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ZAMBIA: NGO Bill Still Inspires No Confidence

Kelvin Kachingwe

LUSAKA, Aug 4 2009 (IPS) - As the Zambian parliament resumes, civil society organisations (CSOs) have come out strongly to oppose the Non-Governmental Organisation (NGO) Bill, which seeks to regulate their operations.

The 2007 NGO Bill was withdrawn from Parliament by the government after civil society protested against it on the grounds that it was a draconian piece of legislature that could not facilitate any meaningful growth of the NGOs in the country.

Non-Governmental Organisation Co-ordinating Council board chairperson, Marian Munyinda, whose organisation is the focal point for the women’s movement in the country, says most of the contentious issues that they raised with Government in 2007 have still not been addressed.

"We told the Government our concerns over the bill, and the ministry of justice told us to discuss the matter on our own as NGOs and then give them our resolutions. We did that, but to our surprise, the concerns haven’t been included in the (revised) bill," she says.

One of the most contentious issues in the bill is the proposal to give the minister discretionary powers to accept or reject nominations for NGO boards.

The bill also vests the government-dominated NGO Registration Board with far-reaching powers to approve the area of work for NGOs, issue policy guidelines on "harmonising" their efforts with the national development plan, and "advise" on strategies for efficient planning of activities.

All NGOs, including community-based organisations, will be required to submit themselves to compulsory registration, which must be renewed every three years. Registration could be denied, under the new bill, in the "public interest" although what this entails is not clearly defined.

Finally, the government can also demand NGOs submit information regarding their activities, accounts and administration. Failure to submit the information – and the bill is silent on the timeframe for complying – could result in suspension or cancellation of registration.

Safeguard NGO autonomy

The Zambia Council for Social Development (ZCSD), an umbrella group of registered NGOs with a membership base of more one hundred NGOs and CBOs, says its members firmly believe in self-regulation as a cornerstone for the advancement of social and economic endeavours of the nation.

"We remind our law makers that in modern constitutional and administrative law, the aim is to minimise the latitude of discretionary powers among public officers for the effective and impersonal management of public affairs," says ZCSD executive director Reverend Malawo Matyola, whose organisation is a member of the World Alliance for Citizen Participation (CIVICUS), a global movement of civil society with members and partners in over a hundred countries.

Govt wants to see coordination

Minister of community development and social services, Michael Kaingu, said the the bill is a way of coordinating NGOs.

He says the government has found it difficult to coordinate NGOs working with children, for example, as there are several Acts of Parliament which exist to supervise them, such as the Companies Act, the Registrar of Societies Act, the Co-operative Act and the Land Deeds Act, thereby making it difficult for to check and control them.

"Lack of coordinated support has led to the fragmentation in programming and duplication of support to children, resulting in reduced quality of services and increasing the cost of programmes. Resources that could have been properly and equally distributed to reach many children in different parts of the country, instead end up going to the same areas and in some instances to the same organisation," Kaingu says.

Margaret Chanda, a political activist resident in Lusaka, says she will support the bill if it is intended to improving the welfare of the people.

"I have known, for instance, many pastors and other people who have pocketed the money meant for the poor children. They have built mansions using donor funds. This is the more reason why we need some mechanism to monitor how donor funds are being used. However, if this Bill is only meant to suppress the checks and balances of NGOs on government, then it shouldn’t even be entertained on the floor of Parliament," she says.

How will govt use new powers?

The experience of the Southern Africa Centre for Constructive Resolution of Disputes (SACCORD), a human rights and governance watchdog, presents a discouraging indication of what government might do with new powers if this bill becomes law.

SACCORD was de-registered by the government last year, only to have its NGO status reinstated by the court. Government again de-registered the centre this year, but a fresh court ruling has allowed it to retain its NGO status while it again challenges the decision.

"The government has been failing to put an end to our activism or existence, because there was no legal basis for de-registering us for holding dissenting views from the government," executive director Lee Habasonda says.

Government enjoys a two-third majority in parliament. To block the bill's passage, Zambian civil society will have to convince members of parliament – especially backbenchers belonging to the ruling party – of the flaws in the proposed legislation.

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