Africa, Development & Aid, Headlines, Health, Human Rights

HEALTH-ZAMBIA: NGOs in the Hot Seat

Zarina Geloo

LUSAKA, Mar 8 2004 (IPS) - Zambian President Levy Mwanawasa has had an uneasy relationship with civil society from the beginning of his term in office. However, matters worsened recently when he accused AIDS activists of monopolising the funds provided by donors to fight the pandemic.

Mwanawasa’s accusations came hot on the heels of a similarly scathing attack by the Minister of Community and Social welfare, Marina Nsingo. She threatened to deregister the non-governmental organisations (NGOs) which have “mushroomed” over the past decade, many purporting to work for poverty alleviation and with AIDS-related issues.

“People have gotten into the habit of hatching NGOs everywhere, saying they are doing poverty alleviation, HIV/AIDS. But what have they done? Or what are they doing? Because the problems do not seem to be going away,” said Nsingo.

At present, there are about 600 NGOs in Zambia. Over 450 of these work in rural communities, and 150 focus exclusively on HIV/AIDS.

Mwanawasa told a two-day AIDS conference attended by United Nations officials and cabinet ministers from across Southern Africa that most civil society groups were composed of family members who got donor funding under the guise of AIDS prevention programmes. (The conference took place from Mar. 4-5.)

He also lashed out at the United Nations for favouring civil society in the distribution of AIDS funds. The Executive Director of the Joint UN Programme on HIV/AIDS, Peter Piot, acknowledged that this trend “could create confusion in the distribution of funds”.

Mwanawasa said governments had elected representatives who were subjected to closer scrutiny than civil society groups. “Government can be called to account for funding. These NGOs just chew the money and carry on (with) business as usual: no-one asks them anything,” he told delegates.

However, the president’s concerns extend beyond the matter of accountability.

When the head of World Vision, an international NGO, visited Zambia earlier this month, Mwanawasa said civic groups also tended to operate like opposition political parties – rather than partners in development.

“I am happy to note that WV (World Vision) is one of the few organisations that keeps to its operational mandate of fighting HIV/AIDS, unlike other organisations which misuse money meant for programmes.”

This is not the first time that NGOs in Zambia have been lambasted by officials – but it is the first time they have been accused of effectively stealing from the poor. Activists have reacted vigorously to the president’s claims, challenging him to “name and shame” those groups which are failing to deliver.

A spokesman for the Network of People Living with AIDS, Benson Changuta, says Mwanawasa should go ahead and deregister the NGOs which are misusing donor funds, instead of giving all civic groups a bad name.

“There is a general suspicion of civic society because of the kinds of money it (has access to). But people should be careful to substantiate their allegations. Theft is theft; if there is evidence of it let the president reveal it like he has been doing with government corruption,” observed Changuta.

AIDS activist Laura Mbewe, who runs a rural AIDS NGO, adds that there is not a single donor that does not ask for proper audited accounts of the way its funds have been utilised.

“I don’t know why people think that donors treat NGOs differently from government. All money has to be stringently accounted (for). Otherwise, we would have all folded up sometime back,” she told IPS.

Mbewe says that it is in fact government which often fails to account for donor funds. A diplomat who spoke on condition of anonymity echoed this statement, saying donors sometimes found it easier and more cost effective to work through civic organisations.

“The trend now is for community initiatives and community-based support,” said the diplomat. “Government sometimes gets too large and bureaucratic to deal with – and it often does not do too well at implementation level, so we prefer the smaller, cost efficient and community-based organisations.”

Mbewe also maintains that NGOs are able to keep their finger on the pulse of society – and gauge its needs – in a way that the authorities cannot: “NGOs are able to reach places government cannot. They are also better positioned to work with grass roots communities in an informal effective manner.”

She adds that Mwanawasa is allowing his previous clashes with civil society to cloud his judgement on the effectiveness of NGOs: “There have been many political conflagrations between government and civil society with suspicion on both sides. But, this should not harm the good work that both sides do.”

These statements notwithstanding, some believe there are grains of truth in what Mwanawasa has to say. Opposition leader Michael Sata is one of them.

“We have been saying this for a long time, that these NGOs or family businesses as they really are, are just eating money meant for programmes. It has become a business,” he noted.

“Everywhere you go people are working on reducing HIV infection or poverty, but people are still as infected or as poor as ever. Something is not right. You do not need to be a rocket scientist to see what is happening.”

Betty Mukumbwa, who manages a human rights organisation in Lusaka, says all parties would benefit from a government evaluation of programmes for HIV/AIDS.

“We will be able to ascertain whether NGOs are indeed carrying out programmes, and their success or failure,” she observes.

“For our own sakes as NGOs we also need to be clear about whether we are making a difference in the fight against HIV/AIDS. How do you make accusations based on your own anecdotal evidence?"

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