New Repression Fears as Zimbabwe Clamps Down on Foreign-Funded NGOs

By Stephen Mbogo | July 7, 2008 | 8:15pm EDT

Nairobi, Kenya ( - Zimbabwe's government is pushing legislation designed to regulate non-governmental organizations (NGOs), but critics say the measure will severely limit the ability of religious groups to carry out crucial humanitarian and charity work.

President Robert Mugabe's administration, which routinely accuses Western governments of plotting against it, argues that the proposed bill is necessary to guarantee state security.

Opponents see it as the start of another round of repression aimed at manipulating the outcome of Zimbabwe's next election, due in March 2005.

The Ministry of Labor and Social Welfare has accused some Zimbabwean NGOs of operating as "local puppets to champion foreign values."

Proposals under the Non-Governmental Organizations Bill include a requirement that all charitable organizations and civil society groups register with the state. The bill also bans all foreign funding to such groups, and will prohibit any foreign NGO that deals with issues of governance from operating in Zimbabwe.

Christians Together for Justice and Peace, a multi-denominational group, warned that the legislation would "whittle away" the rights and privileges of Zimbabwean citizens.

"Will churches be allowed to feed the hungry, care for orphans, educate the poor, empower people to think for themselves without fear of being answerable to the government?" the organization asked in a statement. "Are we now to submit to a man-made authority?"

All NGOs will have to register with a government-appointed regulatory council, comprising nine government officials and five civil society representatives, all appointed by a government minister. NGOs will also have to disclose details of their program and funding sources.

The council will have the authority to decide whether or not to approve a registration. It will also be able to deregister an NGO.

Critics of the government move are concerned about its implications, especially for poor Zimbabweans who depend on NGOs for aid.

World Bank statistics say at least 65 percent of the country's 12.5 million people live on less than $1 a day. HIV/AIDS infection rates average 25 percent, and one million children are orphans.

Jonah Mudehwe, the chairman of the National Association of Non-Governmental Organizations charged that the bill "criminalizes a sector that is providing social safety nets to a lot of communities."

The bill is likely to be approved by parliament, which is dominated by Mugabe's ZANU PF party.

Earlier this week, Mugabe accused some church leaders of working with "foreign" masters, especially the leaders of Britain and the U.S., in a campaign to destabilize the country.

"What are we expected to do, and how are we expected to judge you when you act behind our backs and go and report outside?" he said during a Catholic Church event in Zimbabwe's second city, Bulawayo.

Corruption, political violence, discriminatory "land reform" policies leading to the expulsion of white commercial farmers, and flawed presidential elections in 2000 have brought the once-promising southern African country to the brink of collapse.

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