Are NGOs a force for good?

Jeevan Thiagarajah’s story titled “Why Indonesia is right to limit NGOs” (Daily News - November 5) has induced me to add few of my own thoughts on the same subject.

NGOs are nothing new to us since they have been functioning in Sri Lanka for more than six decades. They are highly complex organisations that a simple man-in-the-street will find it difficult to comprehend. In fact, even the term NGO itself has various interpretations.

In simple jargon, an NGO can be defined as a non-profit, citizen-based group that functions independently of government. They are often called civil societies. In nature, they are cooperative, rather than commercial.

NGOs in Sri Lanka are active in politics, literature, cinema, cultural activities, ‘development’ of the villages, environment, media, human rights, women’s movement, and dozens of others. They have been growing and according to the Government statistics, there are more than 1,400 registered non-profit organisations currently. And for most observers, they seem to be well-intentioned actors who do a lot of good on the country.

But NGOs also have their detractors who argue that they are receiving growing amounts of donor aid, but are not the most suitable actors for genuinely improving people’s lives. Some critics also insist that the neo-liberal policies advanced by powerful international actors have limited the influence of the State and that NGOs have benefited as a result.

NGOs are also criticised for their focus on technical solutions to poverty instead of the underlying issues. For example, an NGO might provide few water tanks for the poor without addressing the power imbalances that resulted in some having water while others do not.

Another criticism is that NGOs are more accountable to their funders than those they serve. Because they are largely dependent on funding, their projects are crafted in line with donor preferences instead of those they supposedly represent.

A final criticism relates to the fact that NGO workers tend to be foreigners or local elites. Instead of empowering local populations to organise themselves, NGOs provide employment and a sense of purpose for elites with degrees in subjects like development studies.

There’s much truth to these criticisms. But does this mean that NGOs have no role to play in Sri Lanka’s struggle for development and social justice?

History

To answer this question, we need to go back our recent history. It was 1980, the Government took the first step to enact the Voluntary Social Services Organisations (Registration and Supervision) Act. It sought to introduce a system of registration and supervision of activities of NGOs. However, this Act was not strictly implemented and the registration of NGOs was not strictly followed.

Consequently, there have been concerns raised by the public and certain NGOs themselves as to the misuse of the flexibility and autonomy and the misappropriation of funds. This outcry forced the government to give serious consideration to introduce a system of strict registration of NGOs in the country.

In 1990, a Commission was appointed to go into the activities of NGOs and to make recommendations for their proper functioning. The Commission made some recommendations and accordingly, regulations were passed under the Public Security Ordinance obligating compulsory registration of NGOs which have a turnover of Rs.50,000 and above. However, with the lapse of the Emergency Regulations, this system too lapsed.

In 1995 the Government introduced certain draft amendments to the 1980 Act providing for the establishment of an NGO Advisory Council and appointment of Interim Boards of Management to administer the affairs of NGOs. There were vehement protests against these provisions and implementation got stalled. However, a Secretariat for NGOs was established in 1996. Finally, it was only in 1998 the Parliament approved the draft legislation (Act No.8 of 1998).

Around April this year, the Government again introduced a draft legislation to amend the Voluntary Social Service Organizations (Registration and Supervision) Act, No 31 of 1980. The draft amendment was subjected to severe criticism by the NGOs. As a result, it was withdrawn.

As we can see from historical records, Sri Lanka has not been successful in their efforts to introduce regulations to supervise and scrutinise the NGOs in Sri Lanka. It is obvious that the “extraordinary power” behind the NGOs is a real force to reckon with.

In many occasions NGO clout had caused deep annoyance to the Sri Lankan Government. We can take comfort because such experiences are not confined to Sri Lanka only. It has happened to many other countries.

INGOs

This writer believes that the Government needs to be more concerned about the International NGOs (or INGOs). These INGOs have two in-built components. There is the foreign funding principal and the local NGO agent. The donor functions from overseas and provides the funds. The agent is engaged in the operations which could vary from building up a School for Blind to conducting seminars (mainly in English) at the five-star hotels.

One of the most important aspects about these foreign donors is that the donor NGO’s are not always non-governmental. For example, in Europe, there are many INGOs who receive 100% of its funds from their governments. In Canada, the Government has increasingly taken over the funding of Canadian NGOs. In Germany there are the ‘foundations’ linked with the political parties. Invariably, all of them thus have definite political agendas of their own.

Indian experience

Now we come to the point of finding a solution. Perhaps, it’s time we take a cue from India. The National Planning Commission (now renamed National Institution for Transforming India (NITI Aayog) is the nodal agency in India for interface between the Government and the voluntary sector. The NITI Aayoghas put out a National Policy on the Voluntary Sector-as the beginning of a process to evolve a new working relationship between the Government and the voluntary sector, without affecting the autonomy and identity of voluntary organisations.

The policy has three main objectives: (1) to create an enabling environment for NGOs that stimulates their effectiveness, and safeguards their autonomy; (2) to enable NGOs to legitimately mobilise necessary financial resources from India and abroad; (3) to identify systems by which the Government may work together with NGOs, on the basis of the principles of mutual trust and respect, and with shared responsibility; and, (4) to encourage NGOs to adopt transparent and accountable systems of governance and management.

The policy recommends an alternate central law for registration of NGOs, the setting up of an independent, national level, self-regulatory agency for the NGO sector, expects the NGO sector to set its own benchmarks in good governance, and recommends to take steps to bolster public confidence in the NGO sector by opening it up to greater public scrutiny.

The NITI Aayoghas already initiated steps towards implementing the policy. The task forces/ committees, on the framing of an alternate law and on accreditation norms leading to the setting up of the self-regulatory agency, have been formed with representatives from NGOs and initial meetings have taken place. The NITI Aayoghas also launched the NGO Partnership System, an online platform for NGOs.

NGO responsibility

The effective involvement of NGOs in areas where they have comparative strengths and support, and capacity enhancement should form the basis for Government- NGO collaboration. However, it is important to realize that there are limitations of the NGOs in promoting such collaboration. Some of these limitations are the outcome of weak institutional capacity while others are conditioned by low management potential, e.g. good leadership.

Moreover, such limitations may be the outcome of differing perceptions, between the Government and NGOs. What is important in promoting Government-NGO collaboration is to address the issues in an integrated manner to create an environment of mutual trust and understanding to harness the potentialities and advantages.

In essence, NGOs are not expected to function in isolation from the mainstream of political, economic and social life in Sri Lanka.

They must conform to certain standards, adhere to Government regulations and have their work coordinated at the state level. NGOs can only complement the Government’s planned activity.

Through State platform, NGOs will have the opportunity to legitimise themselves as a social force and expand their influence among sections to which they earlier had little access.

NGOs in Sri Lanka have been successful in bringing about several major reforms to make public officials and politicians accountable. NGOs played a key role in getting the landmark Right to Information (RTI) Act passed to make the government machinery accountable. It is time for NGOs in Sri Lanka to focus their energies at enhancing their own accountability. 



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