Ryan Borg, Head of Secretariat at the Parliamentary Secretariat for Youth, Sport and Voluntary Organisations

Voluntary organisations provide a necessary service to society. Many, in recent years, have been positively shaped through the voluntary sector where skills and experiences have been gained and shared. With its important social impact, the sector fosters active citizenship, builds inclusive and resilient communities and more importantly provides values and ethics to the community.

Malta, in recent years, has established an active voluntary ethos and volunteers have been providing services across all areas. Furthermore, this sector has a consultative element where many organisations may voice their opinion freely and independently.

Voluntary organisations are mostly composed of hard-working and dedicated individuals, coming from a variety of backgrounds, who in many cases offer unparalleled service to society and its members.

The sector required a legal framework to allow voluntary organisations to operate. Nevertheless, the regularised voluntary sector does not have a long history locally, as it only started with the first Voluntary Organisations Act back in 2007. Up till then, the sector was operated and monitored through legislations which derived from several other Acts.

Under the first Act, the Commissioner lacked the authority needed. Although he could have investigated voluntary organisations that were acting incorrectly, if these were found at fault, the Commissioner did not have the authority to de-enrol that particular organisation. Therefore, a need to empower the VO Commissioner further was deemed essential to be able to regulate the sector effectively.

The new VO Act addressed the above and gave the Commissioner for VOs independent powers to investigate without reserve and more importantly take action against any voluntary organisation that is not in compliance with the VO Act. The Commissioner was granted with collaborative access with other investigative and regulatory bodies, which provided the Commissioner’s office with the required intelligence sharing.

It is in everyone’s interest to assure the community that the voluntary sector is operating in a transparent manner and holding members involved accountable for finances collected from the public or taken up from public funds.

To assist and incentivise the sector to grow, the government has provided a number of grants. The sector has launched a one-stop-shop dealing specifically with funding. The electronic portal, also known as the VO Funding Portal, has provided indispensable information to the public.

Also available as an app, this portal was revolutionary since it provided one direct funding link between the registered and compliant voluntary organisations and the fund operator deriving from various entities and ministries. 

Michael Briguglio, sociologist and Nationalist Party EP candidate

Voluntary organisations constitute an important pillar of democracy and civil society. When this sector was officially regulated in 2007 following Malta’s EU accession, many voluntary organisations welcomed this reform to gain formal recognition and thus be able to be more effective in fundraising, pro-jects, initiatives and other operations, as well as to be able to benefit from state and EU funding.

At the same time some expressed concern that the institutionalisation of voluntary organisations may lead to over-dependence on the government at the expense of independence. However, the general feeling among many NGOs was that it was better to enrol, thus showing trust in Malta’s democratic checks and balances. Currently 1,300 organisations are enrolled with the Commission.

Fast forward 12 years and civil society has a vivid and visible role in Maltese society. At the same time, however, the Commissioner for Voluntary Organisations faces challenges that need to be addressed.

The Commission needs more resources in terms of staff and funds to be able to act more effectively in assisting and monitoring NGOs.

In addition, the Commission itself needs to have more authority to fulfil its role.

For example, outgoing Commissioner Kenneth Wain had unsuccessfully criticised the Ministry for Gozo’s disregard of the law in its funding to organisations, which were not properly enrolled or compliant with legislation.

More recently, current Commissioner Anthony Abela Medici unsuccessfully appealed to a bank not to put disproportionate burdens on such organisations.

Even more telling is the recent report by the National Audit Office which states that the Commissioner for Voluntary Organisations is unable to ascertain how much money is being raised by NGOs or how it is being used. This has possible risks in relation to money laundering and tax evasion – something which had already been highlighted by Kenneth Wain during his tenure.

The NAO said that it is not possible to know how many non-registered organisations exist, even though legislative changes introduced last November oblige all of them to enrol. Besides, due diligence cannot properly take place unless the Office of the Commissioner is properly equipped to do so.

Hence the current situation is one where some front organisations may be operating beyond their intended aims. At the same time however, one should keep in mind that many organisations have genuine aims. These vary from the large professionalised NGOs to the smaller groups which are more fluid in their activities.

The Commissioner for Voluntary Organisations should be properly equipped to perform his role as a facilitator of civil society. Democracy is all the richer when voluntary organisations flourish.

Anthony Buttigieg, Democratic Party EP candidate

Let us first see what the role of Commissioner for Voluntary Organisations (VO) is. Below is a quote from its mission statement on its website.

“The ultimate mission of the Commissioner’s office is to give more visibility to the voluntary sector as well as to guarantee transparency and accountability of the organisations that compose it in the carrying out of their important work.

In view of this, the Office of the Commissioner is also the regulatory authority responsible for this sector with the aim of monitoring and supervising the activities of these organisations as well as supporting them.” In 2018, the Voluntary Organisations Act was amended to provide for the Commission to monitor money laundering, allow the use of crypto-currencies to finance VOs, and to ensure there are no direct private interests in these entities.

Last year’s National Audit Office report on the Commission pointed out three main black holes in its operation: government entities are not reporting grants to VOs; reporting requirements by VOs regarding public collections have not been enforced since 2012; taking a look at the Commission’s website, there are over 1,300 VOs registered ranging from sports, charitable, cultural, educational and quasi-political organisations. The Commission, however, does not have a list of VOs not registered with it and they are therefore unregulated.

In order for the Commission to function properly, it has to have the capability to do so. I mentioned the 2018 amendments specifically due to its new role as a watchdog against using VOs to launder money. Unless the Commission has the expertise and staff to monitor financial transactions carried out digitally, it is literally a beast without teeth.

We already have a situation where our main national financial watchdogs have been found wanting when it comes to monitoring money-laundering activities. The Commission is hardly in a situation to do better. Its operation is further hindered by the number of unregistered VOs – especially when logic says any illicit activity would most likely come from this cohort.

The Commission is another example of what looks like, on paper, a robust public body backed by legal provisions but in reality is anything but that. Malta has a long history of having excellent laws backing public institutions in order to facilitate them regulating sectors of our society. It has just as long a history of failing to enforce those laws, or giving those institutions the financial and human resources to fulfil their role as was envisioned.

The Commission for Voluntary Organisations is just one example. There are many others. It is high time the government rectified the situation.

If you would like to put any questions to the parties in Parliament send an e-mail marked clearly Question Time to editor@timesofmalta.com.

This is a Times of Malta print opinion piece

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