Council for Non-Governmental Organisations (Congoma) has now clocked 32 years in the country, and our reporter FATSANI GUNYA caught up with chairperson MACBAIN MKANDAWIRE who painted the bitter sweet of the NGO journey in the country. Excerpts:
Congoma, the grouping you chair, recently held an annual general meeting in Lilongwe. How unique was it this time around?
The Congoma journey has been a tremendous one. As a matter of fact, the annual general meeting [AGM] we had last week in Lilongwe coincided with the 32 years of Congoma’s existence in the country. Among other things, we met as an institution to share the success we have made, the strength we carry together, and the zeal we all have in shaping the Malawi we want. It was about the synergies we have created in championing development, the barriers we have knocked down together in advancing our work, and the opportunities we have built up to ensure we continue complementing development efforts at national level. But most importantly, it was about the success that we have witnessed in the lives of citizens in various communities we work, the tears of joy, their smiling faces, and the tales of how their lives have changed forever due to our interventions as NGOs.
How can you rate the NGO work and contribution towards poverty reduction in general?
I feel it cannot be told in a single word. Firstly; let us remind ourselves of the country situation we are in, which requires concerted efforts from all of us. Malawi is facing several challenges. About eight million Malawians are living in pain of poverty and underdevelopment. According to the 2016 United Nations Human Development Index, Malawi ranks 170 out of 188 countries. What is more shocking, is that our country remains a perennial underperformer on the development ladder as it has been among the top 20 poorest countries for more than 20 years. The index further indicates that the average number of years in school is 10.8, with a dropout rate of 50.9 percent in primary schools; technologically, 9.5 percent of the population have access to Internet; and unemployment has been getting worse from 9 percent in 2005 to 27.5 percent in 2014; implying poverty is heavily devastating the most productive age-range of our citizens; leaving thousands of children, women and the elderly with no hope for the future. This is being exacerbated by burdensome tax regime and electricity blackouts, which are likely to worsen environmental degradation. With these blackouts, the situation has worsened from 2014 when 98.3 percent of Malawians were using fuelwood. It is, therefore, painful truth, that majority of the people still cannot afford or access basic essentials such as clean water and social amenities. But I have faith because that as NGOs, we can learn from each other’s’ experience as well as the public sector, while articulating wishes, aspirations and the collective will of citizens.
What can you say of the operational environment of the NGOs in the country?
As NGOs in Malawi, we believe the NGO space is shrinking, a condition that is really retrogressive in a democratic dispensation. For instance, my view is that the process of developing the NGO Policy has not been transparent and accountable. Being institutions that are subject to the provisions of the Policy, we are dismayed by the unpredictable nature of the process so far. While we were still contemplating on how we can contribute towards a successful development of the NGO Policy, another nightmare was in the offing.
The Ministry of Gender, Children, Disability and Social Welfare invited us to a discussion on the Amendment Bill to the NGO Act (2001). In view of the fact that we did not know the source of the draft Amendment Bill, it was challenging for us to participate in the discussion. On the basis of this situation, we are requesting government to give NGOs the position of the Amendment Bill. Our understanding is that there is no way the government would try to put spanners in the work of NGOs as that would imply going in reverse compared to the progress we have made so far in working together. Linked to the same is the issue of compliance to the NGO Act.
For us, the NGO Act is still intact and provisions therein remain binding as there has been no amendment to that effect. To our surprise, there are government institutions that are breaking the same NGO Act they are expected to respect and safeguard.
We cannot talk of NGO work without tackling the issue of tax incentives for NGOs. How are they fairing in the country?
Unfortunately, tax incentives in the country have rapidly dwindled over the past 12 years. While NGOs in other countries continue enjoying more tax relief, the opposite is happening in Malawi. Every year, we engage the Ministry of Finance, Economic Planning and Development to consider providing tax relief on NGO services, to no avail. This practice is startling because most of the NGOs depend on donor funds, or well-wishers. For example, if an NGO has secured funds for constructing an orphanage or school block, it is only fair for government to waive tax related to building materials and other items. But that is not the case. In real terms, this demoralises donors who spend their hard-earned money on such projects, as we have evidence of donors who have withdrawn their support due to such circumstances. The current customs procedure codes are not only out of tune with NGO work, but also difficult to understand their intention.
Why is it said that NGOs, particularly local ones, continue to face funding challenges?
Most of the NGOs, particularly local NGOs get support from donors and have limited income generation by themselves. The financial support has been dwindling since the economic turn-down and this has led to slowing down on operation or worse still, closure of NGOs. This is sad, particularly this time when more Malawians need support in various communities. n