Humanitarian response in Uganda could be severely compromised if parliament adopts a bill that regulates NGOs and criminalises non-compliance, aid agencies have warned.
If passed, the bill, which is currently before a parliamentary committee, would have “catastrophic effects” on vulnerable communities, a coalition of civil society organisations (CSOs) said in a recent position paper.
“As currently crafted, the proposed law will be more restrictive and controlling of the NGO sector, as opposed to regulating to provide a conducive environment,” Rama Omonya, policy and advocacy coordinator at Oxfam in Uganda, told IRIN.
He added that Oxfam and other organisations that had analysed the bill fear it would “seriously affect the work of NGOs, especially CSOs engaged in governance and accountability work, including humanitarian advocacy.”
According to the bill’s preamble, the growth of the NGO sector in Uganda, which comprises some 12,500 registered organisations, “has led to subversive methods of work and activities, which in turn undermine accountability and transparency.”
The bill would empower the internal affairs minister, and the national NGO board, to supervise, approve, inspect, restrict, and dissolve all NGOs and community-based organisations.
For Asia Russel, executive director of Health Gap and a member of the coalition, this would be a step in the wrong direction.
“Humanitarian organisations in particular need independence and freedom from pressure and retaliation when they provide emergency aid and speak out about crises, something that would be curtailed under this bill,” she told IRIN.
“In health service delivery, the watchdog role civil society activists, service providers, and humanitarian organisations in Uganda play is vital and should be strengthened, not undermined.”
Stephen Oola of Makerere University’s Refugee Law Project said that in the sphere of emergency humanitarian activities, the bill’s provisions could undermine flexibility and response times.
“There is also a high likelihood of attempt by the authority to ration NGOs in different regions of the country irrespective of need,” he said.
As well as being active in the delivery of humanitarian services, NGOs in Uganda operate in a broad array of areas, including, education, healthcare and human rights
Under the proposed legislation, NGOs could only function with the express approval of the district NGO monitoring committee in the area where they wish to operate and if they have signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with the local government.
Such permission would be denied, "where it is in the public interest to refuse to register the organisation, or... for any other reason that the NGO board may deem relevant."
Dennis Odwe, of Action Group for Health, Human Rights and HIV/AIDS (AGHA), warned that such administrative hurdles could have grave consequences in the event of an emergency.
“Imagine a landslide or earthquake has occurred in a certain part of the country that the humanitarian organisation is not registered in. It has to follow all the bureaucratic processes to sign (an) MOU before responding. The slow responses to a disaster mean that vulnerable people will have to suffer and their lives will be at risk,” he told IRIN.
Staff of an NGO that operates without a permit, or fails to renew a permit, or “operates contrary to the directions on conditions of the permit,” are liable to criminal prosecution and eventually fines or imprisonment for up to eight years. It would be up to the NGO board, rather than the police or the director of public prosecutions to decide whether to bring criminal charges.
The bill also empowers the board to blacklist, dissolve or suspend the permit of an NGO or to take other disciplinary action it deems appropriate.
According to the CSO coalition position paper, this means the board could, “subjectively interpret these provisions to deny a group registration status for virtually any reason.”
Arthur Larok, country director of ActionAid Uganda, described as “draconian” provisions that allow the board to “invade” the offices of NGOs suspected of “acting against the law or public interest, however that is defined.”
“The bill gives the security arm of the government unprecedented powers in the affairs of NGOs, which can be tempting especially to unprofessional categories within the intelligence arms of government,” he warned.
Junior interior minister James Baba dismissed the bill’s critics out of hand.
“Only those who have ill motives are complaining,” he told IRIN.
“They are the ones we are targeting. The bill is to make sure our morals don’t degenerate into bad Western practices. Some of these organisations are involved in our politics and championing morals that are against our culture like homosexuality, which is totally unacceptable. They have to operate in the respective areas we licensed them for easy supervision and monitoring,” he said.
“We want accountability of funds they receive, transparency in the activities they do, and unity for smooth operations.”