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NGO Activities Amid Closing Civic Spaces - EDITORIAL

14 Feb 2024 - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}      

On 10 February, this newspaper drew attention to a ‘not so new’ law – the ‘Non-Governmental Organisations (Registration and Supervision) Bill’, which the government claims is now ready. The Bill itself has been in the making for a long period, dating back to the era when our present President was Prime Minister of the country in 2017.

The aim of the bill as its name suggests is to register and supervise the activities of the NGOs in the country. Many Lankan leaders have attempted to use NGOs to promote their particular agendas. Unfortunately, at different times NGOs have fallen for the ruses of politicians. 

Rather than involving themselves in meeting emergency situations or human needs, a number of NGOs have entangled themselves in narrow party political affiliated activities. However, whatever the rights and wrongs of the situation, what is frightening about the ‘Non-Governmental Organisations (Registration and Supervision) Bill’ is its timing. 

It is being brought in at a time when civic spaces are seen to being shut, and opposing points of view suppressed. A few of them come to mind:
The ‘Online Safety Bill’ – an attempt to silence social media users via criminalising dissenting points of view. The new Anti-Terrorism Bill which is nearing completion, and ‘The Broadcasting Authority Bill’ – a threat to mainstream
media freedom. 

In this way, these diverse legislative measures provide the government an opportunity to upload disinformation without space for dissent.
However the ‘NGO Registration and Supervision Bill’ is a reaction to the actions of a number of NGOs who have allowed themselves to be perceived as being aligned to particular
political groupings. 

For instance, quite often, participants at NGO-sponsored protest demonstrations are provided transport, meals and on occasion even ‘batta’ to make up for losses incurred by absenting themselves from workplaces. 
In other words, protestors gather not for belief in a particular cause, but for the add-on monetary benefits, etc. In turn, these practices lead to suspicion that external funding agents have a vested interest in the promotion of such activities.

While the role of NGOs arises out of the government’s inability to meet the particular needs of deprived sections of the community, NGO involvement in the political field is suspicious, to say the least.
NGOs have also taken unto themselves the role of supervising and holding to account, the diverse actions of different governments.

No one questions the right of a private person or group of persons to hold the government to account for its action/inaction on issues of justice or miscarriage of justice. What is questionable, however, is that these groups (NGOs) receive aid from external sources, who may have their own agendas which may be inimical to the public good.

A number of cases come to mind. During the near three decade long ethnic war, large numbers of international NGOs (INGOs) flooded the country. They operated behind the government’s line
on control. 
Thousands of dollars were spent by these INGOs, to ‘uplift’ civilians caught up in a struggle they had no control over. At the end of the war, then Secretary of Defence Gotabaya sent a number of journalists to visit the war-torn areas. 

On their return, the journalists spoke in detail of the deprivation of the people, the dilapidated condition of roads and housing, the lack of food and medical facilities, the LTTE airbase in the Vanni and the large amount of machinery and vehicles abandoned by fleeing LTTEers.
Speaking to the journalists, Gotabaya queried “So what did you see of the work done by the NGOs and INGOs?” No one answered. There was nothing verifiable seen by them. 

Today, there are around 50,000 NGOs working in the country. The groups receive around Rs. 100 billion in foreign funding annually. There is little or no control over the use of these funds or who benefits from them.
We do not need government-appointed supervisors to oversee NGO activities. After all, it is governments’ failures which created the need for NGO activity. The need of the hour is a self-governing body for NGOs. The Editors Guild and the Press Complaints Commission are examples which come to mind.