Govt’s move to regulate civil society sparks controversy

Eben de Klerk

The government is introducing a directive to subject non-profit organisations to sweeping regulations – a decision which has been met with fierce opposition from action groups.

The new directive, led by the Financial Intelligence Centre (FIC), mandates strict disclosure rules for non-profit organisations, such as revealing detailed information about donors, board members, and beneficiaries, as well as the submission of annual returns as part of mandatory FIC registration.

While the move is aimed at increasing transparency and accountability within the civil society sector, critics argue that it threatens to undermine the foundations of democracy and constitutes an alarming overreach of the sector’s autonomy.

“The democracy of any country lies in the hands of civil society, not in the hands of the government. If we left it unchecked in the hands of the government, they would have complete control and would trample on the rights of civilians,” Eben de Klerk from the Economic Policy Research Association says.

De Klerk, addressing an information session by the FIC with civil society in Windhoek, yesterday said revealing the identities of those funding or serving on the boards of civil society associations exposes them to potential risks.

“There are businesses out there who feel that if they are seen as being critical of government policy, they would be punished. We have a politically intolerant government, and now the government wants to know who our members are,” he said.

De Klerk said civil society organisations with the mission of uncovering or spotlighting political corruption would now need to be placed under government regulation.

“Do you see the conflict of interest in that? You are clamping down on civil society, which is a pillar of the democracy we currently enjoy,” he said.

De Klerk said the directive is in violation of the Namibian Constitution, and civil society would now require financial resources to mount a legal challenge against the government.

Ironically, he said, these funds would also need to undergo scrutiny by the very government they seek to challenge.

“Take note and understand what the government is doing under the guise of ‘we must loot out criminals and terrorism’,” De Klerk said.

The directive appears to significantly raise the volume of documentation these organisations must provide to secure legal recognition.

It introduces supervisory measures that are subject to random inspections and enforces disproportionate penalties, such as forced suspension, for even minor technical shortcomings or delays in meeting reporting obligations.

Chris Brown, the chief executive of the Namibian Chamber of Environment, raised concern, saying that while they have no objection to the government taking measures to combat money laundering and terrorism, procedures should rather be put in place.

“The procedures that have been put in place are a gross bureaucratic overreach,” Brown said.

He said civil society’s reluctance to submit the required documents is not necessarily due to a lack of willingness, but rather a lack of trust in the government.

“The way this whole piece of legislation has unfolded is not acceptable. It is not democratic and in our view it is not constitutional,” Brown said.

Meanwhile, the government maintains that these measures are necessary to combat money laundering, terrorism financing, and other illicit activities.

Karen Maiba, the senior compliance officer at the FIC, said non-profit organisations must clearly disclose the origins of their funding.

She emphasised the importance of ensuring that regulatory and supervisory actions do not hinder the legitimate activities of non-profit organisations.

“That information is to assist us, as the regulator, to know where to focus. It’s not to use it against you, it’s for our own information,” Maiba said.

As part of their registration as legitimate organisations, these entities are now mandated to annually submit their financial results to the FIC for auditing purposes.

“This directive now requires all non-profit organisations to keep records of their financials. At any given time the FIC could request to audit your books,” Maiba said.

Non-profit organisations have until 29 September to align their records and adhere to the FIC’s directives.

However, these organisations have requested an extension of the deadline to provide an opportunity for addressing and clarifying some of their concerns.

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