17 December, 2017

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Do NGOs Have Moral Obligations For Accountability And Transparency?

By Laksiri Fernando

Dr. Laksiri Fernando

Dr. Laksiri Fernando

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 Defence 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 after 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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Latest comments

  • 0
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    Laksiri writes …”.. 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………”

    Many of these declared Marxists/Troskiets/socialists like Kumar David, Laksiri never served any of the countries struggling to put their favorite emotional and intellectual idealogies to practice …. But they are willingly serving the countries which adopted their hated ‘capitalist’ idealogies exactly like Dhanapala who betrayed his ideology serving Dialog according to Kumar and Laksiri… I know Dhanapala has no brain to question back asking them this fact …

    Kumar and Laksiri know how comfortable and free to work in USA, Austarlia, Hong Knog, Singapore …… Ofcourse, it is moral but Dhanpala did completely wrong thing … what kind of twisted mentalities these guys posses?

    When Laksiri asks ‘CT had gone far beyond reasonable limits and questioning?’, he should directly put that to Kumar D who started the ‘Dhanapala’s morality test’ ….

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      Dr. Laksiri Fernando

      RE: Do NGOs Have Moral Obligations For Accountability And Transparency?

      What about the State that was “elected” by the “People”

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    The Friday Forum’s understanding of what an NGO is, leaves a lot to be desired. The days of voluntary associations when the spinster aunt with time on her hands was the go getter, have long been past the sell by date.
    Today, NGOs hire CEOs at great expense to carry out an agenda set for them. Foreign funded NGOs which are the bane of our society are certainly legal entities, responsible to the funding government or it’s affiliate, but NOT to the government where it carries out it’s activities, occasionally beneficial to the locals, but more often than not, detrimental. Some ‘NGOs’ are so close to foreign governments that their officials rotate through government departments and receive funds.
    We should be well rid of them. According to the Friday forum that would make me an unscrupulous person. So be it.

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    You are absolutely correct Laksiri! FF missed the whole point.

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      There is a reason FF intentionally ‘missed the whole point’. It has to do with a person on FF and his attempt to mislead an NGO plus his association with an unscruplous lawyer. This will come out in due course

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    Before demanding accountability and transparency from others, first the Govt who handles public money should be accountable and transparent in conducting their affairs to the Public…in the absence of such commitment why question others…it is mockery. The accountability / transparency warrants honesty…IF anyone tries to pull the wool over the eye on these two important aspects in conducting affairs means there is lot to hide…in other words the whole issues is in a deep mess..

    In any Country accountability / transparency is demanded from Private / Public Companies…detailed annual reports are published …this being a legal requirement yet they practice deception for profit.

    In Sri Lanka accountability is demanded only when the actions of any Organization threatens the Govt intended purposes.. Political objectives / ambitions…this perhaps may be the reason why universally terms are set for an individual to hold Office and elections are held at the end of the terms..Now in Sri Lanka there is a President who shamelessly altered this Constitutionally guaranteed freedom of choice of people….he in order to achieve this personal objebctive is in the process of buying everyone and anyone…besides it is in a deep political mess Internationally with war crime allegations.

    The Govt have been successful in purchasing the Private Business organizations by allowing them to make profits at will …their objective…muzzled the media…journalists..liberalising the bribery & corruption.

    The only section whose actions that threatens the existance of the Govt is the NGO…they resists and question every action of the President….it is because of them the Govt is forced to..and held accountable which has made the life of the President extremely uncomfortable. So the intention of the Govt is to make the NGO subservient IF they need to exist by bringing the issue of accountability & Transparency.

    True any NGO / Voluntary Organization should be able to document the funds received as their funds are foreign originated. However it filters through Central Bank. Therefore there is an accountability. However what they spent for is something that the Govt needs not demand… because if so there is serious corruption in one of the prominent Voluntary organization in the Country that is not questioned as their activities do not clash with the Govt objectives..!!!!!

    The way the article questions the Accountability & Transparency in NGO ….the people of this Country who have stakes in Private Companies in form of share of business transaction too should should be in a position to demand transparency & accountability….

    most of the Communication Companies in the Country are utterly Corrupt…they spent annually millions of Rupees on President’s greetings via SMS to 20 million people…!!!! They block News Websites at their will that are critical of the Govt…they purposely alter the power that slows down the internet download speed for which the Public pay as per contracts and restriction is illegal…These Companies are all conduct their activities to perpetuate the Political Agenda of the President. Now whose money is that..why these Companies should not be transparent held accountable in what they do….?

    One such Company is where Dr Dhanapala was a Director….

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    “NGOs are accountable like private persons only if they break the law of the land.”

    ————–

    Dr. Laksiri Fernando –

    Thank you for this write up.

    All most all NGOs solicit donations from local and foreign sources. They obtain this money promising to engage in certain public services. Thus the public has the right to question what happened to the money that was obtained in their name.

    However, you should not be surprised by the response of Friday Forum and Jayantha Dhanapala in particular on the issue of accountability.

    Do you remember how Diaglog continued block CT while Jayantha Dhanapala was one of its directors? It took several months and many articles exposing him for him to finally quit Dialog. I thought he would also quit FF in shame after this. Alas I was wrong. If NGOs have to be accountable then FF will be in big trouble!

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      “what happened to the money that was obtained in their name.”

      That is the stupidity of a tax man mango jerry- yóuyú

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        Javi

        “Thus the public has the right to question what happened to the money that was obtained in their name.”

        Pitta passe mama dhunna nay?

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    “Do NGOs Have Moral Obligations For Accountability And Transparency?”

    Not if you are the Friday Farce where you can demand good governance,transparency, freedom, liberty, Human Rights etc etc and then sit on the board of company which denies some of it in collusion with the very state aparatus they are critical of.

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    NGOs moral responsibility for Accountability & Transparency had erroded along with the Law & Order situation,and corruption in Sri Lanka.
    Nevertheless, NGOs accountability of easy funds received & their disbursements need to be clearly visibile & transparent.

    What we read at CT the contributions of various “I know everything” commentators and people with vengence after the downfall of the LTTE to take out their frustrations and losses while shedding crocodile tears are ALL NOTHING BUT GIBBERISH.

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    I would suggest that NGOs have no more responsibility than the government of Sri Lanka to be open and above board….with the possible exception of the Asian Human Rights Commission, based in Hong Kong and under the leadership of Bijo Francis who, with the acquiescence of the chairman of the board of directors, Mr. J.J. Clancey, makes up the rules as he goes along.

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      If the government is not to your satisfaction, it can be discarded at the next election, and another chosen in it’s place. An ‘NGO’ does not have to fear such an eventuality.

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        Ramu

        “If the government is not to your satisfaction, it can be discarded at the next election,”

        Yes good point.

        How do you stop the Election Commissioner voting for ruling party in large numbers?

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    Yes.
    Its not their family wealth.

    Secondly, what they have spent in an Alien country.

    Infact, what did they do in the Wanni during LTTE time? Constructing passage to move out a under water vessel from Land ? Thats all?
    and
    Lending their heavy equipment to the LTTE to construct earth dams?

  • 0
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    We know where sympathies lie where AI and HRW are concerned. Yet Israel bars them from Gaza.

    http://www.haaretz.com/mobile/.premium-1.611015?v=C71173698D9D0CD11CC6ECAC6F165264

  • 0
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    In Sri Lanka all patriotic NGOs/persons do not have any Moral Obligations For Accountability And Transparency. However all non-patriotic NGUs/persons do have moral obligations for Accountability and transparency.

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