In the Maldives, the NGO sector is lumped together as a whole by the developmental partners, government and other stakeholders. For convenience in the Maldives, the NGO sector seems to represent the civil society.
Whenever the civil society representation is called, you will see NGO sector members.
A weak civil society?
In a democratising country like Maldives, the civil society and the NGO sector should play a crucial role. Civil society is one of the pillars of democracy. Without a vibrant and strong civil society, democracy cannot be attained.
In the Maldives – unlike Bhutan – legislation allowed the formation of NGOs for centuries, apart from NGOs targeting human rights until a few years ago. Today, the Maldives has more than 1100 clubs and NGOs registered with the Ministry of Home Affairs under the clubs, associations and NGOs law.
It is problematic to categorise the NGOs that work for the development of the country. It also means that for the population of 300,000, we have an NGO for every 200 Maldivians. Out of the registered NGOs in the Maldives, only a few have office space with paid staff.
The oldest developmental national NGOs that are existence in Maldives are SHE and the Care Society.
Presently, the work of developmental NGOs visible in the Maldives are the Care Society, SHE, Maldives Democracy Network, Journey, Democracy House, Transparency Maldives, SWAD, JCI, Maldives NGO Federation.
There are other NGOs that are noticeable at periodic intervals like Madulu, Strength of Society and others.
The NGOs in the Maldives have informal and formal networks and work closely together, pooling resources on projects of common interest, producing policy papers and position papers. Some of the examples are the JUST campaign and the Domestic Violence Bill, to name a few recent combined team works by the NGO sector.
Expectations from NGO sector
There are high expectations from the developmental partners, government and other stakeholders, including the general public, for the NGO sector to play a central role in the democratisation process. For example for the upcoming local council elections, there is greater need for the NGO sector to prove and show neutrality, put the best interests of people first, monitor corruptions and act as watch dogs.
What’s thwarting this is again lack of resources. There is a greater need to educate the general public via media. The media agencies commit to return investments and only allocate a dose of space to corporate social responsibility. So this avenue is closed to NGOs. For every work NGOs does, [media] is paid.
The major constraint for NGO development in the Maldives are funding limitations. There are no established mechanisms to secure funding or plan long term sustainability of NGOs.
The biggest national NGOs in the Maldives face similar constraints. These NGOs have office space borrowed from their family residences, and most NGOs are fortunate if they have a well-wisher who supports administrative costs and recurrent costs including office space. Other NGOs founders or staff have self-interest, so they work for minimal pay, most times as a volunteer.
The developmental partners always claim that NGOs in the Maldives lack capacity and do not have the skills to organise or implement projects. As a person who has worked in the NGO more than 20 years I think this is misleading as resource mobilisation can create a strong NGO sector.
How many NGOs in the Maldives have bought a laptop out of the project? Before suggesting this is ineffective planning, it is important to note that NGOs do not have means to buy a computer or even a laptop. Laptops are required to communicate with the outside world and for documentation purposes.
Or why do staff costs have to be incorporated into projects? Because it is essential to the survival of NGOs and sustain their work. Why are the travel costs included higher than other countries? Because that is the reality of high costs of living in the Maldives.
Why is that the consultancy fees for local consultants are unacceptable while large sums are paid to foreign consultants, including travel and lodging only to produce a plain report or technical input? Why is it that local consultants do not apply or are available? It is because of these discriminatory attitudes practiced by donors.
Most international donors scrutinise the sustainability of projects. If this is the case, why don’t they consider the requirement of the NGO sector through gigantic lenses for sustainability?
Maldives NGO law does not prohibit conducting business activities, however, several NGOs experienced difficulties in this aspect as the law is not enforced or institutionalised in various ministries. Several NGOs could not register vehicles in NGOs names or take loans. There are several NGOs moving towards the Social Corporation model though this is new thinking.
International funding for social development in partnership with NGOs
Underthe previous government, the majority of national strategic plans, including the UN country plans, identified partnerships with NGOs. It would be interesting to analyse the outcome of these partnerships over the last 10 years.
To give credit, there have been efforts by previous Government to strengthen the civil society but it has not shown any results. Similarly, the current government has also identified partnership with civil society which needs to be spelt out clearly and implemented.
The majority of funding in the past for the NGO sector has been secured through international sources, though some NGOs have secured one-time undersised funding locally. As there is no tax system or cooperate social responsibility policy, the NGO sector is struggling for survival.
Some NGOs are active, while others ended in death row, and a few stagnated for years. As a developing and economically well-established country compared with other South Asian countries, and a smaller population, the NGO sector could not compete with other NGOs in the region. This is the reality of the 20th century as well.
Reinforce the NGO sector
The government, UN and other developmental partners should consider the NGO sector as developmental partners.
The NGO sector requires institutionalisation of good governance, capacity building, project implementation and financial support. It is unrealistic for the NGO sector to expect to conduct business, there has to be a mechanism established for the survival of NGOs.
Can the government, UN and other developmental partners trust the NGO sector to implement the projects? Can the US Embassy and other embassies, rather than implementing the projects, recruit the NGO sector to conduct programmes and projects by allocating a budget for implementation?
Can the Human Rights Commission, government and UN assign projects like training projects/components to the NGO sector?
The NGOs have networks and it would assist the capacity-building of island NGOs as well the national NGOs if this type of work is capitalised on them. The NGO sector has the capacity and ability if funding is allocated to conduct training in the areas of human rights, governance, decentralisation, child rights, women rights, people with disabilities, NGO training, and other such training. The government, UN and Human Rights Commission can play the monitoring role.
The NGO sector is requested to conduct programmes and projects at low cost and for free which barely covers the recurrent costs, administrative staff costs and project management costs. In the context that is contested above, can the NGO sector in the Maldives survive without an enabling environment?
The NGO sector requires adopting good governance models and being active watch dogs.
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