Tuesday, August 19, 2014

From CSOs to Parasites: The Case of Malawi

In their forthrightness, they amassed enough attributes to qualify as subjects, not of pride for God’s sake, but of ridicule.
Indeed, as the leaders of the Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) and Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) took turns in crying wolf- chasing each other like shadows over the surface of a mountain for a chance to shame themselves by making ridiculous requests- they showed that, like politicians, they are unwilling to throw in the towel when the going gets tough.
I am talking of a Southern Region interface meeting which NGO and CSO leaders had with Advisor to the President on NGOs, Mavuto Bamusi, recently as part of national consultations with CSO leaders premised on mending fences and improving collaboration.

May be we should start by defining NGOs and CSOs. According to www.ngopulse.com, CSOs are defined as organised civil society and can come in many forms, some informal and some as formal entities such as NGOs, CBOs, faith-based organisations (FBOs), among many others. This is when a group of individuals come together for a common purpose, as in to fulfill a particular mandate driven by need.

“CSOs have a constituency, as they have a clientele/beneficiaries whom they serve and ideally should represent that clientele,” reads a write up on the website.

On the other hand, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation describes CSOs and NGOs as institutions involved in campaign and research networks, teachers’ unions and religious organisations, community associations, parent and student associations, and social movements.
While the intention of holding the interface meeting must have been good, I soon got disappointed with the demands the leaders of the NGOs and CSOs were making. Save for the legitimate request that there is need to review current laws that regulate the operations of NGOs for the sole purpose that the laws should serve and protect the NGOs and not the government, I found other demands were outright unreasonable.
For instance, one of the NGO and CSO leaders demanded that the government should construct offices for NGOs and CSOs in all the administrative regions of the country. My foot!
Do we mean, after 50 years of independence, the NGOs and CSOs cannot find their own offices? I thought the demand was unreasonable because, already, the government has a load of rotten fruits on its shoulders. I am talking of statutory corporations and government departments that ‘consume’ more than they ‘produce’, piling a heavy burden on the overstretched taxpayer.
Indeed, it is for this reason that the government- of course reeling under the pressure of institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, and bilateral donors- was forced to swallow the bitter pill of privatisation.
In the melee of denationalisation that followed, thousands lost their jobs as the new private owners restructured the hitherto malfunctioning state companies into cash-cows.
Today, in a bid to further reduce the role of the government in the State economy, the talk is about Public Private Partnerships (PPP). To buttress the point, the Privatisation Commission has even changed its name to that effect.
So, why should the government be forced to off-load its burdens through privatisation, and, then, PPP on one hand, and then spend its scanty resources- tax-payers’ money to be precise- on NGOs and CSOs Malawians did not create in the first place?
To make matters worse, one of the CSO and NGO leaders suggested that the regional offices would not be enough; the government should also fund the NGOs and CSOs through Parliament!
What surprised me is the fact that the other NGO and CSO leaders clapped hands. It was such a shame that Bamusi could not gather the courage to tell them off, by ‘humbly’ reminding them that the government had enough on its plate, and that, in fact, it was committed to promoting PPP. What a missed opportunity!
May be these NGO and CSO leaders do not read widely. Otherwise, they would have learned that NGOs and CSOs are not off-springs of the State, despite them being allowed to operate after registering either under the Trustees Incorporation Act or the Companies Act, as is the case in Malawi.
Imagine the government providing free office space and annual subvention to NGOs and CSOs whose mandate is not clear! That would be grotesque, especially when we consider that the aid taps are still dry, and the taxpayer remains overburdened with unnecessary taxes that are only justifiable because the tax base is narrow.
May be the CSO and NGO leaders might not have raised their points had they visited www.ngopulse.com to learn that, ““A member of civil society represents their own views. It is very presumptuous of anyone to claim to represent the view of another as we often see. This does nothing but delegitimise the work done by CSOs and should be guarded against”.

The problem with our CSOs and NGOs is that they pretend, or have, somehow, come to believe, that they represent Malawians, and the views of all Malawians.

But, if I may ask, who ensures that there is transparency in the manner NGOs and CSOs hire their staff? Why, as Madalitso Musa recently observed in his ‘Tales of Time’ column, do some NGO and CSO leaders employ people from their home village? In some cases, half the population of a village finds itself moving to urban areas to fill the staff vacancies existing in an NGO or CSO, leaving half the population to farm and produce all the food back home.

If hunger strikes, should we blame policymakers for not doing enough yet the labour has boarded the next bus to town to make hay while the sun shines?

As things stand now, there are so many things that are unseating about NGOs and CSOs that it would be a non-starter for the government to provide office space and annual subvention to them.

Ironically, one of the non-state actors, the Centre for Multiparty Democracy (CMD), is in the forefront calling for the deregistration of all briefcase political parties!

May be New Labour Party president, Friday Jumbe, had a point when he challenged CMD’s overtures on Times Television on Thursday. Said Jumbe: “Where is CMD getting all the powers? It is just an NGO.”

There, in the statement that ‘It is just an NGO’ lies the pill of sanity for NGOs and CSOs. They are just NGOs and CSOs and should not bother the government- eer, taxpapers- with unreasonable demands. Let NGOs that operate without proper offices be deregistered for wasting Malawians’ time! Let CSOs that have no base be banished from the country.

More so when CSOs and NGOs are christened Partners in Development. Tell me, do partners ‘milk’ the very institutions they were meant to compliment?

 NGOs and CSOs should not begin to resemble the government- in terms of milking the taxpayer through unreasonable demands. The tax-paper, as recounted by history, has had a million economic mishaps since independence in 1964, the very mishaps that have made all post-colonial administrations merry for 50 years now.
I can only hope that the unreasonable suggestions were one of Malawi’s various windings on the road to democratic maturity, and that they will never see the light of day. After all, NGOs and CSOs are necessary in a democracy but lack a sense of purpose when they operate without offices and cry for government funding.

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