ARC: Problems, progress and perceptions of an NGO

While political games and religious debates preoccupy media and coffee talk, civil sector projects persist in providing for the public. But they are subject to suspicion, and often slip under the radar.

“Promotion is hard,” said Zenysha Shaheed Zaki of the NGO Advocating the Rights of Children (ARC). “We keep trying to invite the media to events and get people to attend, but it always seems to collide with a political event.”

Recently, ARC organised an exhibition of children’s artwork from the shelters Education and Training Centre for Children (ETCC) on Maafushi and the Correctional Training Centre for Children (CTCC) on Feydhoofinolhu. In spite of promotions, the religious protests of December 23 and their aftermath coincided with the exhibition and more or less wiped it into the background.

“I practically dragged people in from the street!” said Zaki. “But once they were there, many found that they actually enjoyed the display, and some even came back three, four times with friends who hadn’t seen it yet. So there is a public interest in this, and that’s really what we want to achieve.”

ARC was founded in 2009 to bolster the work of ETCC, CTCC and the shelter at Kudakudhinge Hiya. Although the shelters address different groups of children with different needs, they share the same basic interest – improve children’s lives. However, as Zaki experienced with the media, the shelters were struggling to forge a productive network.

Yet Zaki, who volunteered at the shelters after returning from school in New Zealand, said short staffing and minimal funding made it difficult for the shelters to organised events individually. By creating a separate NGO specifically aimed at connecting the members of the child’s rights sector, she believed the stress on individual shelters could be reduced and progress could be achieved.

“The shelters didn’t have strong communication before,” Zaki said, pointing out that while ETCC and CTCC focus on juvenile delinquents Kudakudhinge Hiya attended to abandoned children below age nine. “Their work was different, but we found that the issues were more or less the same. We wanted to see what we could do to help in a more organised way.”

Deputy Health Minister Fathimath Afiya worked in the civil society sector for 18 years before joining the government. She said that while there is “a good number” of organisations addressing child care matters across the islands, “it’s a huge area of work with many challenges.”

The Ministry of Health and Family works closely with the relevant NGOs, and is trying to build a partnership with the corporate sector. According to Afiya, the ministry has signed Memorandums of Understanding (MoU) with NGO Maldives Red Crescent and corporate group Aima.

“But there still needs to be a mechanism for NGOs and the government to form a partnership. We have to create funding opportunities and better articulate ways to achieve our goals,” she said.

Validating Zaki’s instinct that most groups concerned with child and family matters share similar goals, Afiya said the government relies on NGOs for help jump-starting programs in society.

However, the relationship between the government and the civil sector is still on the drafting table. And it may be drafting a few too many organisations.

At the 2011 UN International Democracy Day ceremony, FJS Consulting Pvt. Ltd.  highlighted key operational issues facing the Maldives’ civil sector in a “Comprehensive Study on Maldivian Civil Society”.

Over 1100 Civil Society Organisations (CSO) and NGOs are registered in the Maldives–almost one organisation for every 300 people. CSO’s average employee is age 25, with an education level ranging from grade 6 through 10. Only 0.7 percent of employees are paid due to a funding shortage – donors provide the least amount of funding, and most CSO fundraising efforts only cover about 30 percent of program costs.

Tracking funds and goals accomplished is difficult.

“The government is trying to provide aid but the structure of how to do it is not specified,” said Managing Director Fareeha Shareef at the event, noting that many CSOs don’t actually engage in the activities for which they are named, such as sports.

Speaking today with Minivan News, Shareef agreed that the high number of organisations is not supported by adequate funds and resources, but added that lack of awareness and communication are key problems.

“Most NGOs don’t know what the others are doing, or which other NGOs are working in their sector,” she explained, adding that steps are being taken to create a central communications database for the civil sector. “If the sector can organise and if resources can be better distributed by groups working together, there would be dramatic change.”

Unfortunately, the Maldives ranks highly for corruption and corruption perception. Zaki noted that there is a general public suspicion that NGOs request funding without a clear action plan, and that the money disappears unaccountably. She said this was one reason why ARC did not request funding for the first two years of operation.

“2012 will be the first year for fundraising at ARC,” she said, pointing out that “we didn’t want to request money without being able to prove that it would go to good use.

“Also, we found that things like concept designs for campaigns were incredibly expensive. We decided it was better to use our own resources.”

Working late into the night after her day job at the Foreign Ministry, Zaki called on friends to act in educational videos and help with design and advertising. Although ARC has many members Zaki said it is difficult to find active volunteers. Unable to find a local nutritionist for the HEAL campaign, she coaxed a friend from New Zealand with expertise in the field to take a volunteer work-based vacation in the Maldives.

Pointing to the 0.7 percent of paid NGO employees, Shareef said the high number of youth volunteers in the civil sector is encouraging–but it is also a major concern. “Almost the entire sector is young and working on a voluntary basis. This means that there is a high turnover–young people need to get paid to get by, and so they move into the paid industries,” she said.

Contrary to public assumption, Shareef said, Maldivians volunteer often and form NGOs out of a genuine interest. But unlike politics, work in the public sector is rarely a public priority. “There is not enough dialogue among the NGOs and not enough clear coverage within the media,” she said, contrasting smaller islands “where people what their NGOs are doing” to Male’, where the population is so dense that the civil sector is heavily clouded. “People have only their perceptions, they aren’t being informed of what NGOs do.”

When asked whether ARC was the first in its field, Zaki said she could not say which other NGOs were addressing children’s rights. According to FJS’ findings, children and youth are supported by less than 20 percent of NGOs. Approximately one-fifth of NGOs promote healthy living, empower vulnerable groups, or provide support for education. Over 50 percent focus on sports, music, arts and leisure.

Operating solo in the civil sector, ARC provides direct support to the shelters while also expanding their reach to donors and the larger community.

In 2011, ARC campaigned for Healthy Eating and Lifestyle (HEAL), Internet safety, prevention of child abuse, and road safety. Zaki said the campaigns reached parents as well as children.

“You would be surprised how long the Q&A sessions went on for,” said Zaki. “A lot parents assume that it’s good if a child is at home playing on the computer rather than running around the streets. And they don’t realise how much sugar goes into packet drinks, or how much fat is in a sausage. And the children would sometimes tell their parents that they weren’t supposed to walk in the street, for instance.”

ARC also organised sports activities, including a month-long swimming program with Maldives National Defence Force (MNDF), and childcare trainings with Nurses of Maldives. Volunteers help teach children certain life skills which can benefit them personally and financially. “You teach a child to bake a cake, and that child can also go and work in a bakery,” Zaki explained.

In spite of the difficulties, Zaki said she is pleased with ARC’s progress and is particularly glad to see first hand that donations are being properly invested by the shelters.

“It’s good to have a personal connection,” she explained. “They trust us, and we have a real interest in seeing changes made.”

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MP allowance debacle “not a mix-up”: State Finance Minister

The Finance Ministry today rejected implications that yesterday’s release and recall of the controversial Rf20,000-a-month committee allowances against a court injunction was a mistake which had caused confusion in the government.

“I don’t think it’s a mix-up,” said State Minister of Finance Ahmed Assad today. Assad was unclear about the court injunction.

“Releasing that sort of money is not a big procedure, I think this is just people trying to follow the general rules and experiencing an administrative error,” he said.

Assad didn’t believe anyone deserved blame, and said that “if anything, it is the ministry at large that was at fault.”

Local daily Haveeru yesterday reported that the allowances had been issued “by mistake.”

Finance Minister Ahmed Inaz had not responded to Minivan inquiries at time of press.

The court injunction, which was issued on September 26, ordered the Finance Ministry not to release funds for the committee allowance until the court rules on a case filed on behalf of a civil servant, contending that the allowance could not be given before deducted amounts from civil servants salaries were paid back.

The injunction has since been appealed by the Attorney General’s Office at the High Court, which is due to hold a first hearing on Sunday.

Parliamentary privileges

Meanwhile parliament yesterday debated a motion without notice proposed by Vilufushi MP Riyaz Rasheed claiming that a civic action campaign launched by concerned citizens in late August violated MPs’ special privileges.

MDP MP Ahmed Easa told Minivan News yesterday that colleagues had said the allowance was being released to the parliament secretariat, but he was told that it had been held back by the Minister of Finance.

“I don’t think there was any wording, anything in what the court said indicating that they couldn’t release the money,” said Easa. “But no money has been going in to my account today, I can tell you that.”

Easa elaborated on the allowance, saying that the amount of staffing support and allowances other government branches received justified MPs accepting the proposed allowance.

“The MP point of view is that some of the independent wages and allowances are greater than MPs. The MPs are expected to do research and other duties, but we don’t have an office, a supporting staff, a phone allowance, a travel stipend to visit constituents or other things to support our work. Seven percent of our salary is taken out for a pension fund, and Male’ is an expensive place to live,” said Easa.

Easa said he will accept the allowance, but pointed out that he had always objected to it in parliament on the grounds that all payrolls should be streamlined.

“But if these other government groups are taking an allowance, why not the MPs? This is a democracy, so I always respect the majority decision.”

Lawyer Mohamed Shafaz Wajeeh, one of two lawyers involved in the civil case, argued that the number of people benefiting from the allowance does not justify the sum released, which amounts to Rf18 million (US$1.1 million).

“It’s greed. Just greed,” Shafaz said. “MPs and higher-ups in the government are probably more aware of their own power than they should be. The thinking behind this goes against everything we know.”

Shafaz suggested the government consider other options, such as releasing the allowance in installments to lighten the burden on the state budget and other subsidiaries.

“But I’m not sure how much political will there is to do this. Everyone says the allowance is a good idea.”

Civil society

Although members of the civil sector earlier issued a statement objecting to the allowance, which they called “a gross injustice to the Maldivian people,” they have not articulated an official position on the issue of late.

Maldives Democracy Network (MDN) Director Fathimath Ibrahim Didi said that individuals in the organization were involved at the beginning, but that they did not represent MDN.

“Now, I think there may be a group working against the allowance, but it is loosely formed involving people from NGOs, lawyers and individuals,” she said.

Transparency Director Ilham Mohamed told Minivan News that a volunteer team was addressing the matter, but that large protests had not been organized among local non-government organizations (NGOs).

“I believe there may be sporadic gatherings in different places,” said Mohamed. “I do know that the NGOs that were involved in the original statement opposing the MP allowance are unified on this issue.”

“Symbolic”

The decision to approve the Rf20,000 (US$1200) monthly allowances in December 2010 was met with  protests and widespread public indignation. However in June this year, parliament rejected a resolution proposed by opposition Dhivehi Rayyithunge Party (DRP) MP Ahmed Mahlouf to scrap the allowance.

Meanwhile the current civic action campaign was prompted by parliament’s Public Accounts Committee (PAC) deciding in late August to to issue a lump sum of Rf140,000 (US$9,000) as committee allowance back pay for January through July this year.

Article 102 of the constitution states that parliament shall determine the salaries and allowances of the President, Vice President, cabinet ministers, members of parliament, members of the Judiciary, and members of the independent institutions.

The Rf20,000 allowance was initially approved on December 28, 2010 as part of a revised pay scheme recommended by the PAC.

During yesterday’s debate on a privileges motion regarding the anti-committee allowance campaign, MP ‘Colonel’ Mohamed Nasheed, a member of the PAC, explained that the committee felt that MPs should earn a higher salary than High Court judges.

“But even then the honourable members of the Public Accounts Committee believed that MPs were receiving a sufficiently large salary in relation to the country’s economic situation,” he said, adding that a decision was made to institute a “symbolic” committee allowance.

“The thinking at the time was to give it to MPs who attend committee meetings as a very symbolic thing, for example one laari or 15 laari. But to ensure that take-home pay for MPs would be Rf82,500,” he said.

However, he continued, this “noble effort” became politicised and the subject of “an anti-campaign programme.”

Colonel called for legal action against the activists “when they go beyond the boundaries of free expression” and the right to protest, claiming that MPs’ families and children had been targeted.

Echoing a claim made by a number of MPs yesterday, Colonel said none of his constituents had asked him to decline the allowance.

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Democracy growing, but gender equality a key issue: UNDP

The UNDP International Day of Democracy was celebrated today under the theme “Youth Inclusion and Democracy” at the Nasandhura Palace Hotel. Representatives from the government, UNDP, and the Human Rights Commission spoke on democratic progress in the Maldives.

Youth in civil society were widely recognised as a key factor for democratic growth in the Maldives.

UN Advisor on Social Cohesion and Governance, Ferdinand von Habsburg-Lothringen, delivered the opening speech.

“Civil society in the Maldives is impressive. It is an important avenue for young people to engage with their community and to hold leaders accountable,” he said.

Habsburg-Lothringen noted that “democracy is still a new concept in the Maldives, and will take many years to mature,” and encouraged the Maldivian government to enact “crucial” laws, such as the penal code.

Gender equality remains one of the biggest issues in the Maldives, said Habsburg-Lothringen. He noted that only 5 of the 77 MPs are female.

“Gender equality is an area in which the Maldives is lagging behind most countries in achieving the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs),” he said. “Democracy is dependent on not just 50 percent of the people. With only half of the eligible work force participating, growth will not flourish in the Maldives.”

Home Minister Hassan Afeef called this year’s theme “relevant to the country – a majority of our population are young people.”

The ceremony featured a presentation of the report, “Comprehensive Study on Maldivian Civil Society” by FJS Consulting.

Managing Director Fareeha Shareef summarised the report’s findings on CSOs in the Maldives. Among the issues addressed was the disorganised categorisation of CSOs.

“The government is trying to provide aid but the structure of how to do it is not specified,” said Shareef. “Some sports clubs and organisations didn’t even engage in sports activities,” she said.

Shareef also commented on the CSO sector’s unique work force. According to the report, only 0.7 percent of employees are paid, and the average employee is age 25 with an education ranging between grades 6 and 10. There are 1100 CSOs registered in the Maldives.

Funding is also a struggle. The report found that donors were the least common source of funding, and many CSOs organise events to generate income. One example was a CSO that went fishing to generate program funding. The report notes that these events only cover about 30 percent of the total program cost.

The report recognises that the Maldives has the resources to support a strong civil society, but recommends bringing in older employees to provide guidance. “Imagine the potential of the sector if the resources were channeled in an effective manner,” said Shareef.

Chief Guest speaker Mariyam Azra Ahmed, Chair of the Human Rights Commission, said “a vibrant civil sector and independent media, among others” were essential for growth. She also advised a stronger dialogue between citizens and the government. “Lifestyles incorporating compromise, cooperation, and consensus building should be a consistent, recurring feature in  a democratic society,” she said.

The event included a performance by musician Yes-e and singer Grey, for whom the performance was her debut. “I was a bit nervous, and the audience wasn’t very lively, but it was a good event,” she said.

Following a tea break, a vigorous student debate was widely attended by members of civil society, UNDP, and the government. Gesticulating throughout the debate, the students of Aminiya and Dharumavatha schools demonstrated passion and ambition for democracy in the Maldives.

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Concerned citizens protest 1800 percent increase in MP salaries since 2004

A group of concerned citizens, many of them also members of local non-government and civil society organisations, protested outside parliament today against the recently proposed increase in parliamentary committee members’ allowances, and lump sum back payments of Rf 140,000 (US$9100).

Leaflets scattered across parliament grounds highlighted that MPs were earning Rf 82,500 (US$5350) a month in 2011 compared to Rf 4500 (US$290) in 2004, an effective 18-fold increase.

“Parliament members already have a salary of Rf62,000, and to give them more money in this way is not necessary,” said NGO Transparency Maldives Project Coordinator, Aiman Rasheed. “We feel that giving this allowance for a whole year, and during months when Parliament isn’t even in session, is unacceptable.”

Police had blocked roads close to parliament this morning, and were waiting when protesters appeared at 1:15 pm. Approximately 25 citizens attended the protest, and were quickly penned into a side street away from the building.

Protesters waved poster boards and passed a megaphone for rally calls. However MPs avoided the protest by leaving the building through the back door.

Rasheed said Transparency had been told that if 39 of the 77 MPs refused  the allowance, the Public Accounts Committee, which proposed the raise, would submit a motion to reconsider the proposal.

“Most of the people we’ve spoken to have said they would not accept the motion,” said Rasheed.

Local NGOs and CSOs protested the raise near the tsunami memorial last Saturday, August 27. Assembling at 4:30 pm, representatives distributed fliers showing the steep rise in MP allowance rates.

“MPs do not need to be paid more money to do committee work!” read the flyer. “It is the duty of MPs. It is one of the most important responsibilities that has to be carried out by MPs.”

Saturday’s protest made use of Male’s nightly motorcycle circuit of the city to reach a large percentage of the population.

Today’s significantly smaller turnout may be a side effect of the end of Ramadan and the start of Eid, which begins tomorrow August 30. Reports say that many boats have already left Male for other islands.

The deadline for voting on the proposed allowance is 6 September. As of today, 17 MPs have said they would not accept it.

They include: Mohamed Gasam, Ibrahim Rasheed, Hamid Abdul Gafoor, Mariya Ahmed Didi, Mohamed Nazim, Illyas Labeeb, Mohamed Aslam, Ahmed Sameer, ‘Reeko’ Moosa Manik, Hussein Waheed, Alhan Fahmy, ‘Colonel’ Mohamed Nasheed and Eva Abdulla of the ruling Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) along with Speaker Abdulla Shahid and Independent MP Mohamed ‘Kutti’ Nasheed.

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