Comment: Can the Maldives institute a vibrant NGO sector?

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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11 thoughts on “Comment: Can the Maldives institute a vibrant NGO sector?”

  1. Yes you can institute a vibrant NGO sector, beloved Dhivehin.

    Foreigners like me can babble, act and set up till even the tuna fish get tired of listening to us, but it won't make a single difference to your own need for rights and empowerement until you yourselves are HEARD and until your needs and your pain is MADE the need and pain of your own leaders.

    Praying for you all...

  2. Ben Plewright is not right despite his name. In well structured western and democratic societies there may be space for NGOs. That is understandably his thinking model. But that would never apply to Maldives. The reason: there is no sizable middle class to take up value based issues. If a grassroots NGO is formed in maldives it would be only happen if the few big businesses fund it for some of their PR activity. The last thing the poor (less than a dollar a day) public would do is spent on NGOs.

    Hope agenda setters like Mr. Plewright comments with some realism rather than his utopic views that we often see on Minivan.

  3. Just today, a "coalition of 127 NGOs" who can all fit into a single bus protested outside the President's residence.

    It's emblematic of the reasons why NGOs and civil society is so weak (effectively non-existent)

    I envy our neighbors like India who had visionary leaders and statesmen and an effective network of civil organizations that took upon themselves the onerous task of establishing a long lasting and successful democracy.

    In stark contrast, our MPs, Judges, and the aforementioned grand coalition of NGOs consisting of a couple of dozens fundamentalists, have shown nothing but contempt for basic principles of democracy, justice or fairness.

    Far from upholding or promoting those eternal values, they seem to be in a competition to destroy it.

    Another comment I'd like to add is that even those NGOs that exist for reasons other than selling the country for oil money, also fall short of expectations.

    If there are any NGOs that work towards rights of minorities, against exploitation of immigrant workers, etc, then I haven't seen them.

    There are also some apparently "sensitive" issues (well, for the pig-headed); serious issues that need urgent and serious attention, but are collectively ignored by the entire media, legislative, government and of course - the 'human rights' NGOs.

    I'm talking of course, of the young man who choose to hang himself rather than live in a society drowning in hypocrisy.

    The deafening silence from the NGOs who otherwise claim to work for 'human rights' was a depressing betrayal at the very least, and criminal at worst.

    I have met many of the said Human Rights NGOs, and each time I've felt that the largely liberal, fair-minded, smart and capable volunteers and activists are held to ransom by an imaginary "coalition of 127 NGOs" who can comfortably fit in a canoe.

    The baseless fear of a tiny, but shrill minority that artificially inflates its numbers and driven by a constant state of mental violence, shouldn't shackle the liberal NGOs of the society.


    NGO's have a truly important role to play, but they can only do this if they are honest to the very principles they claim to promote.

    Otherwise we end up like we have now.

  4. @Dhivehi view: Thankyou, i appreciate your informing me of this. What you said is correct, I am naive', yet my agenda was only this, the happiness of my maldivian family and ppl (my Wife's family is all MAldivian as she is...)

  5. Relatively large challenges face our civil society. To start with, the numbers in membership will not ever have the counts you find in other countries.

    The funding is there but not relevantly allocated to the need in the Maldivian context. The projects are not designed with the Maldivian perspective.

    No donors work in Maldives with the Maldivian Civil Society because as small as it is Maldives is costly. This does compromise their understanding of the kind of challenges and needs in this environment.

    While funding may be not the main problem faced by the civil society here, it is more the expertise and ability to interpret and take the right action that may be missing. It may be not know how to get people engaged and involved that could be the problem.

    We cannot apply the same formulas found in other countries. Donors must think of this.

    Many people who are unhappy about their lives often complain and wait for changes (to be delivered).I admire those who have taken the initiative and organized themselves to do what they can,in spite of the challenges. One voice become two and two becomes four. Some groups may stay small, some may grow. Finally it is the quality of what you give out and that you do something towards improving human conditions that matters. The vibrant civil society is therefore a mix of groups of people who stand for the common good. A vibrant civil society is not build on favorable conditions rather the unfavorable conditions which challenges people to get together, pull resources and their energy together.

    While we may not know more organizations beyond those in Male', there are groups in the islands who are active and some outstanding examples and they have achieved a lot in their islands. It is important to acknowledge and encourage and reach out to them as much as we can and work together...which is a core strategy and important network to create that sense of "vibrancy" that we wish to have.

  6. We can't have NGO's that are in both extreme's!! Currently many hight profiles in the government promotes and spends for NGO's that promotes secularist and atheist principles!! Gayoom did this secretly! Now its openly!! Some NGO's created on the foundation of tolerance and respect is seen to have ingrown hatrd and ememity towards growing MiddleEastern or North Indian Islamic culture which some times remebles Islamic teachings and sometimes have no relationship! These NGOs and some key profiled politicians on all fronts call these growing segement of Maldivian society has "Extremist", "Mullahs", "Salafees"...while these various secular elements try to smash and distroy the very Maldivian identity by creating confusion and promoting volence and blame it on the so called Mullah's!! Many of these secular elements lack moral principles (extreme social drinkers, open abusers of women "with so called concent" and many other corrupt practices..etc) I wonder how many Maldivian youth would believe these secularist and Gayoom style fake islamist crap!! All these guys care about is MONEY MONEY MONEY and SEX!! For them there is no religion or GOD!! MONEY AND SEX IS THEIR GOD!

  7. Very interesting article.
    In my opinion the reason why Maldivian NGOs lack membership and support from the local community is not because people are not interested. Like Maldivian political parties, many NGOs are way behind in what is called transparency and good governance. I have worked with an NGO for almost 3 and half years. Initially we didn't have any registered members because the board members felt insecure. So it was given for granted. Didn't require to be accountable for anyone and the board members worked as paid staffs. No governance manuals,no financial manuals, no administrative procedure, no recruitment policy...etc. No members and no annual general meetings. Everything was internally planned and agreed between few individuals.
    Being an NGO providing service to drug addicts and managed solely by recovering drug addicts or ex addicts you might call, this is understood and could be acceptable for maybe 1 or 2 years. We did a lot of work and many of us took the risk of being exposed, labeled and discriminated in the community.

    But since this NGO will be celebrating its 5th anniversary this year and to say that there hasn't been any improvement in the transparency, governance and management is a typical situation of many Maldivian NGOs.

    The only thing that happened was that those who were very manipulative talked of all these issues everyday. Pretending that they wanted to separate the governance and management. And in the process the core group who initiated the NGO and developed it parted away due to conflicts, verbal abuses and tensions. And now the NGO had become the property of 2 or 3 guys. But they claim to represent a huge community that had been excluded and discriminated.

    I am not pointing to an NGO in an island which is owned by 2 or 3 leading figures in that island for some political reasons or promoting a hidden agenda. I am talking of an NGO that was hugely funded by international donors and provided a reasonable office space with additional space in Male' by the government since it was initiated and continues to be supported. So if this is the case, then one should not be surprised of many Maldivian NGOs which is unpopular.

    And actually who is to be blamed? I am sure not only these guys or I mean us. Surely the people who have the responsibility to regulate and over see it must be equally responsible. If they are lazy, incompetent, corrupt and care free things like this will continue for a while before things are back on track.

  8. NGO sector in a developing country like the Maldives would need state support. The state must provide a platform got NGOs and expose them to the international organisations.

    I would like to know something. Among the NGOs that operate in this country, how many of its members are expert in that field or are trained in development studies?

    How do ordinary citizens look at NGOs? who do they trust more in delievering, the government/ state or the NGO?

  9. I do trust all of the ideas you have offered for your post. They are very convincing and can certainly work. Nonetheless, the posts are too short for starters. Could you please lengthen them a bit from subsequent time? Thanks for the post.


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