NGOs: Why Now?

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The Liberian president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, in her State of the Nation address Monday, laid out new guidelines for non-governmental organizations working in the country.

The president calculated that of the 997 NGOs working in the country, 87 percent were local or national NGOs, while the other 13 percent were international.

Previously, she surmised, the role of NGOs focused on humanitarian assistance and development work.

“More recently,” she observed, “the emphasis has been on democracy and governance; human rights; environment and natural resources.  In these latter functions, some NGOs have sought to become super-national bodies challenging national sovereignty even as they themselves lack national and international governance status and rules in transparency and accessibility.”

The president then immediately pivoted into a solution to this problem, as it were – more “transparency and accountability by NGOs in their delivery of services to our people.”

Many Liberians welcomed the news, but from a different perspective. Comments posted on social media networks suggested that for the number of NGOs present in the country, not much could be said for development. As such, many felt NGOs did need greater transparency and accountability. One commenter cited the case of an NGO owner who had become wealthy (mansion and all) thanks to his duty-free and tax-free privileges. Another stated that top government officials were involved in the NGO ‘business’.

Looking at the president’s statement, however, it would seem as though it was not directed at non-performing NGOs, but at NGOs whom she said had taken on “super-national status” and invaded Liberia’s sovereignty. It would seem as though when NGOs were merely posing and not doing much, there was no problem. It was when they started to challenge government policies that the need arose for greater “transparency and accountability”.

This is a problem, and this administration needs to be careful – this could backfire. Have we forgotten that free speech is a universal human right this administration has prided itself in protecting? Why are the rules different for NGOs? If the president had gone after newspapers in this regard, we’d all be screaming bloody murder over new rules that smack of retribution for dissent!

The message to NGOs here seems to be, “Do your job (or don’t) but keep your mouth shut and out of our business.”

The president is right in observing that humanitarian and development work has traditionally described the work of NGOs – except that her scope is limited. What is humanitarian work if it does not stand up for the rights of others who cannot stand up for themselves? NGOs are typically as close to the ground as they can get – all over the rural areas talking to the people. As such, they are often privy to first-hand information. If rural dwellers are losing their tribal lands to multi-national corporations, they are aware. How humanitarian would it be not to sound the alarm on matters that contribute to the underdevelopment of the marginalized and powerless? Indeed, perhaps the nature of humanitarian and development work has changed with the times!

But are these rules really new? Yes and no, but more no than yes. The Daily Observer has in its possession a copy of the GOL’s National Policy on Non-Governmental Organizations in Liberia. This document came into effect June 15, 2008 and was authored by Dr. Toga McIntosh, then Minister of Planning and Economic Affairs.

It reads, among other things, that “As NGOs are essential partners in identifying, defining and developing policies and driving development in Liberia, (emphasis added) this policy seeks to address the above concerns and ensure that an enabling environment is created for the smooth operation of NGOs, as well as ensuring human development. It is an integral part of the ongoing reform exercise. The over-riding and long-term objective is to provide better and more effective service to the Liberian people and nation.”

Section 9.1 also states that “All vehicles owned by an accredited NGO shall bear NGO license plates and, where feasible (emphasis added), shall also bear the NGO’s logo.”

The new version of Section 9.1 according to the president, however, is that “all vehicles owned by NGOs should be registered in the name of the organization and be clearly marked with the name and logo of the organization or face impoundment”. Why? What happened to “where feasible”? Is it so that they do not go where they are not welcomed?

Where has this document been anyway since 2008? Was it not necessary until NGOs became interested in democracy and governance, human rights, environment and natural resources?

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