Crackdown on NGOs could impact election observation

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Zimbabwe is pressing ahead with a controversial Bill that critics say seeks to criminalise the operations of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) working in the country.

According to senior government officials, amendments to the Private Voluntary Organisations (PVOs) Act is designed to stop illegal money from coming into the country under the guise of NGO funding, but is allegedly used to push a political agenda and political lobbying.

The ruling party, Zanu PF, has been suspicious of NGOs, routinely accusing them of working with hostile foreign countries to push what it calls a “regime change agenda”.

In recent days, members of the public have been invited by Parliament to contribute their views on the proposed amendments.

Violent interruptions have marred these public hearings by what rights groups say are ruling party activists eager to see the Bill passed into law.

Early this month, Midlands Provincial Affairs minister Larry Mavima said the country did not need NGOs as Zimbabwe was not at war and advised NGOs to “go to Ukraine” where their services are needed.

“How long should we continue relying on other people?

“There was a time when NGOs were necessary, but we need to get out of this mentality.”

Mavima’s remarks were quickly met with widespread condemnation from the humanitarian sector in a country where millions of people survive on NGO assistance, including sexual reproductive health, food and education assistance.

According to the United Nations Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs, before the emergence of COVID-19, more than seven million people in both rural and urban areas required food assistance, with the World Food Programme noting that the numbers grew with poor harvests during the 2020-21 and 2021-22 cropping seasons.

However, there are concerns about the proposed amendments to the law coming on the eve of general elections slated for next year.

NGOs involved in civic education have especially been targeted with a government minister alleging that PVOs working, especially in the rural areas, were straying from their mandates and engaging in political activities.

“The banning of NGOs will have a bearing on the upcoming elections because it will undermine the ability of civic society organisations to observe, cover and monitor the elections,” Human Rights Watch Africa advocacy director Carine Kaneza Nantulya said.

“Active NGOs and civil society organisations are fundamental to an open free and democratic society because of the role they play in protecting and promoting human rights and the rule of law. The PVO Act amendment is a disturbing development that takes place against the backdrop of a broader crackdown on civic space in Zimbabwe,” Nantulya told IPS.

This is not the first time Zimbabwe has escalated efforts to muzzle NGOs.

In July last year, Harare provincial development secretary Tafadzwa Muguti demanded that already registered NGOs seek approval from his office before carrying out their programmes.

The announcement was met with protests from civic society groups who challenged the directive in court and won, with a High Court judge questioning the legality of such a demand.

The attempts to muzzle the NGOs also attracted international attention.

The Robert F Kennedy Human Rights issued a statement calling on the Zimbabwean government to “stop interfering with NGO operations.”

NGO groups have indicated that they will challenge the amendment of the PVO Act in court if passed into law.

A joint report, authored by the Southern African Human Rights Defenders Network, the Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum and the Accountability Lab Zimbabwe, looked into the possible economic impact of the PVO Amendment Bill. The report, released last month, raised concerns over the far-reaching impact of outlawing NGO work in Zimbabwe.

“Any disruptions in NGO activities and financing will likely worsen the poverty situation and threaten the development gains that have been made to date. Importantly, in Zimbabwe, there has been no instance of terrorist dancing in the NGO sector,” the researchers wrote.

“The country’s economic situation, human development indices, and progress towards meeting Sustainable Development Goals show that it needs all the help it can get,” Accountability Lab Zimbabwe leader McDonald Lewanika told IPS.

“The fears around NGOs supporting materially political parties are unfounded in this environment where there has been donor flight and fatigue and where some NGOs have lost funding from big donors on suspicion of the same.

“It is not in the interest of NGOs to be partisan,” Lewanika said.

Zimbabwe has in the past made numerous calls for assistance, so it is not clear what has changed now for the authorities to declare that NGOs are no longer welcome.

“No country can claim that it does not need NGOs when we know that NGOs, especially in Zimbabwe, are at the forefront of service delivery to communities.

  • “For instance, women and reproductive rights and HIV and Aids organisations provide critically needed services to the communities,” Nantulya said. IPS