Distinguishing between civil society groups is divisive and will weaken cohesion among different sectors: An interview with Lewis Mwape of the Zambia Council for Social Development

Lewis Mwape of the Zambia Council for Social Development (ZCSD), speaks to CIVICUS about the status of the 2009 Zambian NGO Act and the campaign to amend the law.

In 2009 the government passed the NGO Act. Can you tell us a little about the restrictions on civil society under the law?

If implemented, provisions governing the registration of NGOs under the new law will be extremely problematic. Under the law CSOs must re-register every five years. In addition, prior to registering, CSOs must explicitly state their sources of funding and proposed activities. Such intrusive requirements will create severe administrative and organizational hurdles to the registration of new NGOs. The prospect that NGOs will be required to secure sustainable funding prior to registration is impractical.

The NGO Act also greatly narrows the definitions of CSOs. Labour unions, faith based organizations and professional groups are not recognized under the NGO Act and are expected to register according to separate legislation with the Ministry of Labour and under the Society Act for Faith Based Organisations. Distinguishing between civil society groups is divisive and will weaken cohesion among different sectors.

Advocacy and human rights organizations can be subjected to arbitrary and/or discriminatory application of the law. It is not without possibility that the government can use re-registration requirements under the NGO Act to refuse to register human rights organizations which work on areas the government finds sensitive.

Furthermore, under the law, a 15 Member "NGO Board", appointed by the Minister of Development is highly dominated by government agencies (6) identified in the Act and others (2) to be appointed under the discretionary powers of the minister. The minister has also too much power, more than all the other organs/spaces created by the Acts. NGOs would also need to harmonise NGOs activities in line with the government's National Development Plan. While such an initiative is not inherently troubling, there are serious concerns that the government could obstruct or close organizations for failing to adequately harmonise their objectives with those of the government.

We understand Zambian civil society has initiated a campaign calling for the amendment of the law. How is the campaign progressing? Has the government been responsive to the concerns of civil society?

Under the previous government, national organizations engaged in discussions with relevant government ministries in drafting the NGO Act. We campaigned against the limited timeframe for the registration of CSOs, which was extended from three to five years, and successfully lobbied for the removal of provisions placing NGOs under the auspices of the Ministry of Home Affairs, which oversees the government's national security apparatus.

Today, we are facing major difficulties in accessing and mobilizing the hundreds of NGOs based in less accessible areas to engage in the campaign to re-evaluate the law. There are a large number of organisations, especially those in rural areas that are not aware of the NGO Act. ZCSD as a national umbrella organization has been disseminating information about the NGO Act and on developments for the amendment of the law.

Accordingly, at ZCSD we have done several radio programs in both the capital and through community radio which have been very successful in raising awareness about the NGO Act and in catalysing a more inclusive conversation about the law. We have also met personally with the executive directors of various organizations to help clarify any queries about the legislation and organized a two-day national consultation with over 25 leading CSOs to devise a campaign calling for the amendment of the Act.

Zambia was examined at the 14th Session of the UN Universal Period Review (UPR) in October in Geneva. Was adequate attention was given to the NGO Act during the examination. What steps have been planned by national civil society to engage the government to implement recommendations made during the examination?

No, I do not feel adequate attention was given to the NGO Act during the UPR Examination. From the outcome document of the examination it appears that only one international government raised concern about the Act. While the Zambian government made a point of briefly mentioning that they are currently in broad consultation with NGOs to ensure proper implementation of the law during the examination, the current consultative process has not been inclusive or representative of Zambia's diverse and robust civil society.

The outcome documents of the UPR are also generally not in the public domain and I would say the process has been somewhat of a closed shop. For most citizens and many NGOs working in rural areas information about the UPR process and follow-up has not filtered into these communities. Due to the lack of phone and internet access in the rural areas, few persons are able to access the documents and take part in the post-UPR implementation process.

It must also be noted that on page 48 of the Patriotic Front (PF) manifesto, the PF government, elected in 2011 presidential elections, vowed to amend or repeal the NGO Act which they stated was detrimental to the creation of an enabling environment for civil society. The PF government won the support of NGOs during the campaign due in large part to these promises, however since coming into office they have reneged on their promise and have move towards implementation of the law as it stands.

How can regional and international civil society groups offer support to civil society in Zambia?

There are several ways in which international and national civil society can support Zambian civil society to reassess the NGO Act. It is the duty of national civil society to come together to broaden the reach of efforts to raise awareness about the NGO Act to all regions of the country and civil society. One key aspect in doing so is to formulate an updated analysis of the law. International and regional society can provide support for such an initiative by sharing expertise and technical capacity to undertake a thorough and exhaustive analysis of the law. National civil society must also formulate an alternative NGO Act based on best international practices on creating an enabling environment for civil society which can be presented to the government.

The newly elected NGO Council, a group of 12 NGOs mandated under the NGO Act to work with the government to implement the new legislation, also needs greater technical support from international civil society to properly engage with the government and negotiate the amendment of the law. Most organisations elected to the NGO Council were CBOs. It was unfortunate that government chose to invite the CBOs who were left out during their NGO mapping exercise, and for me, this is a deliberate move to weaken an informed voice on the NGO Act.

Finally, international and regional organizations, in conjunction with national organizations, can work together to highlight the NGO Act at international fora and communicate to international governments that the PF government should be encouraged to abide by their campaign promises to amend or repeal the NGO Act.

Lewis Mwape is the Programme Director of the Zambia Council for Social Development (ZCSD) based in Lusaka, Zambia. Established in 1974, ZCSD is an umbrella of more than 100 civil society organizations promoting vibrant, independent and well-coordinated civil society organizations in Zambia. Among other activities, ZCSD provide relevant information, resources and support to CSOs, with a special emphasis placed on youth and women organizations, concerning their rights and their ability to effectively and freely operate.

Interview conducted 20 December 2012