Farirai Machivenyika-Senior Reporter
Senate yesterday passed the Private Voluntary Organisation Amendment Bill in the same form that it passed the National Assembly, so the proposed law will now be submitted to President Mnangagwa for his assent.
Among other things, the Bill seeks to upgrade the financial accountability of NGOs, monitor funding in Zimbabwe and how funds are used. This is largely to stop people using a PVO to launder funds, or fund terrorism, but also to ensure that a PVO was operating in the areas where it was registered, such as health or education or supporting the vulnerable and disadvantaged.
One area of concern in Zimbabwe is the risk that a PVO might be used as a cover to break the law banning foreign funding of political parties and candidates, which implies laundering the money. Citizens can support, and give money to whom they like in politics, but it needs to be their own, not passing on from some foreigner.
The Amendment Bill also seeks to upgrade the existing financial controls to ensure that those who donate to a PVO are not being taken for ride by a group of con artists.
Before the passage of the Bill, Senate had rallied behind the Bill during debate, paying particular attention to the problem of those who use a PVO to launder money for political agendas.
Harare Senator Cde Omega Hungwe said some NGOs were hiding behind humanitarian activities to pursue political agendas.
“They come in as sheep when they are in fact wolves,” she said.
Mashonaland Senator Cde Eleven Kambizi echoed similar sentiments saying some PVOs were causing divisions in the country’s politics.
“We have seen some PVOs distributing political messages hidden in food hampers given to people. The law is necessary to ensure that such organisations are dealt with,” he said.
Manicaland Senator Mr Tichinani Mavetera said the nation should be wary of some PVO agendas. “Some of the directors of these PVOs are operatives of foreign governments,” he said.
In his second reading speech, Justice, Legal and Parliamentary Affairs Minister Ziyambi Ziyambi said Government appreciated the assistance brought by many PVOs especially in the areas of health, education and other social services but there were some that were dabbling in politics.
“The Bill doesn’t speak to those PVOs that are law abiding,” he said.
“Some PVOs act in a partisan manner by assisting political parties and candidates they favour at the detriment of other political parties and candidates.”
Speaking in an interview after its passing, Minister Ziyambi said the Bill would now be sent to the President.
“It will now be sent to the President for his assent. I think Parliament has done a good job. You know they are the representatives of the people. The Bill was debated and there was general support for the Bill and a few dissenting voices,” he said.
The Bill was earlier passed by the National Assembly after amendments arising from discussions between the Government and civil society organisations that cleared up potential ambiguities and ensured that PVOs that were operating properly, keeping accounts, banking all incoming funds and making all payments from their bank accounts could continue their work without gazing over their shoulder.
If the President signs the Bill, the new law will criminalise any action by civil society organisations to support, oppose or fund political parties or candidates in elections and will lay down civil penalties for receiving or moving money outside the formal banking system.
After the Bill was introduced, there was criticism but many civil organisations while not opposing the ban on them being involved in partisan politics, and not opposed to maintaining decent accounts and using the banking system, were concerned over how this would work in practice, hence the meetings between the Government and civil society organisations to find common ground on the Bill.
The Bill provides for an annual all-stakeholder meeting for non-government organisations and the Government to discuss issues of mutual interest, maintaining the discussion culture that helped generate the present form of the Bill.
Under clause 9B of the Bill; “Any Private Voluntary Organisation that supports or opposes any political party or candidate in a presidential, parliamentary or local government election, or is a party to any breach of Part III of the Political Parties (Finance) Act as a contributor of funds to a political party or candidate or otherwise, shall be guilty of an offence.
The clause makes it clear that this does not apply to a PVO which assists members of disadvantaged groups to become candidates for election to Parliament or any local authority, provided that such assistance is afforded in a strictly non-partisan manner.
Clause 11 provides additional amendments that allow for civil penalties on movement of money outside banking channels by civil society organisations.
This was to close certain loopholes in the general tightening of Zimbabwean financial regulations to ensure that everyone, including civil society, uses the banking system and maintains Zimbabwe’s established and growing reputation for defeating those who wish to launder money and is part of Zimbabwe’s commitment under international agreements to ensure there is no laundering and no way terror groups can be financed.
It reads as follows: “A registered private voluntary organisation shall be guilty of a civil default if there is well founded information available to the Registrar indicating that it has not used formal channels (that is to say registered banking institutions or other financial intermediaries regulated in Zimbabwe or in any other state) for the transmission of its funds at every point from source to destination.”
The Bill also compels anyone applying for the registration of a PVO to provide the Registrar with particulars of any beneficial ownership and of the persons who control the organisation to ensure transparency. The existing Act already requires returns of office holders, with the amendment meant once again to ensure that those running the organisation, if they are not office holders, are known.