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PVO Bill against the people

Musa Kika lawyer
AS LONG as a society has people, civil society must and will exist as a natural consequence, for what is society without civil society?

By their nature people must coalesce over issues of common interest, organise and self-organise to confront socio-economic and political issues around them, and societal shocks too.

Governments were born out of this realisation and need.

But when governments came that did not come with an exclusive mandate for the organising of citizens.

Exclusivity in organising platforms is a practical impossibility anyway.

Civil society has three primary functions.

The first is self-governance of the people and by the people.

Democracy is multi-layered.

While the people elect a government, they must, and they retain powers to self-govern and to self-organise.

All power in a democracy rests in the people who are supreme, and who elect unto themselves a constitution as their social contract.

But above that constitution as supreme law, the people are supreme in their collective.

Thus, when “we the people” elect unto them a constitution, that very act gives them the authority to determine the terms of the continued subsistence of that constitution and its form, and the terms of social and political relations within that society.

For this to be possible, the people must be able to self-organise, and this predominantly happens through civil society.

The second is being a partner to the government.

Government is not partnered with because it is struggling, but it is partnered with because that is the right thing to do.

That is how democracy works.

Government is put into place by the people and the people have a responsibility and indeed a duty, to ensure that their government succeeds, and this they do through organising themselves via civil society and vehicles of economic enterprise.

Being partners in governance does not imply seeing things from the same page, or doing the same things, or not calling each other out.

Far from it!

A partner calls out wrongdoing, holds the other to account, and demands adherence to the social contract.

The third is to solve local problems. Herein lies the crux of the matter.

Not all problems can and should be left to the government.

Even if the government were able to solve all problems within its jurisdictions — which is practically impossible — it is undesirable for the people to play no role in solving local problems.

The vehicle through which people use to solve their own community problems is civil society.

This inculcates a sense of collective and individual responsibility over issues of societal concern.

In Zimbabwe, one of the things of great concern is the sense of individualism that has been gradually building over time, which has affected our ability to solve collective problems.

A perfect analogy of the logjam we find ourselves in without the right blend of individual and collective responsibility, is what happens at an uncontrolled traffic intersection in Zimbabwe.

We have all been stuck there at some point. Accountability, civic duty, responsibility to country, patriotism, participation and active citizenship, are built through empowerment to respond to local problems.

This way, the people drive the process of growth and development, and change becomes a social value. Democracy from the bottom is pure democracy.

In the United States, for instance, as with some other societies, almost all laws and policies originate from the people through civil society.

Civil society is in essence an embedded part of the governance and governance culture.

In Zimbabwe, that role of civil society, in particular civil society organised in the form of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) has regrettably been seen as a threat — a threat to political power, a threat to unfettered access to public resources and a threat to impunity.

Where the sole occupation seems to be retention and consolidation of political power over economic development and social cohesion, civil society has become a group designated as an enemy.

NGOs have to be enemies — sell-outs, unpatriotic people, foreign stooges! Their demand for accountability is a threat.

Their focus on good governance and democracy, rule of law and human rights is a threat to power.

Their monitoring, documentation and storytelling are a problem.

That, at a time when the biggest contributor to social protection in the instant is civil society, through the backing of development partners.

Not even government contribution matches that.

That, also at a time when NGOs are, according to the country’s head of the central bank in his February 2022 monetary policy statement, the third biggest contributor to foreign currency inflows after trade receipts and diaspora remittances — more than what foreign direct investment (FDI) is bringing to the table.

A recent report by the Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum, Southern Defender and Accountability Lab-Zimbabwe titled Punching Holes into a Fragile Economy? The Possible Economic Impact of the Private Voluntary Organisations Amendment Bill Gazetted on November 5, 2021 details the NGOs’ economic contribution to Zimbabwe’s fragile economy, and how a disruption of that contribution will have ripple effects to economic sustainability, and even political stability.

I have often made the uncomfortable argument that the current government of Zimbabwe has in many ways been sustained for so long by what NGOs do and provide: where the government does not deliver, NGOs have been there to provide the food aid, health care and education support.

It is not a far-fetched idea that were NGOs not standing in this gap, the failures, shortcomings, neglect, intransigence, truancy and/or incapacities of the government and governors of the day would be exposed in ways that would cause those who put people into power, the people, to withdraw their authority from that government.

The Government of Zimbabwe has over the last few years been systematically decimating the foundations of democratic practice through regressive law reform, consolidating authoritarianism.

What this has done is to stifle accountability. As we head towards the elections in 2023, government is grabbing the moment to gag NGOs, using the convenient smokescreen of compliance with the Financial Action Task Force (FATF)’s charge on the Zimbabwean Government to comply with regulations on money laundering and terrorism financing.

So, the PVO Amendment Bill gazetted on November 5, 2021 is purportedly to deal with this.

Yet, a simple reading of the Bill tells a story of opportunism and revulsion to scrutiny and accountability. The Bill seeks to subject NGOs to excessive and undesirable executive control, limiting the scope of what NGOs can do, and imposing serious hurdles to registration compliance and stiff penalties for non-compliance.

Ironically, FATF Recommendation 8 which the government is purportedly seeking to comply with, does not even speak of money-laundering. Just in the first week of March 2022, FATF removed Zimbabwe from the grey list, meaning effectively that the Government of Zimbabwe cannot legitimately justify this Bill on the basis of compliance with FATF Recommendation 8 anymore.

The Bill is a most unfortunate and unnecessary piece of law which will simply be a weapon in the hands of politicians preoccupied with power retention at any cost.

The proposed law, given that it seems to limit the authority and space of the very people who make up society and set for themselves a government, is a classic illustration of the oft-cited irony of smokescreen democracies, that the people write constitutions against their governments, and in turn governments write legislation against the people.

The simple reality is that no government can do without civil society. The more robust the partnership between government and civil society, the more rigorous the partnership, the better any society is placed to confront societal shocks.

Effective partnerships between governments and NGOs are recognised as being crucial in accelerating sustainable development. The role of NGOs is even more important in low-income countries where the fiscal space is limited.

NGOs offer a broad range of services that include health, education, social protection, humanitarian assistance, livelihood interventions, emergency response, conflict resolution, democracy building, environmental management and policy analysis and advocacy.

Zimbabwe’s present shocks call for convergence, partnership and collaboration, as opposed to witch-hunting, othering and the divisive rhetoric of patriots and sell-outs, those who belong and those who do not, heroes and villains, as our political leadership has sort to label whole groupings.

  • Kika is a constitutional and human rights lawyer.

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