The government has been routinely granting unregistered charities and individuals public funds as part of its overseas development programme.

The programme’s transparency is also being questioned, with the Foreign Affairs Ministry unwilling to publish its internal evaluations of the programme.

Every year, the government provides a limited amount of funds to NGOs for development projects in Third World countries as part of its overseas development policy. Last year, the government announced that €330,000 would be made available for 2011.

Of the 18 entities funded this year, only eight are registered with the NGO Commissioner. The remaining 10 are either Church-based organisations or individuals, generally priests in developing countries.

Malta’s Voluntary Organisations Act clearly stipulates that to benefit from government funding, an organisation must be enrolled with the NGO Commissioner. Enrolled organisations must also provide the NGO Commissioner with an annual report of their activities and a copy of their annual accounts.

This is not the first time concerns about Church NGOs receiving public funds have arisen. Following a series of questions concerning the legality of Church organisations receiving funds from the charity telethon L-Istrina, the government had stated that “The law allows for a ministerial exemption on a case-by-case basis”.

It is not known whether the eight unregistered NGOs have been granted such exemptions. A ministry spokesman said that unregistered organisations earmarked for development funds were given clearance by ministries responsible for each organisation’s field of action prior to being approved, but did not go into any further detail.

NGO Commissioner Kenneth Wain confirmed he was aware of the issue but was reluctant to speak for fear of “setting the cat among the pigeons” and further delaying an agreement on bringing Church NGOs into line with NGO law.

Transparency issues also extend to the ministry’s management of the programme. Although a spokesman confirmed that the ministry carried out an annual evaluation of the various projects, such assessments are internal and not made public.

“The evaluations will be available to the public once the Freedom of Information Act becomes law,” the spokesman said.

According to Skop, Malta’s national platform of development NGOs, transparency levels within Malta’s aid programme are “very, very low”.

“ODA figures are not published in any detail and, despite several requests, we have never been given a detailed breakdown of the figures,” a representative of Skop’s AidWatch working group said.

“Parliament is also failing to examine the work of the ministry,” the representative continued. “We do not see any scrutiny from the parliamentary working group responsible for overseas development assistance.”

The working group in question, working group 3, is chaired by Nationalist MP Beppe Fenech Adami. When questioned on the issue, he confirmed that the working group had not requested any programme evaluations from the ministry, nor had it looked into the transparency of the aid programme.

Stefano Moncada, a lecturer at the European Documentation and Research Centre, felt that there were “significant question marks” concerning the programme’s transparency.

“The ministry does not want to share its selection criteria with applicants. It does not even want to share a simple photocopy of the various proposals submitted,” he said.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, an individual heavily involved in the Maltese development sector spoke of a “haphazard and unclear” application process.

According to the source, “despite several requests, there still aren’t any clearly-defined criteria by which projects are selected or rejected. There isn’t even an application form template, which would, at least, make applications easier to compare.”

The Skop representative said much the same. “There is no way of knowing what the final reports various organisations submit look like. They could be three or 50 pages long.

“Organisations are not given a copy of the selection committee’s evaluations. This essentially means that none of the stakeholders know why some projects are selected for funding while others are refused.”

Mr Moncada suspected that the ministry’s reluctance to divulge its selection criteria was down to some of the funded projects not being up to scratch.

“If you look at the projects that have been funded over the past few years and compare them to the EU’s aid effectiveness criteria you will find a bit of a mismatch. There are, at the very least, questions to be asked about the choice of certain projects over others,” he said.

The ministry defended its project selection process. “Applicants must submit a detailed overview of the project, including costs, any local partners (if any) and the project’s relevance to Malta’s overseas development policy. The applicant is then interviewed and examined by the selection board and it is then within its competence to decide whether the project is viable or not,” it said.

Malta’s overseas development policy was launched in 2008 following the publication of a framework document the previous year. According to the document, the aid programme focuses on 10 strategic areas, among them migration, gender equality and democratisation.

Projects selected for funding must be completed within a 12-month period and must include an element of co-financing. Projects are mainly infrastructural, with many involving the building of schools, hospitals and houses for communities in various developing countries.

Despite the criticism, there was general consensus that the ministry’s development unit was doing as good a job as it could. “The problems,” the anonymous source suggested, “stem from higher up.”

“If clear criteria for project selection and reporting were established and if the ministry were to be more transparent itself in terms of making evaluation and final reports public, it could only be a good thing for Malta,” the source said.

Mr Moncada spoke in similar terms. “This isn’t about undermining the value of certain projects. One might know an individual or mission that does good work. But these could be supported through other indirect actions, not by direct funds. Taxpayers’ money should respond to certain transparency and accountability standards.

“The ministry’s lack of institutional transparency on these issues is a poor bet on its part. It doesn’t make any sense to hide information. Sooner or later the information will be available. This is taxpayers’ money and we want it to be more effective for people who are suffering around the world.”

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