In mid-2019, many Civil Societies Organisations (CSOs) in Tanzania were concerned about the proposed amendments into the NGOs Act that would require most of them to change their registration status and impose more compliance requirements over the NGO. Despite their efforts in seeking rectification, their plea fell short, and the amendments were passed by the Parliament into law in June 2019, giving the Registrar of NGO the power to suspend NGO pending board determination. It also allows the Registrar to conduct quarterly monitoring and evaluation checks to the organisations. The subsequent regulations intensified the power of the Registrar by requiring NGO to seek prior written approval for the implementation of any project whose funding contract is above TZS20,000,000 (about $8,600), among many other controversial provisions.
Following the passage of the law, the ministry responsible for overseeing the activities of NGOs in Tanzania went ahead to pursue several changes. One of the highly commendable changes was the introduction of the online registration portal, which has improved efficiency and saved organisations hours of billable time and transport cost, which organisations used to incur in the past.
I have had the opportunity of engaging with the online registration process. However, I have a couple of serious reservations about the process. One is on the use of a constitution template, which is to be reviewed and approved by the officials at the Ministry of Health, Community Development, Gender and Elderly Children after submission. The constitution template for all NGOs is provided in the Non-Governmental Organization (Amendments) Regulations, 2019 and organisations are supposed to fill it by filling out items such as their name, vision, mission and objectives.
Everything is determined
What is surprising is that most of the items are already determined, and there are very few areas that organisations can change. Another reservation that I have for the process, concerns the instructions that officials at the office of the Registrar give to applicants on how to craft the vision, mission and objective of their organisations during the registration process. Isn’t the applicant the one who knows better his/her vision and mission and the objective of their organisation? And if the constitution is the foundation of the organisation, isn’t it reasonable that the members of the organisation are the one who are supposed to draft and approve their constitution? Why does the Registrar give himself/herself the mandate to propose changes on small matters like the wording on the objective of the NGO’s constitution?
Of course, this work by the Registrar is per the existing rules and regulations. For example, regulations provide that the Registrar must ensure that the NGO’s objectives, programs, projects and duties are in line with the laws, national plans and priorities and respond to the challenges of the area of implementation. I’m not sure if thousands of organisations having an almost similar constitution is the question of improving administration or efficiency in the management of the organisation. I doubt that!
I think the new requirements set by the Act have had notable impending fate on some organisations within just a few months since the law was introduced. For example, on August 14, 2020, the Human Rights Defenders Coalition (THRDC) reported that their bank accounts were frozen and they had to shut down operation for allegedly signing contracts with donors without consulting the office of the Registrar of NGOs.
Currying favour with Registrar
It’s crystal clear that with the current legal and political environment surrounding CSOs operations in Tanzania it is only wise for any organisation to try as much as possible to please the Registrar in their daily activities so that they can ensure they survive. But under those circumstances, how far will CSOs go with their change-making mission?
Take, for example, some issues of concerns during the election period, such as arrests and violence and election-related deaths reported by both opposition parties and international human rights organisations. There has so far not been any organised response from the Tanzanian CSOs on any of these incidents. And election follow-up dialogue from NGOs has been mostly around non-controversial issues.
This, however, is not to say that there have not been any activities from CSOs, as in the background there was a lot of work being done. The work ranged from the provision of legal support to documentation of various issues to even moral, and material support to victims of multiple misfortunes.
While the core function of CSOs is to elevate citizenry positions in any democracy, as time goes, it is getting harder and harder for registered organisations to pursue these roles in Tanzania. It has become increasingly difficult given the precarious legal and political situation which has made the CSOs unable to fight against even issues that affect their existence.
Poisonous corporate culture
Focusing on internal structures of CSOs and how they threaten to kill CSOs change-making missions, I think the obsession with corporate culture and systems stands out as the most dangerous structure. This corporate-like culture has made CSOs attract many individuals with little passion for change-making, which overall make the process for building any meaningful momentum merely impossible. Also, with the raging corporate-like mentality, many organisations have attached their successes to mostly physical attributes, say, office buildings, great location and eye-dazzling corporate events with great lighting, sound, picture and the likes.
While these items are not necessarily wrong, they raise several questions. For example, what is a good office location when you can’t engage with common citizens or seek a better position on their issues? What use does a good event have if it’s only being used for a cocktail, and there is no meaningful conversation for change and follow-up? What is networking for if it doesn’t enhance the mobilisation and organisation of citizens in demanding real change? And what is accountability for if we are only accountable on how we keep the book and leave aside the big questions about how much changes and impact are we bringing on the ground?
While the formal structure provides a platform for proper engagement and mobilisation of resources, training and mentorship, the environment surrounding it continues to make it harder and harder for CSOs to bring about changes they want to see within the communities they’re operating.
But there is still hope. The existing legal and political environment forces the emergence of informal structures for dialogue among change-makers and Tanzania’s development partners. Moreover, informally, members of CSOs continue to be a formidable background force in looking for venting avenues inside and beyond the country.
Though this informal engagement is not well organised or coordinated Tanzania CSOs will need to embrace the informal arrangements and harness their potential. All in all, CSOs will need to find its change-making spirit and will have to do so using any means available to them.
Tony Alfred is a political analyst based in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. He can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter through @tonyalfredk. These are the writer’s own opinion and they do not necessarily reflect the viewpoint of The Chanzo Initiative.