MBABANE, 21 July (IRIN) - The lack of a national policy to guide the operations and provide legal parameters for the activities of the numerous NGOs working in Swaziland has raised some serious concerns among civic bodies.
Civil society groups say they have lobbied the government for the past 20 years to consider a draft NGO bill, but without much success.
"We have no guidelines, no definition even, of what exactly an NGO is. To be an NGO in Swaziland you must legally register, but some groups are registering as associations, some as nonprofit organisations, and some as individuals. There has to be overall control, so NGOs can't be closed at the whim of the home affairs minister of the day," said Phumzile Dlamini, programme officer for the Coordinating Assembly of Non-Governmental Organisations (CANGO).
CANGO has attempted to explain to MPs the myriad benefits NGOs bring to their constituencies on many occasions.
"Parliamentarians told us plainly that their hands are tied, as they are only mandated to discuss issues that have reached policy level, which the draft policy has not reached, having been stalled in cabinet," CANGO director Emmanuel Ndlangamandla told NGOs last week at the umbrella body's annual general meeting.
Ndlangamandla pointed out that the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) had provided CANGO with technical assistance to revisit the NGO policy, but that the outcome of that effort had been met with resistance.
"Through UNDP, we developed a new NGO Act, but it was thrown out by the attorney-general's office - we were told it was not our [NGOs] duty to develop policies," he related.
A national NGO policy would also address complaints by some government officials that NGOs were unaccountable to any oversight body.
Delegates at the CANGO meeting agreed that, besides a definition of what constitutes an NGO, the Act should also include a code of ethics as part of the broader guidelines.
Tension between the government and NGOs has heightened in recent years, as some charities have been inclined to comment on sensitive political issues. CANGO had joined the Swaziland Coalition of Concerned Civic Organisations (SCCCO), a politically progressive umbrella body of legal, labour and human rights groups, in a call for democratic reform.
Last week a clause guaranteeing civic groups the right to hold meetings was deleted from the draft constitution, after the justice ministry said the clause was redundant because the right to assembly was mentioned elsewhere in the constitution.
On Thursday SCCCO said it would reject the new national constitution once it was signed into law by King Mswati III.
"Its very conception (the constitutional review) was orchestrated to bestow legitimacy on the entrenchment of the centralised system of power and [is a] denial of fundamental human rights," the group said.
The SCCCO is still pressing for what it called a 'consensual national constitution', to be achieved at a meeting of civil society groups and representatives from a cross-section of Swazi society.
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