Shrinking space for Non-governmental Organisations: Bangladesh and its Foreign Donations (Voluntary Activities) Regulation Bill

09-09-2014

Bangladesh has one of the largest civil society sectors in the world. A strong culture of charity and civic initiatives flourished in the country, after the Liberation War in 1971 which caused approximately 3 million deaths[1]. The reaction of civil society to this humanitarian catastrophe and large-scale atrocities was immense. Civil society took initiatives for relief and rehabilitation in the spirit of social change and protection of people’s welfare. This spirit and these initiatives continue today through the work of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) which focus on various fields such as development to education and advocacy for social change. NGOs have been contributing to the welfare of society greatly; creating job opportunities and attract indispensable resources for the country.[2] Most NGOs depend on foreign donations and sources from international organisations. NGOs remain a key player among the aid community to this day.

NGOs operate under numerous restricted and challenging circumstances, such as a lack of financial resources, economic sustainability, political instability, and a prevailing culture of impunity in which human rights abuses against human rights defenders go unpunished. The Government of Bangladesh is working towards a NGO regulation law which may add additional constraint to this list. The draft law entitled “The Foreign Donations (Voluntary Activities) Regulation Bill 2014”, aims to regulate foreign donations received by Bangladeshi NGOs and international organizations based in Bangladesh. The proposed law was approved by Cabinet on 2 June 2014 and is currently being presented to Parliament. On July 6, 2014 the law was officially presented to the standing committee.

Current Situation - Foreign Donations (Voluntary Activities) Regulation Bill: 

NGOs are being restricted by the Bangladeshi Government under the current regulations. The bill is likely to tighten the restriction on NGOs severely and affecting freedom of association and expression of NGOs operating in Bangladesh. The bill overly restricts NGOs in several ways. To begin with, the bill uses a broad definition for “Foreign Donations” which can consist of “cash money, goods or donations and contributions of any kind”[3]. This definition can lead to constraints over non-financial support provided by foreign organisations such as capacity building, educational activities or even consultation. The Act would grant the Government extensive powers over NGOs and also put in place an onerous registration and project approval system along with other requirements[4]:

·         NGOs and individuals are not allowed to receive foreign donations for their voluntary activities unless they have obtained approval from the government.

·         NGOs and any other organisations cannot implement any voluntary activities funded by foreign donations without being registered with NGO Affairs Bureau.

·         NGOs and individuals are required to attain project approval from the government prior to execution of projects that are funded by foreign sources.

·         Any foreign expert or consultants involved in a project should be subjected to security checks and their involvement in the project must be approved by the government prior to the implementation of the activities.

·         The official visits made for voluntary activities abroad should be communicated to the NGO Affairs Bureau along with the approved budget.

·         NGOs or individuals who violate the Act will be considered as offenders and can be penalised by Director General of the NGO Affairs Bureau. The penalties vary from fines to any action according to the existing laws in Bangladesh. [5]

FDRA curbs freedom of expression and association which are protected under the Constitution of Bangladesh [6] and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR)[7] ratified by Bangladesh in 2000. The proposed law facilitates arbitrary government power over the right of NGOs to engage in voluntary activities which are necessary for the protection and promotion of human rights and people's welfare. This governmental power over NGOs could lead to politically motivated interference with their work and would deny their right "to seek, receive and use resources -  – human, material and financial –"[8] from foreign, and international sources for their existence and effective activities.

GHRD strongly believes in promotion and protection of accountability and transparency in human rights field. The non-governmental sector, like any other sector, has the obligation to work ethically and with integrity and should be accountable to the communities and donors they work for, and that the received funds are used for the purposes intended. However the bill does not provide an autonomous framework that can monitor the activities of NGOs without unwarranted political interference from the government while promoting and protecting the freedom of expression and association of either NGOs  or individuals.


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