Ten years ago, Parliament passed a law which, among other things, was meant to make voluntary organisations more transparent and accountable. It was thought the move would usher in a new mentality in the running of such organisations but, as in so many other forms of human activity, things do not always work out according to plan.

The Voluntary Organisations Act of 2007 did make a difference to quite a number of NGOs that sought to enrol in accordance with the regulations laid down under the law. However, for one reason or another, others are not following the rules and regulations, giving the Commissioner for Voluntary Organisations, Kenneth Wain, plenty to complain about.

In one year alone, more than half the number of voluntary organisations failed to submit their audited accounts, a problem, the commissioner noted, that has persisted in slightly smaller numbers today. This is unacceptable and organisations enrolled under the 2007 law must put their house in order. If not, the public ought to be told of the names of defaulting associations so these would not operate under false pretences.

Malta has quite an active voluntary sector, with NGOs operating not just in fields directly relating to health but in other sectors as well. Many volunteers give much of their free time and energy to the organisations they belong to, filling in gaps where the state is absent. They are, therefore, doing great work that ought to be continuously recognised by the State because, without their contribution, society would be poorer.

It is, however, essential to ensure that these organisations operate as transparently as possible and are also accountable if they are to get the full benefit of enrolment. Instances of promoters of specific voluntary projects who defrauded the public by turning their initiatives into money-making machines for their own personal ends are not unheard of though, luckily, not that common.

Enrolment may be considered in itself a certificate of good governance, so long as the registered associations act in accordance with the provisions of the law. One essential requirement is the submission of audited accounts. When a number of organisations fail to do this, as is the situation now, it is clear that action must be taken to correct the situation.

When an organisation fails to submit the annual return, the commissioner is empowered by law to first warn the defaulter and then proceed to submit its case to the administrative review tribunal, asking it to stop the NGO in question from making public collections, disqualify the administrators and, if the breach is not remedied, even cancel the enrolment.

However, it seems such procedure is somewhat cumbersome as the commissioner reports that he is still pursuing legal action against organisations for contraventions dating back several years. To address this situation, legal amendments were proposed about two years ago with a view to enable the commissioner to take direct action against non-compliant organisations without having to go through the lengthy proceedings before the administrative review tribunal.

This makes a lot of sense but the matter is still pending. Prof. Wain is hopeful the new minister responsible for the sector will take up the issue again so that the amendments to normalise the situation can be made without further unnecessary delay.

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