There are over 33 non-governmental organisations (NGOs) operating in Mzimba district alone. These NGOs are implementing various projects and interventions designed to improve the social and economic livelihoods of people.
Ironically, the impact on their interventions on the lives of their intended beneficiaries has been negligible.
In fact, Catherine Ndhlazi, 70, of Janunkha Shaba Village, Traditional Authority M’mbelwa, laments that levels of poverty and destitution have escalated under the watch of the organisations.
Jere says the NGOs do not disclose the amount of money invested in the projects thereby making it difficult for beneficiary communities to track expenditure and demand accountability when there is suspected misappropriation of resources.
“The other problem is that NGOs only come to the area at the initiation and end of the project. During the project implementation phase, they do everything in their various offices,” she narrates.
Transparency International (TI) says NGOs have lately taken an increasingly prominent role as development assistance implementers, especially in fragile states where they often provide essential services, which are traditionally under the responsibility of the public sector.
And with the growing influence of the non-profit sector over service delivery as well as their increased involvement in the development of national and international policies, transparency and accountability of NGOs have become an emerging area of concern.
“As resources channelled through the non-profit sector increase, NGOs are under greater scrutiny and pressure to demonstrate that they are using their resources in an efficient, accountable and transparent manner, and can be held accountable for their effectiveness, organisational reliability and legitimacy,” TI says.
In his presentation made at this year’s annual conference of the Malawi Local Government Association (Malga) in Mzuzu on Friday last week, NGO Board of Malawi Chief Executive Officer, Voice Mhone, disclosed that the annual spending of the NGOs does not reflect development activities being implemented.
Mhone expressed concern that while transparency and accountability should have been the guiding operating principle, the local NGOs have fallen short of the NGO Act by failing to file and submit annual reports to the government as well as their constituents.
“When the NGO Board tries to enforce the law, they complain that the government is shrinking their civic space. But that’s not what the NGO Act intends to achieve,” said Mhone.
“Currently, the NGOs’ total minimum annual expenditure stands at an average of K4 billion per council, translating into K1.4 trillion per year. Yet, there is nothing much they can point at as success stories for the huge amount of money invested in their various interventions,” he added.
“Furthermore, most NGOs do not submit reports on their operations to the appropriate authorities such as local councils, and NGO Board, which raises questions on their transparency and accountability,” he said.
Mwanza District Commissioner (DC) Michael Chimbalanga says it is high time the NGO Board started conducting periodic audits of the projects initiated with donor funding.
Chimbalanga disclosed that most of the NGOs operating in his district refuse to be subjected to public scrutiny.
“But they are very quick to mobilize people to rise up against the council secretariat when something goes wrong. Is this really their area of intervention? What are we supposed to do when such scenarios occur?” he asked.
In response, Mhone disclosed that NGOs have been operating in Malawi without a policy leading to weak coordination and regulation.
He complained that the absence of the NGO Policy is hindering the board to regulate the operations of the NGOs to maximise benefits of the projects to beneficiary communities.
Apparently, the government developed an NGO Policy, which was launched in April 2019, to set out a framework that strengthens the relationship between the NGO sector, the government, and local councils.
The policy aims to enhance capacities, accountability and effectiveness of NGO work to the benefit of Malawians while the goal is to create a conducive environment for the effective operations of the NGO sector and its contribution to national development.
The policy was designed to enable Malawi to achieve strengthened accountability, transparency and responsiveness of NGOs and impr oved coordination within the NGO sector.
On the other hand, the policy intends to create an enabling legal and institutional framework for protection and participation of stakeholders in the NGO sector and strengthen mechanisms for collaborative relationship between NGOs, the government, funding agencies and other stakeholders.
“Additionally, it will improve transparency and accountability of NGOs within the NGO sector; and strengthen the capacity of relevant stakeholders in the NGO sector,” Mhone said.
However, the National Advocacy Platform Nap), a coalition of NGOs working to promote and safeguard human rights, suspected that the government intends to use such laws to shrink their operating space.
Nap chairperson Benedicto Kondowe called for support from international civil society to build the capacity of the local CSOs to empower them to demand and promote and protect civic space in the country.
Kondowe also asked the government to review and amend the NGO Act to reflect the spirit of constitutionalism.
“There is a need for a robust, responsive and inclusive NGO Policy that will address the challenges faced by CSOs. Government must come up with a law that protects human rights defenders,” he said.
But Presidential Advisor on Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs), Martha Kwataine, assured the civil society that the Tonse Alliance government is committed to ensuring that there is a level playing field for local and international NGOs operating in different spaces within Malawi.
“But get me right! I am not saying we will entertain and create a conducive environment for everyone, including tricksters and the lazy type. I am saying this because we all know that the credibility and conduct of some of the organisations leaves a lot to be desired,” Kwataine warned.
She added that public trust in civil society organisations is paramount; hence, the need for NGOs to maintain highest standards of integrity, transparency and accountability.
“Often, corruption, wastage and mismanagement of resources have eroded the confidence of the public in our work. We are appealing to all NGOs and CSOs to ensure that funds obtained from donors are used for the intended purpose and that all cases of fraud and corruption must be treated as is expected.
“It is a mockery when you watch a CSOs stand on the podium or take to the streets to demand accountability from the government when their house is really surviving on the same fraud and corruption,” Kwataine said.