Controversial NGO Bill passed

Charity groups in Zimbabwe have adopted a wait-and-see approach since a controversial bill placing severe restrictions on the activities of foreign-funded NGOs was passed by parliament.

The Non-Governmental Organisations Bill sailed through parliament on Thursday and now awaits the president's assent before becoming law, according to the official Herald newspaper.

The new legislation will ban foreign NGOs concerned principally with "issues of governance", and NGOs receiving foreign funding for "promotion and protection of human rights and political governance issues" will be denied registration.

In the weeks leading up to tabling of the bill, humanitarian groups raised concerns that the definition of "political governance" was too wide and would seriously impact on the operations of a host of organisations involved in charity work, including animal welfare and environmental advocacy.

But some aid workers were optimistic on Friday that their operations would continue without government interference.

"We are not overly concerned, because so far it has been business as usual. Obviously, the legislation doesn't sit well with humanitarian groups, who feel that there are [already] sufficient monitoring mechanisms in place to ensure that aid groups do not become overly political," a Harare-based aid worker told IRIN.

She added that certain provisions in the bill, which include setting up a regulatory council that can decide whether a particular NGO will be registered or not, were cumbersome.

"This particular legislation is not the easiest, and the government will have a tough time implementing it, especially since the work of NGOs often overlaps into issues of human rights," the aid worker commented.

Ellen Tagwireyi, acting director of World Vision-Zimbabwe, said the organisation had not encountered any problems so far, but would remain "cautious".

"We have been updating our donors regularly about the development on the ground and they appear fine. We will only really be concerned when our sponsors get nervous and decide to stop the funding," she told IRIN.

Meanwhile, NGOs likely to face closure after the law is enacted said they would remain defiant.

Lovemore Madhuku, chairman of the National Constituent Assembly, an NGO advocating for human rights, said passage of the bill had been "expected" and "predictable".

"In the next two weeks [President Robert] Mugabe will sign the bill into law and then we will see what the government's next step is. But we will do everything to defy the law and continue to agitate for change," Madhuku said.