16 July 2014

GO-NGO pots and kettles

The Government has taken some tentative steps to keep NGOs in check.  Although the big-names in the NGO fraternity have howled in protest, a careful reading of the directive issued by the NGO Secretariat clearly indicates that there’s been little more than reiteration of existing caveats pertaining to NGO activity.  Moreover, those with the shrillest objections do not even belong to NGOs that currently come under the purview of the Secretariat.  Only some 1400 NGOs are registered with the Secretariat while many times that number registered under the Company Act as well as other legal mechanisms for registration. 

The Government’s position is that NGOs cannot exceed mandates.  That’s fair enough.  The Secretariat states that the NGO Act will be amended to bring other outfits registered variously but not with the Secretariat under its purview.   Nothing wrong in that either.  Simply, if NGOs are required to submit activity plans for the year which can help the Secretariat monitor if mandates are not exceeded, ‘NGO-companies’ will not have to submit to similar scrutiny. 

NGOs as well as the Opposition have objected to the Secretariat being housed within the Defence Ministry.  Why they remained silent until this ‘crack down’ is a mystery, but nevertheless they do have a point.  The only defense for the government is the fact that some NGOs have operated in ways that have raised serious questions about compromising national security, both during the time the LTTE existed militarily and after May 2009 too.  That however is not reason enough to have in place a blanket and high-handed policy on monitoring all NGOs.

No country can be faulted for taking precautions against elements that can compromise a hard won peace.  On the other hand one can easily go overboard with precaution.  Indeed it is a fine line between protecting country and safeguarding regime-interest.  That line is currently blurred and this blurring gives credence to some of the arguments against control. Not all objectors have the moral authority to cry foul however, given track records of aiding and abetting terrorism as well as complicity in well known destabilization efforts initiated by foreign governments. 

What we are seeing from the side of the Government is what can be called early signs of direct control over the NGO sector.  A statement about monitoring, reiteration of existing rules and expression of intent in corralling all NGOs under one monitoring authority can be described as ‘long overdue’.  Indeed, many discussions on the NGO sector have called for that kind of streamlining.  NGOs have not helped their cause by acting as though the ‘non’ part of the acronym is equivalent to ‘anti’ and as such they are blessed with impunity, are above the law and entitled to do the ‘as we please’.  The current monitoring regime, some will argue, is rudimentary, full of holes and inadequate in ensuring that entities largely dependent on foreign funds and therefore beholden to uphold donor-agenda do not act in ways detriment to the national interest, including political stability and national security. 

For all this, the most compelling argument against the current moves by the Government is the moral objection: a government and an institutional arrangement that thumbs its metaphorical nose at ‘mandate’ has no moral authority to demand that anyone, NGOs included, stick within mandate-parameters. 

So we left with two entities, the apparatus of Governmental Organizations and that of the Non-Governmental Organizations, endowed with the right to point self-righteous fingers at each other.  Ironically, each accuses the other of being bad boys and girls when it comes to governance including transparency, accountability and flouting or circumventing established rules and procedures.  Both are recipients of ‘donor-dollars’ (or Euros or Yuan or whatever), both adept at double-speak, selective objection, shameless politicking and peopled with unscrupulous racketeers.  It’s all black.  It’s all about pots and kettles. 

Indeed, we can conclude that strange as it may be, the two entities depend on each other.  If one were to correct itself the other would have to close up shop or at least have certain shops closed (like say the ‘Monitoring Unit’ if such exists within the NGO Secretariat).  It is hard to imagine that NGO bigwigs would welcome that kind of eventuality with wild applause.