And What is Your Agenda? In Defence of NGOs

August 11th, 2014

What’s on the agenda?

I notice that in the past year or so this word has crept into our public discourse. For some commentators it seems to have sinister connotations. As well as certain politically incorrect individuals, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) apparently have “agendas.”

Clearly, an organisation that takes up a particular cause or focuses on a specific need must have an agenda. Nuh true? These organisations all have vision statements, mission statements, aims and objectives, advertised on their Facebook pages and websites. An organization cannot operate without a purpose or a work plan. Any NGO representative will be able to tell you what their agenda is.

So why is it such a bad thing? Because, some insinuate, the “agenda” is a secret one. Even worse, it is dictated to Jamaican NGOs by foreigners, who constantly feed them with funds in order to further their own devious, possibly suspect foreign agendas (better conditions for prisoners, perhaps; or preventing mother to child transmission of HIV/AIDS). Some Jamaicans (including some politicians) are suspicious of NGOs. They may be up to something. They need to be regulated. They must be closely watched. They must be “accountable to the Jamaican people.” They may be puppets of a foreign government. Or worse.

Furthermore, some say the leaders of NGOs are living“high on the hog.” I wonder if they know that many of these allegedly affluent NGO leaders actually have to dip into their own (non-too-deep) pockets when needed, to fulfill their duties to a needy client, for example? They lead modest lifestyles and board meetings are mostly preoccupied with financial matters and fund-raising. And most NGO workers are not paid at all; nor are their boards of directors. Many NGOs live “hand to mouth.”

Many NGOs receive (and some largely depend on) grants and loans from overseas entities; a foreign aid agency, another NGO or academic institution perhaps. Without them, many would barely survive; but we should note also that NGOs receive some Government assistance. NGOs’ goals usually coincide with those of the funder – for example, reducing youth unemployment or drug addiction. But it is also a fact that the financial affairs of NGOs are already disclosed to the Government. So, in fact, they are already accountable to the Jamaican people.

Until recently, hundreds of “charities” (that is, churches, charities, service clubs, non-profit organisations, non-governmental organizations and professional associations) were obliged to supply documentation to the Companies Office of Jamaica, for a fee. This included income and expenditure statements, information on directors, statutory declarations, and so on. Now,under the requirements of the International Monetary Fund’s Extended Fund Facility, all charities are registered under the Charities Act 2013, which passed in the House of Representatives last October. The registration requirement is not mandatory; but if they do not register, charities will not be able to access subsidies and remain tax-exempt, so it is in their interests to do so. Among the requirements directors of NGOs must submit to the new Charities Authority are individual Tax Registration Numbers – and a photograph.

It may not occur to these critics that many (in fact, most) non-governmental, faith-based and community-based organizations have ongoing working relationships with the Government. This is nothing new. Any public or private sector organization worth its salt knows the value of partnerships. At the very least, paths will cross.

There are numerous examples of this. The Digicel Foundation, for example, has been praised by Government representatives for its support for Jamaicans with special needs – an area where public sector funds are scarce. On a smaller scale, an NGO working with teenage mothers (mostly HIV-positive) and their children, Eve for Life, conducts regular programmes with the Women’s Foundation of Jamaica, a government-run agency. J-FLAG recently partnered with the Ministry of Health on a training programme to sensitize health workers on dealing with LGBT patients. Jamaicans for Justice has done valuable work over the years with the Access to Information Unit, the Office of the Contractor General and the Corruption Prevention Commission, among others. Panos Caribbean and others are working closely with the Ministry of Water, Land, Environment and Climate Change on adaptation issues. Numerous community organizations work closely with government agencies such as the Jamaica Social Investment Fund, the Social Development Commission.

Of course, such relationships will have their challenges from time to time. But in most cases, these collaborations have been mutually beneficial – pooling resources, sharing information and expertise, supporting and helping in many practical ways to implement programmes for the good of the Jamaican people. NGOs, churches and other civil society groups provide social services, often seeking to fill in the sometimes yawning gaps left by Government’s inability to do so.

So to suggest that NGOs are alien creatures out there, operating according to their own mysterious agendas and accountable to no one, is not only disingenuous. It is a distorted and unfair assertion, unsupported by facts.

But, you know what? I think this all has a lot to do with politics. Some civil society organizations – especially “lobby groups” and certain faith-based entities – are seen as being too influential in society. They are too high-profile in the media. Their leaders are too well-known; some have been accused of arrogance. They should know their place and quietly get back to work, without seeking to challenge Government policies, critics are suggesting.

Against the background of our inflexible “Westminster system” of politics and a generally ineffective Opposition, perhaps some members of the party in power feel they have reason to be wary of civil society. But, I would contend, Government should embrace these voices, these “lobbies.” Continue to work with them. Isn’t that what democracy is all about? And if Government has genuine concerns, proof that certain NGOs are up to no good (for example, criminal activities), do something about it. I think the Charities Act will help, and hope that it will be used in a responsible way by this and future political administrations.

By the way: Do these critics know what it is like to get a call on your cell phone in the middle of Sunday dinner with your family; to jump up, get in the car and rush down to the hospital, to a street, a home in a troubled or impoverished neighborhood, to deal with an emergency? A Jamaican man, woman or child in despair and affliction? Perhaps doing an urgent “whip round” among friends and supporters to get funds for a client’s medical treatment?

No. I thought not.

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4 Responses to “And What is Your Agenda? In Defence of NGOs”

  1. ESTEBAN AGOSTO REID says:

    A very interesting and instructive piece re non governmental organizations(NGO).

  2. EmmaLewis says:

    Thanks for your comment!

  3. Susan Otuokon says:

    Very good and balanced article. Civil society through organisations have a very important role to play and do so. Many of the negative comments about NGOs could be equally made of government e.g. as regards transparency, accountability and living “high on the hog”.

  4. EmmaLewis says:

    Thank you, Susan! Yes, some of those things could certainly apply! thanks for your comment.