Civil society criticises Home Ministry for decision to dissolve 70 percent of NGOs

Additional reporting by Mohamed Naahii

The Ministry of Home Affairs is facing criticism for publically announcing the dissolution of nearly 1300 non-governmental organisations (NGOs) without notification or supportive mechanisms.

State Minister for Home Affairs Abdulla Mohamed announced Tuesday (March 18) that the ministry will dissolve approximately 1300 of 1843 nationally registered NGOs – 70 percent – because they failed to submit annual reports or elect executive committees, local media reported.

Mohamed said that only around 200 NGOs had submitted the required documents and are functioning in accordance with the law.

He added that the announcement was made to the media and published in the government gazette.

“We had to make this decision because for ages the tradition was to register as many NGOs as possible. There is no tradition to dissolve or abolish NGOs.

“On average, four to five NGOs are registered on a weekly basis. But NGOs do not function as they should. If that is happening then NGOs need to be dissolved,” stated Mohamed.

The Maldives NGO Federation told Minivan News they have received complaints from NGOs that they were not informed prior to Minister Mohamed making this public announcement via the media.

“The Home Ministry should have informed these organisations directly and given them an opportunity to resolve their issues within a certain time period,” stated NGO Federation Vice President Imad Mohamed.

“These island-based associations are not aware of what is happening, some do not have access to the media – internet or television. Additionally, some atoll and island councils did not inform NGOs based on the islands.

“I am not able to comment on legal issues at the moment, but any NGO should be dissolved according to the law and due process should be followed. We will discuss this issue with the Registrar and will voice the NGOs’ concerns,” Imad added.

The need for clearer government regulations to protect NGOs from state interference was emphasised in the Comprehensive Study of the Maldivian Civil Society report, issued by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in 2011.

The report highlighted the need to “introduce clear procedures specified for the state’s investigation of alleged or suspected cases of illicit or unconstitutional activity and for the de-registration of a civil society organisation (CSO)”.

It also discussed the need to develop clear standards for annual reports and timely (positive and negative) feedback to help improve the quality of reporting.

Key recommendations were to clarify “the powers, responsibilities and the limits of power of the Registrar of Associations [currently the State Minister for Home Affairs], and ensure the post is not politically appointed”.

“[Also] ensure that any allegations against CSOs of unconstitutional or illicit activities by any agency of the state require evidence and are not based on arbitrary state decisions.

“Moreover, the process should follow those of a fair hearing. The [Associations] Act should specify the protections for CSOs from exercise of arbitrary state power,” the report reads.

The Associations Act of 2003 is the current regulatory framework for associations in the Maldives. It states that either two years or repeated faults – including anti-Islamic actions or conducting political activities – are grounds for dissolution by the Registrar of Associations.

However, de-registration can only by conducted “after giving a period to settle debts and properties of the association”.

Civil society politicised

Mohamed also stated that some island council’s complained that actions – political work – by certain NGOs have caused chaos in society.

Imad explained that island-based NGOs are often politically labelled by the island councils who feel their power is threatened, because these organisations often focus on awareness and advocacy activities, as well as fill critical service gaps to meet community needs.

“NGOs play a different role in society, they promote democracy, human rights and good governance. Island councils feel that these NGOs are against them.

“Some island councils are not able to meet the expectations of the public, so NGOs are meeting these needs instead. This creates a conflict,” said Imad.

Imad emphasised that most of the NGOs facing dissolution are objective, island-based and not conducting political activities, however they are in need of capacity building.

Often island-based NGOs are run by all volunteer members who work full time, have extensive family obligations, and may engage in political activities separate from their community development work. However, the distinctions between public, private, and family life are frequently overlooked.

“It is true that some organisations do get involved in political activities and this is a current challenge for the sector to overcome. Additionally, there are inactive NGOs registered for various purposes,” stated Imad.

“However there are also quite active NGOs, but they are not good with internal management.

“The Home Ministry is only regulating and dealing with registration, they are not fulfilling a facilitation role to assist these organizations. The Home Ministry should be playing a facilitation role as well,” he added.

The UNDP study also recognised the challenges NGOs face at the island level.

“CSOs need to be made aware of their role not only as partners of local government but also of their watchdog functions in ensuring that the government is held accountable for the governance of their administrative areas,” reads the report.

Funding shortages

Mohamed said the government budgeted 10 million Maldivian rufiyaa (MVR) for dispersal “depending on the proposals it receives from NGOs to carry on its projects”.

“When we look to support NGOs with financial assistance, we don’t have the funds to give to 1843 NGOs. We face a lot of challenges following that,” Mohamed explained.

“The ministry needs criteria for disbursing funds, then I can discuss this issue,” Imad responded.

The UNDP study found that “ NGOs are not active mainly due to a lack of managerial and project implementation capacity, as well as a lack of legal framework and availability of funds”.

A larger number of NGOs are based in the atoll islands and tend to be “more responsive to a community’s broader and changing set of needs”.

Whereas, Male’ based NGOs are issue specific and have more readily available access to resources.

“The efforts of CSOs to raise their own funds through membership fees and other efforts should be commended,” reads the report.

The Ministry of Home Affairs was not responding to calls at time of press.