Civil society organizations (CSOs) perform multifaceted roles in Sierra Leone, including mobilizing to unite the country after its 1991-2001 civil war; addressing the Ebola crisis from 2013–2016; and assisting the victims of floods that killed over 800 people in Freetown in 2017. However, CSOs report that their ability to operate is increasingly threatened by a restrictive NGO Policy, which has been under review since 2009.
If implemented, the Policy would force CSOs to join the Sierra Leone Association of Non-governmental Organizations (SLANGO). CSOs originally established the SLANGO, but some activists believe it has been co-opted by the government, which uses the platform to exert influence over civil society. The Policy would require all CSO assets intended for capacity building to be routed through the SLANGO and the Ministry of Finance and Economic Development (MOFED), which would authorize funding for CSOs and programs selected by the government.[i] Additionally, CSOs would be required to receive government approval before designing and conducting activities under the Policy.
According to representatives of the MOFED, “the expectation of government is that instead of NGOs spreading out their activities, which limits visible impacts, [NGOs] should concentrate on few lines of activities in a demarcated manner in order to create meaningful impact.”[ii] However, civil society activists fear this would determine the range of activities and issues that they can legally focus on and where they can work, which would threaten their independence. Under the Policy, politicians would have the authority to approve activities in particular regions. Activists are concerned this would allow politicians to approve programs in certain communities to garner favor among voters, rather than serving the legitimate needs of citizens.
The NGO Policy includes restrictive provisions such as imposing a 30% cap on NGOs’ administrative expenses (see Ethiopia) and a 20% cap on non-Sierra Leonean staff. Under the Policy, any CSO ending its activities would be required to surrender the equipment to the government, which would reallocate the equipment to organizations of the state’s choosing, possibly advantaging some CSOs over others. The Policy would require CSOs to disclose “sources of funding,” “details of donors,” and details of “installment arrangements” or other donor requirements to the MOFED. Currently, CSOs may not receive more than US$10,000 a day from commercial banks, which forces some CSOs to open multiple bank accounts. The government claims that these restrictions and reporting requirements are necessary to ensure transparency within the civil society sector.
To challenge old and new restrictions, CSOs initiated the Defending Civil Society Project, which coordinates advocacy efforts to protect civil society’s rights. In 2010, CSOs challenged the constitutionality of the NGO Policy in Sierra Leone’s Supreme Court, which declined to take up the case. In 2013, CSOs took their case to the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) court, which compelled the government of Sierra Leone to request analysis from the Defending Civil Society Project of how civil society activists believe the Policy will affect the sector.
During the Ebola outbreak, CSOs tried to use Sierra Leone’s Freedom of Information Law to monitor the use of massive amounts of funding intended to address the crisis. However, the government failed to comply with civil society’s requests for information regarding how the funding was used. Activists believe the government refused to comply with their requests, because it feared CSOs would discover governmental impropriety. Although attempts to monitor Ebola funding achieved limited direct success, civil society activists believe their efforts to hold the government accountable, and the government’s refusal to cooperate, improved the perception of the civil society sector among citizens, which has afforded civil society greater public legitimacy and influence.
In May 2016, the government invited members of civil society to a workshop to review and share input on the NGO Policy. During the workshop, civil society and government stakeholders discussed how they can collaborate on building schools and supporting health centers. After the workshop, one organization, the Society for Democratic Initiatives (SDI), called upon the government to amend the NGO Policy in SDI’s “Defending Civil Society Report of 2016.” The annual “Defending Civil Society Report” assesses the legal and practical environment for civil society and offers recommendations for improving it.
UPDATE: In late 2017, Sierra Leone quietly updated the 2009 Revised NGO Policy Regulations by adding provisions that failed to address civil society concerns with the bill and added funding restrictions. Though the new administration (elected in March of 2018) has signaled it is willing to review policies with civil society organizations, it remains to be seen how much progress will be made.
The Cabinet of the new government led by President Julius Maada Bio approved the Development Cooperation Framework (DFC) in December 2018. The DFC contains a new NGO policy that restricts NGOs’ right to freedom of association. For instance, the new policy still requires all NGOs to be members of the SLANGO and caps NGO administrative expenses at 30%. The policy also limits NGO activities only to those that align with the priorities of relevant government ministries, and required NGOs to have a board of trustees, a bank account, and a physical office, which is difficult for modest organizations to comply with. These policies allow for broad governmental discretion to prohibit NGO activities or bar them from operating. The UN Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, Clément Voule, called on Sierra Leone’s government to ensure the policy aligns with the international legal instruments Sierra Leone is a signatory to.
International treaties to which Sierra Leone is a party: