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Saturday 20 July 2019
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Commentary

In pari materia backatcha

Six months ago, I wrote about “two legislative trains that have the potential to impact civil society organisations soon…where Government conductors aren’t yet listening to civil society on the track.” One struck last Friday. AMT/CFT/FP!! And slammed us straight into the FIU.

I grumble often about our rapacious banking sector’s anti-consumer practices, especially the absence of any well-designed product addressing the needs of thousands of NGOs.

One organisation was divorcing one local bank, opening new accounts with another. Two visits, long waits, and new forms we weren’t told we needed to complete later, they indicated that, as new customers, they couldn’t offer us a chequing account. Instead, we could open a savings account for six months so they could monitor us, and re-apply then.

Just what would they evaluate? You can’t overdraw your savings. I wondered: Why pay hefty fees and endure long lines for poor customer service from people I’m giving my money, who’ll lend and earn interest on it? I should buy a safe for the office, and do cash transactions.

That’s what TT banking policies drive NGOs to do.

Another time, during Uganda’s anti-gay crackdown, a group tried to help an NGO there keep people safe. We went to where we’d banked for years to wire-transfer funds. The officer asked for information about the recipient — part of due diligence — so we gave their website. We had to print it out and bring it in, we were told. We returned, to be told this time the country was too risky, we couldn’t send our own money there, even at our own risk. I called Western Union, who told me I could walk in unknown off the street and wire the money. The fee was just larger.

Another organisation almost didn’t open a bank account. They couldn’t get an appointment for weeks, then every director was required to show up together. And fill out a long list of personal information. Solution B: the shoebox. But again: avoid banks.

I tried to register an NGO with Inland Revenue. Every director, even young people who’d never worked, needed BIR numbers. Months later, we gave up. In contrast, NIS met one director at his home and filled out their forms so they could pay in.

If the attorney general or finance minister asked me how to prevent money-laundering and financing violence by NGOs, my first answer would have been: ensure our ease in banking and compliance, so we’re part of the system.

In October when I wrote about the trains, I recounted something that rarely happens. Led by the United Way, NGOs got together and got ahead of a policy issue.

The CSOs for Good Governance project debated and developed a bold white paper with recommendations for a revised regulatory framework for TT’s civil society sector. And sent it to the Attorney General. Read it here:

http://uwtt.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/03/CSOs4GG-Advocacy-Paper-Legal-Fiscal.pdf

The proposals would take a “whole-cloth” approach to the twin goals of strengthening oversight of NGOs and creating a more enabling and predictable regulatory environment in which groups function. The paper lays out several weaknesses in both areas, and concrete solutions.

The AG keeps sending messages for me about the 26 laws affecting LGBTI people he can’t change chirrip-chirrip, but must “in pari materia.”

So imagine my surprise reading the Non-Profit Organisations Bill the House passed Friday, a week after its introduction, to enact TT’s compliance with the Financial Action Task Force on Money Laundering (FATF)’s peer norm on ensuring non-profits aren’t misused by terrorist groups posing as legitimate entities or as conduits for terrorist financing.

Leaving in place the patchwork of broken and outdated laws and policies that govern non-profits’ recognition, tax status and reporting, the bill imposes the Financial Intelligence Unit as the non-profit regulator, requires all non-profits, regardless of form, to register, punishes them for fundraising if they don’t, and their controllers up to $50,000 and seven years’ jail for breaching small rules, with deregistration and forfeiture of the NGO’s property. It solves none of the problems the United Way/CSOs for Good Governance paper detailed, and shows no evidence anyone drafting the bill read it.

The bill was shared with lawyers beforehand, but mysteriously not the NGOs it would affect. NGOs want to be part of the work of anti-money laundering/countering the financing of terrorism/financing the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. These shouldn’t be foreign acronyms in legislation with no consultation.

FATF guidance itself proposes a flexible, proportionate and risk-based approach to dealing with identified threats of terrorist financing abuse to non-profit organisations. “Developing cooperative relationships among the public and private sectors and with non-profits is critical,” it reads, “A ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach would be inconsistent with the proper implementation of…the FATF standards.”

FATF recommendations — like human rights — are norms agreed to between states. If I’ve got to wait for the AG’s whole-cloth approach to access my internationally recognised right to consensual sex, we can take that same approach and time with NGOs.

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