In recent times, a number of civil society organisations, mainly non-governmental organisations (NGOs), have faced serious questions pertaining to their accountability and governance health.
These questions are mainly in relation to how they operate and spend funding from various development partners. A number of development partners, including one of the leading funding mechanisms in Uganda, are grappling with these questions of NGO accountability and governance.
It would appear that NGOs, who are meant to be one of the gatekeepers of the communities they serve, are not immune from the governance and accountability affliction we see bountiful in the government rank and file. As a result of these concerns, there seems to be a looming crisis of confidence in Uganda civil society which needs to be averted.
These accountability and governance issues are emerging from financial reviews and audits (ordinary and forensic) carried out in respect of NGOs supported by development partners.
The findings indicate that there are, inter alia, alleged instances of noncompliance with some development partners’ and institutional procurement procedures, lack of supporting documents for various expenditures, lack of value for money in procurement, expenditures in excess of the budgeted allowance without approval, late remittances of statutory deductions, and in some cases, just outright fraud.
On the governance front, there are issues such as lack of clear transition plans for the principals of the organisations and boards that are not fully functional or aware of their roles. Several lack key operational policies like board charters which are vital for the organisational health.
I do not intend or would not want to paint all NGOs with the same colour of financial and governance impropriety, as there are several well-run and accountable NGOs in the country. These NGOs need to be acknowledged and appreciated.
Nonetheless, there are some that fall short of the required fiduciary responsibility and standards. It is important that the NGO sector adopts a demonstrable zero tolerance for corruption.
If NGOs are going to maintain their credibility and moral authority to hold government to account, they need to ensure that their houses are in order from an accountability and governance standpoint.
There should be no compromise on this at all. This is because corruption leads to diversion of resources meant to serve the community into the private pockets of those that are supposed to serve them.
It must be acknowledged that there is clear track record of NGOs being attacked or broken into by yet to be established persons. Government has a history of cracking down on NGOs in a bid to close the political and civic space. It is, therefore, vital that the issues identified herein are not used as pretext to enhance the crackdown on NGOs but rather form a basis to support them to strengthen their operating systems and polices.
I would suggest the following to try and avert the looming confidence of crisis that I see coming on the development horizon in Uganda. I call for the creation of a NGO sector that brings together the Ministry of Internal Affairs, National Bureau for NGOs, NGO Bureau, and other relevant sector ministries, departments/agencies, NGOs, and development partners.
A sector strategic plan would be developed as well as an anti-corruption strategy that would be implemented and monitored. A sectoral approach will lead to better coordination, cooperation and harmonisation of activities in the NGO space in Uganda. I should point out that this proposed strategic plan would not replace the institutional specific strategic plans.
Any individual found to be culpable of misuse of funds and fraud should be held to account and blacklisted publically. In the event that it is established that there is institution wide culpability, then consideration should be given to blacklisting the organisation as a whole.
However, I am very mindful that corrupt individuals should not cause the collapse of an organisation. It is crucial that institutions are understood to be larger than individuals, even those that may have founded them.
The Humanitarian Practice Network acknowledges that NGOs are often reluctant to talk about corruption for fear that it will lead to bad publicity and, consequently, a loss of funding.
Notwithstanding this, NGO peer review should be encouraged during sector meetings. The culture of internal self-introspection should be fostered. NGOs, especially those working in the same thematic areas, know each other and should be able to critique each other with the view to institutional improvement and growth.
A list of those individuals/organisations that have been found to be involved in fund misuse should be published annually. Furthermore, just like Transparency International (TI) publishes its annual corruption index, an NGO corruption index could be considered as well ranking of NGOs. This could be published by an independent NGO watchdog or one of the existing anti-corruption organisations.
Development partners need to intensify their supervision and monitoring of their supported NGOs. Regular, periodic, consistent, and thorough financial reviews should be conducted. They should not wait for annual audits to happen. In addition, continuous organisational development support should be provided to NGOs to ensure that they have and implement robust accountability procedures. Development partners also need to ensure that they are not wilful accomplices in the mismanagement of funds.
NGOs need with all due haste to ensure that they are running tight ships in terms of governance and accountability. They should have in place the requisite governance, financial systems and polices which are implemented with purposefully commitment to zero corruption.
It is imperative that the looming crisis of confidence is halted and NGOs ensure that they are on unquestionable governance and accountability ground.
The writer is a human rights
and governance lawyer