A €1.2 million “dream” of the Prime Minister’s wife Michelle Muscat, to build a meeting space “for NGOs” under the auspices of the Marigold Foundation, the NGO she chairs, was made possible thanks to the government tapping EU funds for the project and taxpayers footing the difference.

This move has angered other NGOs who struggle to raise funding for their own projects and were not even informed about the new space ostensibly built for them.

The meeting space was launched last week by the Prime Minister and his wife, along with Social Solidarity Minister Michael Falzon.

Dr Falzon’s ministry has dedicated an annual budget vote to finance its operations and maintenance.

The Prime Minister said during the launch that it was his wife Michelle’s “dream” to give a home to NGOs.

Neil Falzon, from NGO Aditus, said he found out about the new building “from the news”. “We would be happy to receive information of course,” Dr Falzon said.

The sentiment was echoed by SOS Malta’s Claudia Taylor-East, who also knew nothing of the project. She said it was strange that NGOs working in the sectors the new centre was supposed to be catering for appeared to know little about it.

A request for comment from the Marigold Foundation was not answered by the time of writing.

The building was originally set to be called ‘The Marigold Place’ but was later renamed ‘The Meeting Place’. A placard by the entrance helpfully reminds visitors that the new space was the fruit of a project “originated by the Marigold Foundation”.

The arduous task of applying for EU funding, which is a nightmare for any ordinary NGO, was undertaken by the social solidarity ministry. The day-to-day running of the centre will be carried out by the government entity Aġenzja Sapport.

Task of applying for EU funding was undertaken by the social solidarity ministry

E-mail correspondence between members of the Council for the Voluntary Sector reviewed by The Sunday Times of Malta shows they had expressed concern about the manner in which the project was being carried out when it was first announced in 2015.

“What is our council for? So our idea was scrapped and they gave us a different smaller place…….now a big place is going to be the place for NGOs run by another NGO. Ma nafx imma (I don’t know), this is not right,” council member Robert Farrugia wrote to the Council’s former President Nathan Farrugia.

“Worse…It will be run by Sapport (government)!,” Nathan Farrugia wrote back in reply.  In further correspondence, Nathan Farrugia said he had spoken to the relevant minister who was aware of the initiative and welcomed ‘more space’ [original emphasis] for voluntary organisations.

Mr Farrugia said in the e-mail that the council would be offering its support in running the new space, possibly as one of its centres.

The council’s website shows it runs two centres in Valletta and Rabat for NGOs.

Replying to questions, a spokesman for the council, the main body for NGOs, said it had been consulted about the project in the past months. He said advice was sought about the running of the centre as well as coordination where possible, and the type of voluntary organisations that would require the use of specialised support from the centre, complementing the two existing centres managed by the council.

Asked why the meeting place was not being administered by the council, the spokesman said it was the foundation that came up with the concept, and any other voluntary organisation could undertake its own initiative, including providing space to other NGOs.

Ms Muscat often conflates criticism about her using the NGO as a publicity-seeking vehicle as an attack on the charity work carried out by the Foundation. Last month, she blasted the media for trying to “break” the foundation with its “negative” reporting.

Marigold was set up in 2014 with an initial endowment of €200,000 from BOV, in which the government is a major shareholder. According to the foundation’s latest available accounts and annual report for 2017, the NGO received €592,087 in donations, which included a €100,000 donation from BOV. The foundation in turn donated €67,169 to the Alliance of Rare Disease Support, an organisation set up by Marigold and presided over by Ms Muscat herself.

This donation amounted to 17 per cent of the €399,664 in donations the foundation received in 2017. The expenses attributed to campaigns, events and other operating costs in 2017 stood at €130,127, as against €36,672 the previous year. This represents 22 per cent of the donations received during that year, as against 7.3 per cent for 2016.

Ms Muscat wrote on the first page of the Marigold annual report that 2017 was “a very special year for me personally”. She cited her appointment as global citizen ambassador for child health and preventable disease and her winning a women of distinction global award as evidence of this.

jacob.borg@timesofmalta.com

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