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Zambia: Controversial NGO Bill approved 0

Sep1

Zambian civil society fears the new legislation designed to regulate non-governmental organizations (NGOs) may compromise their independence and even result in a clampdown on their operations.The 2009 NGO Bill, passed by parliament last week and signed by the President Rupiah Banda on 27 August, calls for “the registration and co-ordination of NGOs, to regulate the work, and the area of work, of NGOs operating in Zambia.”

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 are now 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.

Civil society leaders and human rights activists fear the new law could be used by government to silence critics and erode civil society, Times of Zambia reports.

Officials from three CSO umbrella bodies said in Lusaka on 29 August that they felt frustrated by the Government’s move to go ahead with the enactment process even after they raised concerns, which deserved attention.

Speaking on behalf of the three NGO motherbodies, Non Governmental Organisations Coordinating Council (NGOCC) executive director, Engwase Mwale said it was demoralising that Mr Banda could not listen to their concerns on the bill, which was now law.

Apart from the NGOCC, the other two umbrella bodies are the Civil Society for Poverty Reduction and Zambia Council for Social Development (ZCSD).

Ms Mwale said although they recognised that the president had his prerogative to assent to any parliamentary bill, the members had hoped that following their concerns raised at various fora Mr Banda would listen to them and change certain things.

She said as leader in charge of a democratic country like Zambia, the president should have given them a hearing.

Ms Mwale said the leaders of the CSOs felt the new Act was an encroachment on the freedom of expression and association for the members. They felt the Act went against the spirit of the Constitution hence their opposition.

“The bill is rather restrictive than facilitative in championing the development agenda.” Finn Petersen, country director of MS Zambia Action Aid Denmark, a Danish funded NGO which works to build local democracy and land rights, and funds over 20 local advocacy NGOs and community-based organizations, told IRIN.

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.”

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.

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.

By Staff – Afronline

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