For a while now, there has been altercation between Non- Governmental Organisations (NGOs) and the NGO Board over the board’s intention to implement the NGO Act which obliges all NGOs in this country to be accountable, especially on donor money.
The NGO Board has been asking the NGOs to explain their source of funding and how they have been using the same. On the other hand, the NGOs have repeatedly cried foul, alleging that the board is being used by the government to stifle critical voices.
And for some time, the NGOs have managed to beat the system by buying sympathy from stakeholders who dread government cramp-down on NGOs.
I agree that giving too much power to the government can create a monster that can swallow all the democratic gains that we have registered. Malawians know the pains of having a government with absolute powers. It can reduce the judiciary to a sideshow while the media becomes a platform for praise singers. The police can arrest without warrants and carry out extra-judicial murders.
This is the reason why the NGOs have constantly managed to appeal to emotions of the people and get deadlines set by the board pushed forward.
It might be important to consider giving justice to the devil if it belongs to him. Those of us who subsist on current affairs know that the yarn being sold by the NGOs that the board has not been consultative in its push for accountability is not true. Government has for years been holding consultative meetings with NGOs before Parliament passed the NGO Act of 2001.
There were then consultations over formulation of the NGO Board and how it would co-exist with Council for Non- Governmental Organisations (Congoma) in promoting sanity in the civil society. Nomination to the NGO Board is coordinated by Congoma which calls for a general assembly where people are elected for nominations. The names are then recommended to the government for appointment onto the board. This means that the people who sit on the NGO Board are true representatives of the NGO community in the country.
But just as most NGOs have life executive directors, these directors believe that they have an automatic right to be appointed to the board. Granted, running an NGO that one has formed is a calling and a vocation but it becomes wrong when such dedicated founders attempt to throw their weight on the entire NGO community.
What is at stake here is simple accountability. NGOs normally account to their donors. But the buzzwords world over are downward and upward accountability.
Downward accountability is when NGOs involve and not use the intended beneficiaries and communities. On the other hand, upward accountability is when the NGOs submit to their donors, auditors, the government among others.
Most of our NGOs survive because they only account to some rich donors domiciled in some wealthy world capitals. These donors dole out funds to intended beneficiaries whom they have never seen. Because the donors do not make physical inspections, the NGOs easily whip up reports that fit the accounting framework and satisfy the donors. One would be shocked to learn that most of our NGOs have never been audited and the few that do so never publish their audit results: they are gods unto themselves.
The media are awash with complaints by District Commissioners (DCs) that some NGOs just walk into a district, without consulting the DCs. The NGOs do not even consult the intended beneficiaries on their development needs.The danger with this free-for-all business is that development projects get concentrated to some corners of the country while other areas remain underdeveloped. And these unfortunate areas are usually those that are hard to reach as the NGOs focus on centres along the freeways.
It is delighting to see that the development partners, led by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) support the need for accountability among NGOs. The government, on the other hand, set up the Aid Management Platform (AMP) in the Ministry of Finance to coordinate all donor funded programmes.
The AMP has a provision for NGOs but since most NGOs refuse to be transparent, they frustrated the AMP NGO workspace until it ceased its operations in 2013.
Most Malawians are surprised that despite the plethora of NGOs, there is little to show on the ground. Some NGOs contend that it is difficult for them to be accountable, arguing that one can hardly measure the impact of advocacy programmes. If advocacy programmes are impossible to measure, what indicators do the NGOs use to convince their donors? Indeed how do the NGOs carry out the monitoring and evaluation exercises if this is unattainable?