September 28, 2022

By: Winstanley. R.Bankole. Johnson

A very interesting drama is unfolding between the government and Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) over implementation of a proposed Development Co-operation Framework which if soon ratified, will see the government exercising some form of oversight functions of their activities (CSOs) within the country. And I have described it as very interesting because within the past 14-odd years, this is not the first time that idea is being mooted. It has been shot down as often as it had been floated in the past, amidst the collective protestations of CSOs that implementation of such a framework might have the tendency of the government to ring-fence both their funding inflows and activities and further stifle their selective freedoms guaranteed in Chapter 111under Sec. 25 and 26 our National Constitution – more particularly Sub-sec 26 (a) (ii) which guarantees citizens the protection of freedom of assembly and association to wit: “…for the purpose of protecting the rights and freedoms of other persons….” –as CSOs are purporting to exist for.

In my time as Mayor of the municipality of Freetown, this idea was amply discussed at the Ministry of Development and Economic Planning then headed by Hon. M.B Daramy, but the CSOs being adept at manipulating the opposition against any sitting government to their advantage, preyed on and canvassed the opposition sentiments back then to douse the proposals, virtually on the same grounds they are premising their protests now, and the idea was again shelved. That was as far back as 2006.

Again midstream APC dispensation, the Hon. Ibrahim R Bundu floated the idea in Parliament, citing Sec.118 (7) of the Constitution, but the CSOs again manipulated opposition SLPP sentiments and the matter had since remained in abeyance. The SLPP had all along been aware of the manipulative propensity of CSOs, but like Mary in the story of the Annunciation had “…kept all those things and pondered them in their hearts….”, awaiting an opportune time to launch a pre-emptive strike against the CSOs that would lay to a permanent rest their “carte-blanc” operations out-with any government oversight. And that opportune time is now. Now that the euphoria of post 2018 elections still resonates. Now that the opposition APC is in seeming disarray and the CSOs would seem bereft of a cohesive opposition sympathy to manipulate to their advantage as in the past. Now that the SLPP knows full well that if the matter is tabled in the Well of Parliament in particular it will be resoundingly ratified (with tacit support of opposition votes, having regard to ongoing petition litigations against some of them and the need not to fast-track their exits back to the real world). An opportune time indeed!!

I quite appreciate the concerns of the CSOs, but laws or specific government guidelines are made in the interest of the wider public, not to protect special interests. So I can safely predict that irrespective of CSO wailings against implementation of the proposed framework, government will (if you prefer to style it so) justifiably ride rough-shod over all, drawing strength from Sec. 118 (7) of our Constitution which states and I quote-: “Parliament shall be notified by the appropriate Minister or authority of all gifts, donations, grants and pledges made to the State of Sierra Leone” – Unquote.
I am not sure the appropriate Minister is regularly kept abreast of all such gifts or grants by CSOs, but the lacuna there though is whether such gifts, donations, grants and pledges to CSOs, NGOs and INGOs could actually qualify as being made to the State of Sierra Leone directly.

Government in turn can argue that as the organ responsible for the welfare of its citizens, it has an implied responsibility to ensure that all such gifts, donations, pledges and grants used for and on behalf of the peoples of Sierra Leone are prudently and accountably applied; hence the need for a Development Co-operation Framework. Pundits however believe that for a group sector so concerned about censoring and monitoring government activities and expenditure, CSOs should not take umbrage at government wishing to reciprocally hold them accountable as it is they (government) that has the ultimate and exclusive right to protect the overall interest and welfare of its citizens.

Praise or Blame
This government might further be wary that if CSOs are not well reined in, it shouldn’t be long before these same groups of people (CSOs) that assisted them to win the last elections begin to pick holes in their administration as they’d always done with past regimes to complement the regime-change agenda of the international donor community. And no one should fault government for that because by so doing, CSOs will henceforth begin to reflect their true calling, sharing praise and blame together with government as true “Partners in Development”, instead of continuously acting as “Fifth Columnists” in-between sitting governments and opposition parties surreptitiously awaiting appointments into lucrative offices after each electoral cycle, as we have seen recently.

By being consistently monitored under the proposed framework, this and future governments will also be able to pick up when for example targeted beneficiaries are short-changed by particular CSOs or when those funds are diverted towards opposition campaign logistics (handbills; bill boards; campaign vehicles etc.). So as real partners in development, the government now considers it prudent to begin to effectively monitor both the financial inflows and field activities of all CSOs for a variety of reasons, but the following three of which are key:
1. ensure an equitable distribution of relief aid and development projects through structures complimentary to government’s development priorities in hard to reach and permanently under-served communities
2. eliminate possible duplications and interventions between them and CSOs working as aid agencies countrywide
3. ensure that a greater percentage of donor support do not add up to spurious operating costs. It cannot be denied that in many CSOs a greater percentage of their budgets get applied to Operating Costs to wit-: Salaries, Vehicles procurements and maintenance, Rents and Travel expense for their CEOs, leaving less than 20% for the actual beneficiaries (or the direct victims as I would rather call them).

If I have any reservations about the proposed framework it will have to do with passing ultimate oversights of CSOs to the Sierra Leone Association of Non-Governmental Organization (SLANGO). For a start SLANGO (in stricto-senso not being a government agency) are ill-equipped for the purpose. By their very appellation or acronym, not all CSOs are national or local in character. Those of international character (INGOs) would resent any arrangement to be supervised by SLANGO. But that should not take INGOs off the national grid to ensure that their activities are complementary to the government’s development paradigms. A further downside could be that the moment they (SLANGO) becomes so empowered, no one should be surprised if their staff complement becomes bloated overnight and thereafter they begin to charge CSOs exorbitant fees under some spurious “Service- Level Agreements”.

Instead of using SLANGO, a Development Aid Co-ordinating wing within the Ministry of Development and Economic Planning should be re-activated, to which periodic (say half-yearly) Financial and Activity-based Reports should be submitted for proper reviews to ensure that the benchmarks agreed within the proposed framework are met, and if they persistently fail to meet them, their licenses could be revoked.

All above notwithstanding, it cannot be denied that CSOs have not only been more transparent and accountable in the management of donor partners’ funds especially so that they reach under-served areas, but are also far less beaurocratic than existing government service delivery mechanisms – no thanks to persistent unsavory reports of sleazes; grafts; mostly engendered by opposition CSOs. (Oh yes NGOs can be Pro- or Anti- government in character!!). Though most of such reports have remained largely unsubstantiated, they have nevertheless influenced major international donor counterparties away from government corridors in preference for reputable CSOs/INGOs. And that is exactly how the ICRC; OXFAM; PLAN; CORD-AID; ACTION AID etc of today became implementing partners of the IMF/World Bank through the International Finance Co-operation (IFC).

It is therefore important that whatever guidelines are carved out in the proposed Development Co-operation Framework for CSOs, government needs to be circumspect to avoid being misconstrued as more desirous of ring-fencing CSOs budgetary inflows which could be counterproductive, as the international community will frown upon it and may even decide a scale down their support to the detriment of many. It has to be noted that there are niches CSOs have carved out for themselves in areas of critical service delivery based on years of proven experiences and in which they will remain unmatched, e.g. Advocacy; Sensitization and Resource Mobilization. These are areas government can hardly venture into without being political or beaurocratic in outlook and presentation.

Whatever the merits and demerits of their cases, changes in reporting relationships and formats is an imperative to complement changing business trends and I am quite sure the CSOs are not repulsive to that. A middle of the road/win-win approach to implement the proposed Development Co-operation Framework for CSOs is recommended, and to achieve which government will need to consult as widely as possible (including even with the Bank of Sierra Leone) to ensure that whatever is ultimately agreed upon will guarantee not only the safety and security of CSO funds, but the integrity of their operations as well.