The “Satanic Verses” that are the proposed Zimbabwe NANGO Private Voluntary Organizations (PVO) Amendment Bill

24 Jan

I have heard about the NANGO proposed PVO Amendment Bill of September 2013 (hereinafter referred to as the NANGO document) but had never taken time to go through the document. Out of curiosity I have since gone through the document. My, was I astounded by the contents of this document – the 2004 NGO Bill reincarnated with some “Satanic Verses” added. Excuse my French, but I think the document pokes holes into itself for a number of reasons. In all fairness the document tries in vain to take PVOs and civil society organizations exactly where they are coming from. The NANGO document tries to introduce MORE government by giving the responsible Minister unnecessary powers, overburdening the political arms of the state, introducing frivolous checks on NGOs and clearly in one way or the other try to belittle NGOs as entities and people who cannot think on their own and need “direction” at every turn from the state.

First of all the background of the document rightly mentions the need to preserve NGO/Private Voluntary Organizations’ space and what efforts have been made in the past to preserve such rights as freedoms of assembly, association and expression. What appears in the text/sections of the NANGO document purporting to be championing the PVOs’ cause directly contradicts the quest to fight for such freedoms. This has been an issue since 2004 when the NGO Bill was introduced by the Zimbabwe government.

Secondly, in its Article/section 3, the NANGO document purports to seek a conciliatory position with the government by offering the Minister responsible for administering the same Act the right to appoint board members.  The logic behind this position skips me. There will NEVER be a point whether in good or bad times that more government will be necessary or welcomed in handling welfare, watchdog or other voluntary organizations. It is not the government’s duty to be running the day to day affairs of PVOs except in banana republics fearful of their people. Civil society organizations have numerous roles part of which includes being watchdogs of the state. It is not possible to imagine such private organizations as those that investigate torture, investigate corrupt government institutions, or those that represent such victims to have board members appointed by a state organ.

Thirdly and honestly what is this obsession with having lawyers or persons with legal backgrounds sitting in each and every body that is appointed by the state? Does the NANGO document want to argue here that it would be necessary for even a small rural PVO or any other organisation for that matter to have a whole lawyer sitting on the Board? NGOs can always hire or seek legal opinion from pro bono or commercial legal enterprises if required. They do not need more government or in house lawyers all the time.

The sheer numbers of personnel and appointments by the Minister proposed by the NANGO document are astounding. 3 members appointed by the Minister, 1 lawyer from the Judicial Services Commission and 3 senior reps from Home Affairs, Finance and Ministry administering the Act. My word! Where in the world do people get all this time to waste sitting in board meetings for PVOs for that matter? I will assume that this is just a simple way of trying in every way possible to reign in the high unemployment rates in Zimbabwe. Otherwise, what other explanation is there to give for such suggestions? I see this as more of an appeasing strategy to the sitting government whether in good or bad times. The context and setting in which this NANGO document has been written does not make things any better. We all know how the present government has behaved in the past and present towards NGOs. Home Affairs – CIOs, Finance – to try to scrutinize sources of funding. Could this be a way to appease them, I wonder?

Number five. There are issues that I find very problematic in the same Article/section 3 of the NANGO document. Public law cannot certainly be used to determine the tenure of board members in PVOs. This should be left to the discretion of the members of such organizations or their boards. Those rules should be left to state/statutory bodies and other bodies dealing with public oversight and so on.

The NANGO document in another section tries again to appear conciliatory and suggests that the Chairperson and Vice Chairperson have to be selected from the non government linked board members. This does not solve problems with interference or necessarily give the Chairperson and Vice more powers. The fact that the Board is inhabited by persons appointed by the state is enough reason to deter the smooth function of that PVO stifling free expression, assembly and association as the Government through the Minister can now determine who those PVOs can meet and what they can discuss in the Board meetings. The NANGO document has this illusory touch to it which flies in the face of democracy and seeks to trample on the cardinal principles of the freedoms of association, assembly and expression.

Section 3(5) of the NANGO document touches on the issue of remuneration of the “non government” Board members. I do not see the need for such issues to be legislated on and neither should they concern the government. I stand to be corrected but this section just looks unnecessary to me. Less government please!

The seventh point concerns the issue of the National Council of Private Voluntary Organizations which the NANGO document suggests will be help with the “coordination and networking of all PVOs operating in Zimbabwe”. Unless there is a very clear explanation and logic to this suggestion it simply does not hold water. For starters, what organizations will fall under this proposed council? Will this include international NGOs as well or those registered outside Zimbabwe? On what basis has the 25 representatives been suggested and will it be sufficient to represent all the various NGO sectors operating in Zimbabwe? Well, the same question can be asked of Parliaments and whether the numbers will ever be sufficient to represent the whole population in a country or whether in fact the numbers stipulated by the country’s constitution will be too high. All the same my point and question stands?

The NANGO document in the same section suggests the setting up of a code of conduct “for the effective and efficient running of the registered voluntary organizations” and the creation of an environment in which they can supposedly “THRIVE”. This thinking seems too naïve to be believable. PVOs in Zimbabwe have failed in certain instances to thrive because of the stifling environment caused by MORE GOVERNMENT through the state security officials, repressive laws and adding more powers and ambiguous amendments will not solve the problem. I will suggest that all that is simply needed is to amend or repeal the laws that have up to this day stifled civic operations such as the broadcasting laws, the laws that proscribe the questioning of the President from being questioned etc.

The NANGO document creates this fallacy in its concluding sections by advocating that complaints from the public or interested persons should be referred to the Council. I would say that if there were any complaints against the staff of the organisation then they would be dealt with through simple means such as the suggestion boxes, and other feedback mechanisms of those same institutions. Failure to resolve such matters and depending on the gravity of the concerns the matters could be reported to the police. This idea of creating watchdogs over other PVOs’ spaces is unnecessary. NGO staff who will be sitting in this proposed Council will now have to sit and purportedly investigate whatever little compliant that comes from the public and turn away from the responsibilities they were mandated to carry in their own organizations. This is not realistic.

Finally Section 11(3) of the NANGO document purports to suggest that there is a significant gap in the management of PVOs which needs to be addressed by trainings offered by the suggested Council. NGOs employ people who are well trained and qualified in most instances. Where these groups are not well equipped in terms of technical expertise they can always refer to academic institutions and other sources of expertise including government itself if needed. It cannot be the duty of any other body to be statutorily mandated to help NGOs supposedly manage their resources and functions. PVOs lacking in such capacities can always be assisted in one way or another by seeking help from like – minded organizations.

With all due respect, I am of the opinion that this NANGO sponsored PVO Amendment Bill instead of taking the fight for PVOs freedoms of expression, assembly and association to a higher level, will instead do the reverse. There is need to revisit the proposed document in a number of way and in fact scrap most of the suggestions as they serve as a reincarnation of the “Satanic Verses” which were the 2004 NGO Bill in one way or the other.

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