New code of conduct to regulate NGOs

Aid organisations in the Afghan capital, Kabul, launched a new code of conduct to regulate their activities on Monday, following a series of accusations that NGOs had misused funds allocated for post-war Afghanistan.

The 21-article code, signed by 90 national and international NGOs, sets high standards to ensure greater transparency and accountability, as well as to improve the quality of services provided by NGOs, according to the Agency Coordinating Body for Afghan Relief (ACBAR).

"The code of conduct is a public statement for those NGOs who have signed up to it, that they take it very seriously to adhere to some minimum standards in implementing operations and institutional standards," Anja De Beer, executive coordinator of ACBAR, told IRIN on Tuesday in Kabul.

The Afghan government has several times accused aid agencies of hindering the growth of local firms and squandering billions of US dollars earmarked for reconstruction efforts in the country. But aid workers say the government is confusing them with highly paid private contractors and profitable organisations, many of which are registered as NGOs with the country's ministry of economy.

"In the given situation of Afghanistan where many people register and pretend to be an NGO, we needed to clarify our standards of operations," De Beer emphasised. The purpose of the code is to improve the understanding of NGOs, she said, noting their purpose and accomplishments among the general public, government donors and the media.

"We still continue to be unfairly treated by the press and the public statements of the government. We have to address this over time," she added.

Despite massive international support for Afghanistan following the collapse of the hard-line Taliban regime in late 2001, people on the ground are dissatisfied at the level of reconstruction taking place in the country. In fact, many are of the opinion that little has been done for what they believe to be billions of dollars of international funds invested in the Central Asian nation.

But ACBAR said all the donor money has not been spent through the NGOs and also the actual money given to Afghanistan was several times less than had originally been pledged by donors. According to ACBAR, a report from the Afghan Ministry of Finance indicated that out of US $13.4 billion pledged at the 2002 Tokyo conference, as well as the 2004 Berlin donor conference on Afghanistan, $9.1 billion had been committed by donors. Yet as of February 2005, only $3.9 billion had been physically disbursed to the country so far.

"The report indicates that 45.5 percent of donor funding went directly to the UN [United Nations], nearly 30 percent to the government, 16 percent to private contractors and only nine percent was directly given to NGOs," she said. "We are trying to find out from the government and from the UN how much of the funding they received, they have given to NGOs to implement their projects," ACBAR coordinator said.

Monday's new code of conduct binds the NGOs to an open policy of accountability and transparency and obliges aid bodies to make available financial and activity reports upon request by relevant and interested parties. The new code also assigns a commission to review complaints or petitions against NGOs.

The Afghan government and the UN in Kabul have welcomed the new code of conduct calling it a supporting document for upcoming NGO legislation, which would pave the way for a better framework for all reconstruction players.

"It sets very high standards that are relevant not only to NGOs but to the aid community at large," Jean Arnault, the UN Secretary General's Special Representative, said in a statement congratulating the NGOs on the new code's launch.

Meanwhile, Nazeer Ahmad Shahidi, the Afghan deputy minister of economy, told IRIN that a new NGO law that had been debated and delayed over the past two years, would finally be approved and released in coming days. Shahidi said the code of conduct could assist the new law to better monitor NGO activities.

There are more than 2,400 national and international registered NGOs operating in different parts of the country. The Ministry of Economy, the leading state body in reconstruction affairs, has said that with the introduction of the new NGO legislation that has been debated over the last two years, many of the organisations accused of widespread corruption or inefficiency, would be shut.

"We do not have a capacity to monitor all the 2,500 NGOs, therefore aid agencies and this kind of code of conduct can help us in this regard," Shahidi said.