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Strengthening the NGO sector
Tuesday, May 15, 2012
Kemba Jaramogi held a bristol-board petal in her hand. “No forest fires,” she had written on it. We were both in a session at the T&T NGO Professionals Conference, which took place at the Hyatt Regency May 11-12. Over 100 non-governmental organisations (NGOs) participated in the conference, which was convened by the Institute of International Education, with the Rocke- feller Philanthropy Advisors. It was funded by the JB Fernandes Memorial Trust I and was designed “for NGO, CBO and civil society professionals working within T&T to meet, network and share best practices,” as the event’s Facebook page said. Kemba’s petal highlighted one of the achievements of the NGO she represented, the Fondes Amandes Community Reforestation Project, which has been actively working to stop forest fires in the Fondes Amandes watershed. Next to her, Dr Adana Mahase Gibson held her own petal. Her NGO was Asclepius Green, and its achievement was holding animal clinics in rural areas. All around the room in this session, devoted to understanding impact measurement, people’s petals gave tantalising glimpses of the work the NGO movement in this country does: giving thousands of breast-cancer screenings, introducing water births, building self-confidence in children this is wide-ranging work.
This conference was a way to bring organisations together to share successes as well as challenges, and to give concrete information on topics critical to the success of such organisations. There were sessions on budgeting and personnel management, marketing techniques, succession planning—topics one would expect at a serious business conference. Indeed, the work of NGOs is serious business. I am enormously grateful for the conference. It helped me think about and begin to understand not just my own challenges with the Allen Prize for Young Writers, but the characteristics of the NGO movement, what fails, what succeeds, and most importantly, how to be more effective in delivering programming that makes a difference in our world. Some of these things I learned in the formal sessions of the conference, but many others I learned sitting at the knee of a woman I met there. Kathleen Joseph, of Second Starters, took me under her wing with exceptional kindness, sharing her knowledge, mistakes, triumphs, reminding me once again of the power of mentorship and why events such as this one are important.
Of course networking takes place among NGOs all the time, but it’s unusual to have a single event bringing together people from, say, Vision on Mission, the Soroptimists, the Eastern Horticultural Society, the Heroes Foundation, the Transparency Insti- tute, the Autism Society, Mama Toto, and the Art Society, among many, many others. One thing that became very clear at the conference was that, regardless of the mission of the organisation, whether it’s to work with horses, babies or books, we are working in a very confusing system. Today’s T&T NGOs are largely registered as not-for-profit companies, and must seek charitable status after registration. This seems a long and expensive pro-cess; for example, it involves having years of audited books, a goal that is in itself out of the reach of many NGOs. (Achieving charitable status is necessary to encourage donors to give to an organi- sation, because donors know their gifts will give them back tax relief.) Once registered as non-profits, the NGOs often have to register with government ministries to have access to some kinds of funding—giving rise to a situation where an organisation might need to be registered with several different ministries.
Additionally, one organisation noted that it has paid nearly a million dollars in VAT over the past few years, and it seems counterintuitive to expect a non-profit to pay that much tax. Of course, I’m not saying that the regulation of NGOs needs to be less stringent. But thought needs to be put into streamlining the regulation and oversight of these organisations. Fortunately, Veni Apwann, an NGO working to improve capacity in civil-society organisations, has offered to take lead on a consultative process to find out what are the pivotal points that need to be considered in drafting new legislation to cover NGOs. I welcome the ongoing consultations on the formation of a Civil Society Board to give NGOs a greater voice in national affairs, but I think it’s also important to address the structural weaknesses in the sector as a whole. The point was made during the conference that every country requires civil-society organisations for good governance. There are things elected government cannot, will not or ought not to do, and it is NGOs that fill those gaps. By strengthening this sector, making it more transparent, making it more effective, we will add value to the country beyond what NGOs are already adding. And that, reader, is plenty.