Bond members have undoubtedly encountered what are commonly referred to as ‘NGO laws’, be it the Charity Commission of the UK, the Charities and Societies Agency of Ethiopia or the NGO Secretariat in Sri Lanka. However, having just worked in Ethiopia and now Sri Lanka, two countries that have used ‘NGO laws’ extensively to manage and shape civil society, it is evident they are creating increasingly complex challenges for the development sector.
In Ethiopia, for example, advocacy and ‘rights-based’ work are ruled-out for NGOs who get more than 10% of their income from abroad (just about all NGOs). While in Sri Lanka, NGOs are overseen by the Ministry of Defence and over 600 NGOs have been closed down (nearly half of all NGOs) in the past two years.
Penny Lawrence, International Director of Programmes at Oxfam GB states “NGOs laws are valid in the sense there is a legitimate role for government in coordinating such activities and asserting national authority over what is done. However where the NGO laws seem harmful is where they repress civil society development or when, in government’s eyes, they equate civil society to political opposition.”
In my experience, these laws are having a significant impact. Like many others, I found it virtually impossible to support any advocacy work in Ethiopia, for instance, even on subjects as seemingly politically safe as reproductive health and rights. NGOs could deliver the service and provide the technical support but anything resembling advocacy or rights-based work was out of the question, even when done by local partners with their own local governance structures.
Responding to this challenge Penny Lawrence suggests that “a core role for an organisation like Oxfam is to push the limits to ensure that local space for civil society is protected. It is important for international NGOs to support our national partners and question new laws or policies that affect civil society space. With our international backing we can usually take more risks than local partners but we need to manage the risks carefully. The key is collaborating and sharing in response to these laws, nationally and globally. This is an area we all need to work on further.”
Roy Trivedy, Head of the UK’s DFID Civil Society Department, adds “In countries where the space for legitimate civil society activities is curtailed, the UK government is willing to raise this issue in its dialogue with government ministers and officials.” As well as the practical challenges of NGO laws, there are ideological questions now being asked of NGOs when working in the context of such laws. To what extent can NGOs put aside their more ideological work when a government forces the NGOs into a technical corner? There’s no right or wrong answer - but it’s a question coming increasingly to the fore.
The Networker coverage of Cambodia showed that the international community is willing to intervene on these matters but to what extent is this possible in Ethiopia, where realpolitik seems to dominate, or in Sri Lanka, where any protests by donors would be just be rebuffed as them interfering in national affairs? There are also no easy answers but donors can continue to support efforts and multilaterals such as the EU and UN could be more coordinated on these issues. Whatever happens next, NGO laws are not going to go away, and to paraphrase a message born from socialism but as applicable to advocates of the Big Society, the best option seems not to mourn, but to organise.
The author has 12 years experience of programme management in the development and humanitarian sector in the UK, East Africa, Latin America and South Asia.
This article is written anonymously as the author works in a country with strict NGO laws. Please send all comments to Jemma Ashman to forward. - See more at: http://www.bond.org.uk/the-devil-is-in-the-detail-ngo-laws#sthash.ow3qTkgi.dpuf