs which it funds, again a claim that has been repeatedly denied.

Rajiva Wijesinhe, Secretary to the Ministry of Disaster Management and Human Rights and an avowed critic of INGOs essentially over the lack of accountability, says there has always been an issue of the accountability of NGOs. “Essentially accountability is about how these groups spend the money here. Our responsibility has been to ensure no one breaks the law,” he said.

Prof. Wijesinhe said guidelines were brought in last year to improve accountability and how money is being spent and this system is working. “These are not new measures. Rather an enforcement of what is already there to give us some control as to how money is being spent,” he said, adding that even the UN’s Colombo office has acknowledged that some NGOs, the UN funds, are not adequately reporting to them on the use of this money.

“It is crystal clear that the government didn’t know how and where these funds were being used ever since the 2002 peace process when the Tigers were having peace talks with the government,” he said. “The LTTE wanted the international community to play a bigger role in the peace process and that’s when the troubles started.”

“Sri Lankan authorities are liberal towards NGOs and thus this environment allows NGOs to criticize the government which could stop if the government gets tough,” Dr Perera said, stressing on the need for a closer dialogue and working relationship between the government and humanitarian agencies.
He said what is lacking now is NGO leaders of the calibre of the late Charlie Abeysekera (who founded INFORM) and Godfrey Gunatillake, the architect behind the Marga Institute. “Unfortunately we don’t have leaders like this to carry out a dialogue with the government before regulations on NGOs are drafted.

The Consortium of Humanitarian Agencies (CHA) represents a large number of NGOs and INGOs. Asked whether the CHA is performing the role of a ‘facilitator’ between NGOs and the government and whether there are divisions in the NGO community that makes this task difficult, its Executive Director Jeevan Thiagarajah said:

“Civic action and expression have linguistic and at times social distinctions and divisions. The CHA works in both national languages and we do our utmost not to be elitist. We though have quite a long way to go in reaching and connecting with many other non profit oriented civic acts and networks. Our willingness and capacity to present views of civic expression, is though undeniable.”

He also points out that where groups have views, nothing prevents them from making submissions. “It should be inclusive but not the acts or work of an exclusive group only,” he said.
Mr Thiagarajah said the Minister of Social Services initiated a process in late 2005 to visit the current legislation governing non profit social services.

A committee that was appointed recommended revision and preparation of new legislation which governance and promotes non profit social work in the future. The Ministry then sought the views of civil society from the public and civic groups through newspaper advertisements. NGO’s were invited for consultations and draft legislation followed. The draft attempted a balance between preserving freedom of association with accountability and state oversight where charitable or non profit work worked on issues of public benefit. There was also provision to nurture, promote and reward non profit work, he said.

Over the past 18 months the monitoring process of NGOs has got stricter with visas being issued to foreign nationals based on a security clearance by the Defence Ministry. Foreign staff must be well qualified, get security clearance and explain why their job cannot be filled by a local worker. Visas are generally given for a 3-year term while in the case of UN agencies it’s for four years. However visas, in some cases are given for short 3-6 month periods and then extended.

“The government is generally not worried about NGO workers from Asian countries. It’s the west and particularly countries like Norway that is some concern,” an NGO worker said. Government officials are particularly ‘hostile’ towards Norway, which facilitated the 2002 peace talks, saying Oslo was partisan towards the rebels.

According to other NGO sources, control over NGOs has increased in recent times. Under the rules, an officer monitoring NGOs is stationed at the government main office in the regions across the country.
These officers visit NGO project sites whenever a quarterly report is submitted. “For anything including visas for expatriate workers, the recommendation of this officer is essential,” one source said.

(Courtesy IPS news agency and other additional information)

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