Civil society organisations in the Maldives are weak, according to Vice President Dr Mohamed Waheed Hassan, “and their ability to influence public policy is weak, if not nonexistent.”
Speaking at a seminar organised by the High Commission of Bangladesh in the Maldives titled “Democracy, Enterprise Building, Strengthening of Civil Society and Contributions of Expatriate Bangladeshi Workers in the Maldives”, Dr Waheed noted that NGOs in the Maldives “do not lobby for positions to change legislation or to influence public policy.”
Upholding democracy could not be left only to political and economic interests, he warned, suggesting that the government and international development partners needed to help civil society organisations strive towards independence.
Dr Waheed’s comments echo those of UN Resident Coordinator and UNDP Representative in the Maldives, Andrew Cox, in an interview with Minivan News last week.
“The UN can give out a grant of US$20,000 [to an NGO], and what they’ll do is buy a computer, pay for some travel and training and so on, then it’s gone and that’s it. What happens then?” Cox asked.
“This is a very important question that a lot of civil society organisation managers are thinking about – or at least I hope they are. Because in the end, international funding can’t be assured for anybody over time.”
Civil society organisations had “proliferated” in the Maldives in the last few years, “but now they need to move beyond that start up phase and become a bit more secure.”
Outside assistance could only go so far, he suggested, “and in the end civil society will only be strong if Maldivians embrace their own civil society and start paying for it. Some of that is about government funding, but much more of it is local philanthropy and gift giving – and earning the organisation that you’re associated with.”
It was imperative that civil society be healthy and self-sustaining, he noted, “because it gives you way of getting important things done in a manner separate to the politics.”
Ahmed Irfan from the Maldivian Democracy Network acknowledged that Maldivian civil society was weak and struggled for support, but noted that “on the other side, it is growing.”
“Local NGOs on many of the islands are actually supported quite well,” he observed, “but people aren’t used to the idea of funding nationwide NGOs. These groups, particularly those advocating human rights and democracy, are seen as being involved in partisan politics – people don’t understand that they’re not.”
Fathimath Nelfa from the Raajje Foundation, an NGO working to strengthen civil society in the Maldives, agreed that perceptions of partisanship were an issue, “especially for those NGOs promoting democracy and human rights, because these things were strongly promoted by the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP).”
“Today a lot of civil society organisations are very critical of the government,” she said, adding that mistaken association with NGOs promoting these same values was “human nature” and would take time to fade.
“The more civil society is active, the more people will understand,” she said. “It will take time for some people’s perceptions to change – it took 4-5 years for people to know what democracy and human rights meant.”
Maldivian civil society “as a group” is not weak, Nelfa said, “but it needs resources, funding and especially technical assistance, such as more people trained in how to handle funds, write good proposals and liaise with donors. They don’t lack implementation.”
International organisations were “very important for this funding and technical assistance, particularly since the Maldives lacks the human resources,” she said.
For its part, civil society needs to proactively implement greater monitoring, financial auditing, evaluation of projects and reporting to donors, Nelfa suggested.
“Civil society organisations must become more disciplined,” she said. “If an NGO is disciplined and good at evaluating projects, then they should be able to use past donors as a reference.”
There were thousands of civil society organisations registered in the Maldives, but only a few were active in the media, she noted.
“Something like the bill on disability was very well discussed with civil society, and the media focus really publicised these organisations,” she said.
Correction: The Maldivian Detainee Network is now called the Maldivian Democracy Network. This has been amended.