The mission of the Office of the Commissioner for Voluntary Organisations, which was established 12 years ago, was to strengthen the important role played by the voluntary civil sector in Malta with the specific aim of promoting the work of NGOs and encouraging them in their role as partners with the government. 

One has only to consider the contributions made by NGOs to the environment and cultural heritage, the health and children’s sectors to appreciate their vital national impact.

The ultimate objective was to give greater visibility to the voluntary sector and to guarantee transparency and accountability by being the regulatory authority, monitoring these organisations but also supporting them.

In the last two years, the commissioner’s responsibilities have been expanded to take on new tasks and obligations in a world now subject to an epidemic of so many ills and unbridled greed. These new and extremely serious additional responsibilities require not simply the administrative clerical support of earlier years but also the recruitment of lawyers, accountants and investigative officers to scrutinise the annual returns submitted by the 1,000 organisations enrolled with it and to frustrate any criminal efforts to use NGOs for nefarious purposes.

Moreover, new legislation obliges all voluntary organisations to enrol with the Office of the Commissioner for Voluntary Organisations, thus adding to the need to meet a heavier workload and to deploy greater additional capacity. According to the commissioner, at present his staff only consists of seven employees, of whom only one is a lawyer. He requires at least 30 such professionals to fill all these roles, a necessity which had been highlighted and endorsed by the Auditor General.

The commissioner, Anthony Abela Medici, has echoed the words of his predecessor, Kenneth Wain, who had said that the lack of staff had reached crisis levels. He added: “We are still at crisis levels with staff complements not even minimal to address the much broader requirements of the [Voluntary Organisations] Act”. This verdict was echoed by the Committee of Experts on the Evaluation of Anti-Money Laundering Measures and the Financing of Terrorism (Moneyval) during their mission in Malta last November.

Malta’s reputation for money-laundering is already under close scrutiny by the European institutions and international financial markets. But, in Dr Abela Medici’s judgment, the authorities “seem to be totally unconcerned with the need to abide by the Act… getting approval for even three additional staff is an insurmountable obstacle incapacitating the… office and the need to carry out the necessary investigations requested and required by Moneyval and the Auditor General”.

The fault appears to lie with the financiers in the Ministry of Education and Employment, who control the purse strings. Although the commissioner’s financial allocation has been raised from €110,000 to €500,000, not a single new member of staff has been allocated to him in the three months since the Moneyval report prompted the increased budget.

This makes a mockery of the budget increase. It is a crisis that must be addressed. The solution, surely, must be to give the Commissioner for Voluntary Organisations direct delegated authority and responsibility to set his own job descriptions and to recruit his own staff within his allocated budget, without the bureaucratic requisite to go through the inefficient expedient of relying on others to respond to an urgent need for qualified staff.

This is a Times of Malta print editorial

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