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Taming NGOs with national laws

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NJOKHO-LUNGU— They made some suggestions

As recently as July 2020, the air was saturated with fears that, by and by, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in the country were being squeezed dry and left in a small corner to rot.

When National Advocacy Platform (NAP) Board Chairperson Benedicto Kondowe raised the sentiments, NGOs were under siege, probably because the citizenry, urged on by civil society organisations (CSOs) such as Human Rights Defenders Coalition and NGOs, were protesting results of the May 21 2019 presidential election.

At the zenith of government and CSO and NGO leaders’ tussling, some representatives of the latter were arrested on questionable charges.

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It had to take the Non-Governmental Organisations (NGO) Board of Malawi’s intervention, after its leaders assured CSO and NGO leaders that their lives were not in danger, that tension simmered, at least temporarily.

When NAP held an inclusive CSO conference on governance and human rights in July last year, Kondowe observed that both the hostile environment in which NGOs and CSOs operated under DPP and the tranquil environment that prevailed after Tonse Alliance’s ascendancy to power had the potential to stifle operations of NGOs and CSOs..

“Following change of government, there is danger that CSO actors could step back further. We need to consolidate our efforts in order to protect our civic space. We must remain vigilant.

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“It is within our mandate, as non-State actors, that we hold government to account. Malawians should have a share of the national cake regardless of which political party they follow,” Kondowe said.

Of course, the NGO Board of Malawi was not one to keep quiet when one of its own babies feared for the worst.

After all, the NGO Board had drawn the ire of CSOs and NGOs that feared that it, through the NGO Amendment Bill, bring about draconian rules. What with an NGO Policy being in the kitchen at the time!

Director of Economic and Monitoring Services at NGO Board of Malawi Geoffrey Chimwala said they were there to serve the interests of NGOs, hence they would always work in the interest of NGOs and the citizenry.

“We will continue providing a conducive environment for the work of NGOs and CSOs in the country. They are free to do anything because we know they are complementing government’s efforts in improving the lives of Malawians. We only ask them to do these things in the rightful manner, to be transparent and accountable and to ensure that all people benefit from their work because we all serve Malawians,” he said at the time.

He added that the NGO Policy, which was launched in 2019, promoted constant engagement between NGO Board officials and NGO representatives.

He cited the establishment of steering committees.

“For example, we have in place a technical committee with membership drawn from various NGO and CSO networks. We also have research institutions, including one from the University of Malawi. All stakeholders, including traditional leaders, are involved and will be providing technical guidance in the implementation of the NGO Policy. They will be updating the steering committee once it is established,” Chimwala is quoted as saying.

So, probably, CSO and NGO leaders were— by fearing for the worst, in terms of civic space— just nursing hangover fears because, before the June 23 2020 fresh presidential election, which culminated in the then governing Democratic Progressive Party relinquishing power, the atmosphere was poisonous as the then rulers seem to have an axe to grind with non-State actors.

More so because, after the Tonse Alliance took over the joysticks of power late June, the tension suddenly disappeared. It was as if a new dawn was born.

There are indications, however, that there is still a long way to go to promote the work on non-State actors in the country.

Late last year, NGO representatives in Thyolo District expressed concern over the K250,000 registration fee they are required to pay for them to implement development initiatives in the Southern Region district.

This prompted stakeholders to re-establish what they call the ‘District NGO Board’ in their last-minute attempt to enhance coordination between Thyolo District Council officials and NGO leaders.

The district board now registers and regulates operations of organisations operating in the district.

But this has not led to the evaporation of NGO actors’ fears that the government is out to get them. For instance, Thyolo CSOs Secretary Moses Kaunda has been maintaining that the registration fee is too .

“My thought on registration fee is that it could be better if the NGO Board Officer firstly made consultations either by inviting representatives of all NGOs. It is not good to impose registration fees on stakeholders.

Service Centre Officer for NGO Board in Thyolo Gilbert Mwafulirwa maintained, however, that their goal is to magnify NGOs’ contribution to community development initiatives.

It also promotes transparency and accountability, he added.

Recently, Vice-President Saulos Chilima commended the NGO Board of Malawi for being an effective regulator of civil society sector in the country. He said transparency and accountability were the hallmark of democracy.

Chilima has, on his part, already met with representatives of NGOs, who he regards as key to the implementation of his reforms agenda.

“The reforms that the NGO Board is implementing as well as those under proposition seek to align the socio-economic development contribution by the non-State actors to Malawi’s national development goals,” Chilima said, further pointing out that the NGO sector spends over K1 trillion on development initiatives in the country, Chilima said.

Meanwhile, key development partners (DPs) have weighed in on the proposed NGO Act Amendment Bill, recommending that the NGO Board of Malawi should conduct comprehensive and inclusive consultations before taking the Bill to Parliament.

Among other things, the NGO Act Amendment Bill seeks to transform the NGO Board of Malawi into a more powerful NGO regulatory authority. It also seeks to impose new stiffer penalties, including criminalisation, in case of malpractices by NGOs.

But the donors feel that the proposed Bill is still not sensitive to human rights and has the potential to limit civic space.

The concerned DPs include the European Union (EU), United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and Irish Aid.

They have, therefore, recommended that there be thorough consultations before the Bill goes to the National Assembly for debate.

Both UNDP Portfolio Manager Responsible Institutions and Citizen Engagement Agnes Chimbiri and NGO Board Director of Corporate Services Linda Njikho-Lungu confirmed that the meeting took place.

However, Chimbiri said she was not mandated to speak to the media. She referred the matter to UN Resident Coordinator Maria Jose Torres Macho, who could not be immediately reached for a comment.

On the other hand, Njikho- Lungu said the main fear among the DPs was that hasty changes to the Act could limit civic space for CSOs in Malawi.

“They made some suggestions, which include the review of the proposed name NGO Regulatory Authority. The DPs felt that the word ‘authority’ is instilling fear among sector players; hence, we need to review it,” she said.

Njikho-Lungu added that the DPs recommended that a clear roadmap on the amendment Bill and consultation meetings done expeditiously.

She said the donors recommended that the Board should get inputs from Malawi Human Rights Commission, the Ministry of Civic Education and National Unity, the Human Rights Defenders Coalition (HRDC), Malawi Police Service and the Anti-Corruption Bureau (ACB), among other players.

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