- A huge number of NGOs and NPOs operate without any monitoring or supervision in Sri Lanka
- It is the statutory duty of National NGO secretariat to confer NGOs/INGOs official recognition, provide facilitation and supervision under the regulatory mechanism
- We have identified more than 15 crucial areas where we need to introduce new laws
- In the contemporary world, there are more than 10 million NGOs all over the world
Director General and Registrar of the National Secretariat for Non-governmental Organizations Raja Goonaratne spelt out moves for the introduction of a new law to monitor the operations of NGOs and INGOs in Sri Lanka. During an email interview with the Daily Mirror he said that there will be a broad consultative process before the enactment of the new bill.
Excerpts of the interview:
Q Earlier you said that you were working out a new piece of legislation to oversee the activities of the INGOs (International Non-governmental organizations) and NGOs (Non-governmental Organizations) . How far have you progressed?
Well, before I answer this question, I should explain briefly the concept of an NGO, how it has emerged and the current status in Sri Lanka etc.
The concept of non-governmental organization (NGOs) and international non-governmental organizations (INGOs) is a contemporary world phenomenon. They are non-state actors that work in every spheres of social life of global citizens today. NGOs deliver both positive and negative inputs for the socio-economic development.
There is no universal definition for what it is. Simply it means an organization or agency unrelated to main organs of the state mechanism- Legislature, Executive or Judiciary. That is why they are called non-governmental organizations.
An NGO established in one country and operating in another country is generally called international non-governmental organization (INGOs).
International and domestic laws recognise NGOs. For example, Article 71 of the UN Charter confers consultative status to NGOs. The Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) formed the Committee on Non-Governmental Organizations (NGO Committee) in 1946.
In Sri Lanka, NGOs emerged due to her unique hydraulic civilization combined with the Buddhist value systems that promote voluntarily giving away things for the benefit of others (dhana). So, Vauw Sabhas (Irrigation Councils) that maintained and managed small and large scale water reservoirs are considered as the early NGOs in Sri Lanka.
Later, with the three western invasions (1505 - 1972), western- model NGOs/INGOs emerged in Sri Lanka. The western-model early INGOs/NGOs mainly engaged in the propagation of religion. In the post-independence era, several periods can be identified where dramatic increase of NGOs has taken place viz. 1970 (s)-introduction of foreign aid,1978- liberalization of economy, 1983-civil conflict, 1987-89-second youth insurrection, 2004-tsunami, and 2009-end of LTTE terrorism.
In the contemporary world, there are more than 10 million NGOs all over the world. If NGOs were a country, it would be the 5th largest economy. For example in India, it is reported to have over 3.3 Million NGOs. It means there is an NGO for every 400 people. The number of people worldwide donating money to NGOs increased from 1.2 billion in 2011 to 1.4 billion in 2014. By 2030, the number is expected to grow to 2.5 billion.
In Sri Lanka, with little over 37000 registered NGOs (both local and foreign) operating in various parts of the country, their contribution to development, creation of employments and most importantly to attract the much needed foreign exchange is to be highly recognised. Also, their contribution in times of disaster such as the ongoing pandemic is unprecedented.
The primary source of funding for NGOs in Sri Lanka consists of a variety of local and international donor organizations, The principal contributors include (a) various UN agencies,(b) bilateral agencies ( i. e. USAID, Canadian International Development Agency-CIDA, Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation-SDC), (c) international non-governmental organizations such as Save the Children, World Christian Vision etc., (d) local private and public sector organizations, (e) Local and foreign private donors, etc.
However, in the current context, the public perception on NGOs and their operations have dramatically changed and generally are not favorable across the country due to recent Easter Sunday suicidal bomb attack. In addition, there are multiple factors such as mismanagement of funds, directly or indirectly supporting terrorism and separatism, national security concerns, threats to sovereignty, religious and cultural concerns that contribute to this unsavory public perception.
Q What are the lacunas in the present legal system to deal with those organizations?
Let me first explain the current legal system governing NGOs. In fact, before 1980, there was no single legislation for this purpose and NGOs were formed under multiple laws i.e. Societies Ordinance (1891), Companies Act (1938) etc.
In 1980, the Government enacted the Voluntary Social Services Organizations (Registration & Supervision) Act No. 31 (VSSO Act). The main objective of this Act was to introduce a system of registration and supervision of activities of NGOs Initially, Social Services Department enforced this law. In 1996, National Secretariat for Non-governmental Organizations was established for the purpose of implementation of VSSO Act in full.
The VSSO Act has only 18 provisions and it is wholly inadequate to deal with the current complex scenarios that would crop up in connection with multiple activities and enormous amount of donor funds that is channeled to NGO activities. We have identified more than 15 crucial areas where we need to introduce new laws. For example, current laws do not address the issues of accountability and transparency of NGO activities, fair apportionment and equitable distribution of project funds, auditing, and appeal mechanism for beneficiaries and NGOs. Also, there are no provisions to ensure job-security of NGO sector employees and hassle free visa recommendation system for foreign expatriates etc.
In addition to above law, NPO-NGO type of organizations can be formed under “other laws” as well, i.e., Trust Ordinance, Inland Revenue Act No. 38 of 2000 and Companies Act No 07 of 2007. Also, members of parliament form NGOs via private member Bills. Also, it is seen that ministries too register NGOs. Although National NGO Secretariat is the sole state agency which has power to supervise and monitor INGSo/NGOs under VSSO Act, the above mentioned “other laws” do not empower the Secretariat as monitoring body of those NGOs. As a result a huge number of NGOs and NPOs operate without any monitoring or supervision in Sri Lanka.
In the recent past, several attempts have been made to amend VSSO Act;
(a) In 2010, cabinet has given approval to amend the VSSO Act in its meeting held on 08.11.2010 under Cabinet Paper/10/2657/403/075
(b)In 2018, as per a cabinet decision on 20, February, 2018, under Cabinet Paper/18/0272/750/002 the cabinet has given approval draft a Bill to amend the VSSO Act.
(c) The idea of amending the NGOs laws was mooted again in 2019, when the National NGO Secretariat was brought under the Ministry of Defense by Gazette Notification No 2153/12 dated 10.12.2019.
(d) Once again a cabinet paper for amending VSSO Act has been submitted on 02.11.2020 and May 2021 as well.
When it comes to regulation of NGOs/INGOs, basically, there are three types; i.e. self regulation, peer regulation and state regulation. Researchers have observed that the literature on the efficacy of peer regulation is scant (Crack, A.M. 2016).
It should be noted here that it is imperative to consult all necessary stakeholders before reviewing any existing laws, because the role of laws is to harmonize the conflicting interests that would exist among multiple groups. So, firstly, we published an open notice in our websites calling for suggestions on law review. Several organizations and individuals have sent us written comments while others gave their views verbally. Secondly, a Sub-committee consisting of researchers, academics, legal experts, sociologist etc. was appointed for that purpose and the committee held several successful sessions.
Q How do you intend to administer or govern the NGO and INGO activities in Sri Lanka under the proposed law?
Of course, our management and regulatory mechanism is based on well defined policies and principles. So, we will provide all facilities, space and time for INGOs/NGOs to carry out their activities without any fear or favor provided that they comply with the laws of the land and regulatory mechanism established under National NGO Secretariat. The provisions will be made in the new legislation to ensure consultation, consensus, openness, transparency and accountability in all activities. New windows will be made available to INGOs/NGOs to bring their grievances to the notice of regulatory authorities and specific time period will be declared to fix their issues through consultative and reconciliatory approach. The principles of natural justice and the established procedures will be followed in all investigational matters.
Q There are reports about the INGOs and NGOs operating in a manner detrimental to the national interests of the country. What are those activities and how serous is the problem?
Well, I was summoned by the Commission established to inquire into the Easter Sunday bomb attacks to give evidence on those matters. Investigations are ongoing in connection with some of those organizations and the extent of their involvement is yet to reveal.
QIn dealing with the INGOs, in terms of enactment of a law, you are obviously bound to meet some resistance or pressure from some major countries which fund them. What is the mechanism in your hand to address such challenges without antagonising these powerful nations?
Well, as per the famous saying that “man is the worst animal if not for the moral and legal codes,” the role of laws is to harmonize conflicting interests of diverse groups. You know even our breathing is controlled by laws that is why suicide is a punishable offence in penal codes. What those donor countries/ and agencies want is that their fund is used for the specific purpose and its benefit is given to the intended target groups. This is exactly what we want to ensure as the regulatory body by implementing laws.
Q In the aftermath of the Easter Sunday attack, there was much talk about NGOs’ funding activities for radicalisation. What have you identified in that regard? What are the measures to deal with them?
Well, financing terrorism, radicalization and extreme violence and money laundering etc. are global issues that many countries, UN agencies and other regional organization are trying to deal with. In some countries, INGOs and NGOs may get involved in such acts.
So, all in all what I would like to emphasize is that with the enactment of new revised law, NGO sector will be able to carry out its activities with confidence and sense of commitment.