| by Laksiri Fernando

( August 17, 2014, Sydney, Sri Lanka Guardian) This is undoubtedly a controversial matter and at least the Friday Forum (FF) should have refrained from jumping into this controversy while issuing its belated statement – “Democratic Governance, Voluntary Associations and People’s Rights” - against the Defense Ministry circular intended to coerce the NGO activities. The threat to the NGOs came in early July and this is mid or rather late August! No doubt that the threat is continuing and therefore the FF statement is very welcome.

But unfortunately after all good things stated about the authoritarian danger of the government and exposing the contents of the said circular and most importantly aftear delineating the verdicts or determinations expressed by most respected judges like Justices Mark Fernando, ARB Amerasinghe and GPS de Silva in three court cases, including the famous Janaghosha, the statement unnecessarily or for some reason has jumped into the controversy. It says,
“Popular terms such as “accountability” and “transparency” are at times used with reference to NGOs by unscrupulous persons both within and outside the Government, to promote their own agendas.”

Apart from its insinuation against ‘unscrupulous persons’ not only within the government, but also outside, the statement begs some fundamental questions about ‘accountability’ and ‘transparency’ on the part of the Friday Forum. How come that for a Forum or NGO that advocates good governance and democracy, and stand against authoritarianism, ‘accountability’ and ‘transparency’ have suddenly become just ‘popular terms’? Aren’t they cardinal principles of democracy and good governance? Let me ask the question very directly.

Does or does not the Friday Forum believe that NGOs are morally accountable and should be transparent to the society that they serve?

I believe in the affirmative. There are people who have discussed limits and risks of regulation of NGOs (i.e. Patricia Armstrong) but to my knowledge no one has denied that the NGOs have moral obligations on accountability and transparency. Doubts about the position of the FF emerges particularly when it says,
“NGOs are accountable like private persons only if they break the law of the land.”

There is a world of difference between a private person and an NGO, while NGOs themselves are of various types and formations. NGOs, whatever the type, belong to the public sphere and not to the private sphere. That is why they are morally obliged to account and transparent to society, apart from to its membership. NGOs are not private ‘drinking clubs’ or ‘prayer meetings.’ There are norms of ‘good practices’ that not only the NGOs but also the prominent members or the leaders of the NGOs should abide by.

It is true that there can be confusions not only about NGO accountability and transparency but also about good practices that the NGO members or leaders should abide by. It is possible that sometimes, the society or its agents, like the media, might expect or ask for more than what is reasonable from NGO leaders or individuals. Why should I hide, I am particularly referring to the controversy of Jayantha Dhanapala and Colombo Telegraph in the case of website blocking by the Dialog PLC. But that is not a reason to completely reject good practices, accountability or transparency. It is my view that the CT raised these issues in good faith and on behalf of the society at large, although I believe and maintain that it had gone too far beyond the reasonable limits and questioning.

But there are questions that the people should ask from NGOs. It is only a question of how we ask them and how we get involved in a constructive dialogue.
There are undoubtedly very good legal points and arguments put forward by the FF statement, more than what have been raised so far by other organizations or concerned individuals. It particularly and pertinently refers to Articles 3 and 4 (a) and (b) of the Constitution which categorically uphold that “In the Republic of Sri Lanka sovereignty is in the people, and includes the powers of government (legislative power exercised by Parliament, executive power exercised by the President) fundamental rights and the franchise.”

By raising the issue of people’s sovereignty, and fundamental rights as an integral part of it, the statement has completely refuted not only the Defence Ministry circular but also the statements by the Minister of External Affairs and the Prime Minister as dangerous encroachments of civil society freedoms and activities. However, it has to be admitted that it is on the same premises that the NGOs, as civil society organizations, should be responsible and morally accountable and should be transparent to the people. If one denies the second proposition, then one cannot defends the first. The FF statement says that,
“We must remember that NGOs are voluntary associations of people for purposes that they define for themselves. They are established in Sri Lanka according to diverse frameworks including under the Companies Act 2007.” (My emphasis).

It might be the case that the FF is established under the Companies Act. But there are other NGOs which are established and registered under the Social Services Act. Then there are certain legal obligations particularly on finance, accounts and plans of action as a result of that registration. There is no doubt that these should be changed and liberalized. However, the Defense Ministry circular is way beyond those obligations and tries to dictate terms on mandates and activities of NGOs.

It may be true that the Companies Act does not talk about ‘transparency or accountability’ or in the same manner they are discussed in good governance or in human rights. Corporate social responsibilities are however increasing topics discussed internationally. Human rights obligations are increasingly incorporated in business. The FF definition of NGOs that ‘they define for themselves’ is far too loose and exonerates ‘themselves’ from social responsibilities.

NGO accountability is an accepted norm internationally (See Lisa Jordan and Peter Van Tuijl, ed., “NGO Accountability: Politics, Principles and Innovations,” 2006). There is no good reason to reject it just because there are encroachments on the part of the State. The views expressed by FF might not be shared by other NGOs. The following was what Sarath Fernando of the Movement for Land and Agriculture Reform (MONLAR) has written to the Daily Mirror yesterday (16 August 2014).

“NGOs are not an illegal phenomena. They are recognised world over since they play a very useful role. It is up to NGOs to win confidence of the people by doing things that are useful and also by being accountable to the people. It is in the name of suffering people that funds are raised either locally or internationally. Therefore such funds belong to the people and NGOs using such funds have to be answerable to people.”

This is in stark contrast to the opinion of the FF. It may be true that the FF does not handle much funds and the members must be contributing generously. But accountability is not limited to finance or funds. However, there are so many NGOs other than the Friday Forum. In the name of good governance and democracy, we all need to uphold principles of ‘accountability and transparency’ in the case of NGOs as well.

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