Global Policy Forum

NGOs Fear Law Will Hobble Their Activities

Human rights activist fear that the Zambian Government uses a new NGO law to silence critics and weaken civil society. The law obliges NGOs to re-register every five years and submit information every year on their activities and funds. This may lead to a decrease in the small civil society organisations, and development experts claim that the law will have a poor impact on their development work in Zambia because of their large cooperation with local NGOs.

August 26, 2009


Zambian civil society fears the imminent introduction of legislation designed to regulate non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that may compromise their independence and even result in a clampdown on their operations.

The 2009 NGO Bill, passed by parliament last week and now awaiting the signature of President Rupiah Banda to become law, calls for "the registration and co-ordination of NGOs, to regulate the work, and the area of work, of NGOs operating in Zambia."

If the bill becomes law, a 16-member board will be established by the community development minister, consisting of not less than eight government officials and a minimum of two representatives from civil society, to "receive, discuss and approve the code of conduct [of NGOs], and ... provide policy guidelines to NGOs for harmonizing their activities to the national development plan of Zambia".

NGOs will be compelled to re-register every five years and submit annual information on their activities, funders, accounts, and the personal wealth of their officials; failure to comply could result in the suspension or cancellation of registration.

However, civil society leaders and human rights activists fear the proposed new law could be used by government to silence critics and erode civil society.

Finn Petersen, country director of MS-Zambia, the Danish Association for International Co-operation in Zambia, which works to build local democracy and land rights, and funds over 20 local advocacy NGOs and community-based organizations, told IRIN the proposed legislation would hamper the operations of NGOs.

"The bill is rather restrictive than facilitative in championing the development agenda. The bill imposes serious restraints on the work and functioning of the NGOs, which will ultimately be detrimental to Zambian society as a whole and to development work in particular, as we rely on partnerships with local organisations to carry out programmes," Petersen said.

"Ultimately, we fear that the effect of the law will be to render it very difficult for NGOs, who provide critical analysis and checks and balances on the sitting government, to function properly," he commented.

"It could also lead to a dwindling number of civil society organisations, in particular small locally-based ones, as they will struggle to meet the criteria of the bill. This will eventually be detrimental to allowing the voice and free expressions of the population living in rural and remote areas to be heard."

Eroding civil society

NGOs are currently registered by the Registrar of Societies, a quasi-government body, but the government has little power to restrain NGOs from voicing political dissent, and any attempt to de-register an organization usually involves long court actions. 

The Southern African Centre for Constructive Resolution of Disputes [SACCORD], a human rights and good governance watchdog, was de-registered by the government in 2006, only to have its NGO status reinstated by the court.

"What we would have loved is a law where NGOs self-regulate themselves. We are very much concerned and are appealing that the president should not assent to the bill at all, otherwise it will be a bad legacy from his presidency," Lee Habasonda, executive director of SACCORD, told IRIN.

"Because of the way this law has been framed, it will discourage professionally qualified people from going into the NGO sector. When they hear that the NGOs are being ordered to declare their personal assets by a board of people who don't seem to be sufficiently able to supervise them, then they may just shun venturing into the sector," Habasonda said.

"The five-year period will bring in a lot of insecurity among the NGOs participating in our development process," Engwase Mwale, executive director of the Non-Governmental Organisation Co-ordinating Committee [NGOCC], an umbrella body for civic organizations promoting gender issues, told IRIN.

"When it comes to outside partners and donors, if they know that they are going to have a license for five years ... it will affect the contracts and development projects that may take longer than five years," she said.

"Some of the provisions will disadvantage grassroots organizations, mainly ... women's groups at the community level. In terms of advocacy NGOs, mainly on issues of gender equality and equity, these NGOs offer alternatives to governments as well as provide checks and balances. The legislation ... will reduce the space ... to effectively carry out their operations," Mwale said.

Civil society's contribution to democracy

This is government's second attempt in as many years to regulate civil society; the NGO bill was suspended in 2007 after widespread protests by societies and opposition parties.

Multiparty democracy was reinstated 18 years ago after Kenneth Kaunda, president of Zambia since independence from Britain in 1964, was unseated in 1991 by former trade unionist Frederick Chiluba.

Zambian civil society was seen as pivotal in forcing Kaunda to abandon one-party rule and adopt multiparty democracy, and also helped block Chiluba's bid for a third term in office in 2001. During the tenure of President Banda's predecessor, Levy Mwanawasa, who died in office in 2008, civil society maintained pressure for the adoption of a new constitution.

Since Banda's election in October 2008, civil society has also opposed the hefty gratuities of about US$60,000 proposed by parliament for each cabinet minister and member of parliament.

NGOs no longer fashionable

Ronnie Shikapwasha, information minister and chief government spokesperson, dismissed the criticism. "Once it comes into law, this bill will actually enhance the growth ... and quality of NGOs in the country ... Why are the NGOs in Zambia not wanting to be regulated, to be transparent? Are they hiding something? Let the Zambians know and see how they are operating," he said.

"Why should they [NGOs] ask for transparency from the government when they themselves are not transparent? How can you regulate yourself when the country in which you are operating has got laws that are supposed to regulate you?" Shikapwasha asked.

"It is old-fashioned to set up an NGO so that you are going to be at variance with the government ... with the people that have been elected ... When you are going against the government, you are becoming a political party," he maintained.

Most Zambian NGOs are funded by Western donors, whom government often accuses of setting the agenda for civil society. "NGOs should not become like the opposition," Shikapwasha said. "They should not be used as an opposition point, even for foreign countries."


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