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Wednesday 20 November 2019
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Commentary

Jump or die, says Parliament

I am not given to homilies but the one I find myself repeating is this one by Theodore Roosevelt: Nothing worth having comes easily. That constant reminder that the things in life that are really worthwhile almost always have to be fought for is what keeps a lot of people who run civil society organisations or non-profit organisations getting out of bed in the mornings.

Few of us really signed up for a protracted series of battles, but entering the world of “the third sector” between government and business, one soon realises that working to sustain and improve the human condition by paying attention to details of societal need that gets overlooked in the big picture is really about overcoming a depressing series of hurdles. Many of the existing laws and policies that govern non-profit rganisation taxation and financial reporting are confused and in serious need of proper consideration and consolidation to allow the civil-society sector to be still more productive and efficient. We work in a very disabling environment.

Essentially, there should be two types of civil-society activity: the delivery of on-the-ground projects which deliver services that government does not or cannot; and the advocacy that helps create the space for those in the trenches.

Sadly, what we have is not so clear-cut and most civil-society organisations are underresourced, with people in the sector trying to do both, but really having little time for tending to matters of policy-making and maco-ing big business and government, which is critical – witness what happened in the Parliament recently that threatens to close down many small NPOs.

In developing countries like ours, civil society plays a valuable role in reaching parts that officialdom and large-scale investment cannot. I have heard it said that without civil-society action this country would not function, but the relationship between government and the sector is not one of mutual regard.

Nothing makes this point more clearly than the Non-Profit Organisations Bill, which our Parliament passed and which will make the already hard life of the typical NGO unbearably difficult if it is not already running a well-managed business.

In 2016, the government signalled its intention to comply, finally, with international imperatives to improve our fiscal management that tolerates corruption. or run the risk of being blacklisted, yet again, for being a poorly governed country. The Attorney General therefore introduced legislation intended to comply with the regulations of the Financial Action Task Force on Money Laundering (FATF), but his NPO Bill has proven unpopular, since at first glance it appears punitive and seems to assume that all NPOs are corrupt.

The fact is that very little is known about the NPO sector, like how many NPOs exist and how they are governed. To map the territory, the new law will require all NPOs to register. or each person involved in running the organisation, at any level, will face a fine of $50,000 or a seven-year prison sentence, plus the risk of deregistration and forfeiture of property.

It is right that NPOs should register, and I am sure there are rogue entities that would not want to do so, but for the rest of us legitimate organisations, the burden of a potential maze of bureaucracy makes one want to stay in bed tightly curled up.

It is a bit galling, too, when one prides oneself on best practice, to have to prove that a literary development agency such as the one I run is not being misused by terrorist groups, posing as a legitimate company but really acting as a conduit for terrorist financing.

This is not special pleading, but our non-profit company was externally audited from the very first year of operations and is overseen by a board of directors for whom good governance is paramount. We have been internally audited by our main funder and never failed to hold an AGM or regular meetings, which are closely recorded.

This may not seem like a lot of work, but when it is being undertaken by one, possibly two, individuals, who must also do the work in the trenches, people like me are most of the time on life-support machines. Not that we are martyrs, but we simply cannot afford the financial resources to do better.

We all want a better-run country, but as fellow columnist Colin Robinson pointed out a few weeks ago, government has ignored the FATF guidelines that a "one-size-fits-all" approach would be inconsistent with the proper implementation of…the FATF standards”, and also that, “Developing cooperative relationships among the public and private sectors and with non-profits is critical.” Government must now introduce funded measures to train NPOs to operate legally and also recognise the financial burden that best practice requires. To do that needs more legislation to develop and protect the sector.

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