SIERRA LEONE: Government tightens control of NGOs

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Officials in Sierra Leone are drafting a new law that will tighten controls on non-profit organisations working in the country, joining other governments demanding more accountability from their donors.

Deputy Finance Minister Richard Conteh announced at a press conference the NGO reform initiative on 2 September, saying the non-profit sector has largely escaped government oversight: “We don’t know how much is being spent and what they are doing. The majority of the country’s development activities – channelled through 300 non-profit organisations – have made little difference.”

An 11-year civil war that ended in 2002 paralysed health and education services – damage evident in the country’s relatively low quality of life.

The UN has ranked Sierra Leone last among 177 countries for which it measures access to health care, education and a living-wage income. Less than half of the population is enrolled in school, an average 35 percent of the population cannot read, and the average life span is 40 years. Almost 30 percent of children do not live past the age of five.

If someone in Sierra Leone works every day of the year, they make on average 71 US cents a day, according to World Bank 2007 estimates.

Charles Mambu, the local representative of the West Africa Civil Society Forum, said local non-profits can do more to help speed up the country’s development, but they are often not consulted: “International non-profits have the ability to attract more donor dollars. They have the big staff. The big cars. It is very hard for local civil society to attract that kind of money.”

Mambu added that aid agencies’ selection process for local partners is often not transparent. “Unless you know someone who selects partner organisations, you will not be chosen.”

But spokesman Peter Ngu Tayong with the UN Development Programme in Sierra Leone, which reported spending $67 million in 2006-2007 on youth employment, health, and human rights programming, told IRIN the UN chooses qualified partners based on merit: “All NGOs must first register with the government of Sierra Leone through the Ministry of Finance and Development. Secondly, after a competitive process the best is considered for any collaboration.”

Vrinda Dar, director of non-profit Oxfam UK’s Sierra Leone program, which has been running programs for the past 10 years, told IRIN locals get first priority: “Oxfam International subscribes to the Accountability Charter of the International Advocacy NGOs, and our own Southern Advocacy Guidelines state clearly that local and national organisations have primary legitimacy as advocates in their countries, and that Oxfam is there to support them not to take their place.”

The NGO reforms, to be applied to both local and international NGOs, would require annual activity reports and registration with the government every two years, according to the finance ministry’s Conteh.

The civil society forum’s Mambu told IRIN regulations are needed, but they should not stifle activities: “They [reforms] should not get rid of well- governed NGOs.”

He expressed concern that the government may selectively enforce the regulations based on political leanings. “Civil society and NGOs should not be targeted because of their political beliefs. The government should not use back-door regulations to restrict political dissent.”