So far 64 Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) have registered in the country of which only 54 are currently operating. Of the operating CSOs 42 are Public Benefit Organizations (PBOs) and 12 are Mutual Benefit Organizations (MBOs).
CSOs have existed for the benefit of society in Bhutan for many years. Keeping in view the existing government policies, it is expected that CSOs will operate in constructive partnership with the government to advance public interest socio-economically, culturally and environmentally.
CSOs are equally important as other two sectors, the government and private sector. However, they seem to be challenged with the questions of sustainability, as most of the CSOs rely heavily on limited donor funds and program funds.
Although the government distributes certain percentage of fund and resources to CSOs, however, CSOs require long-term capacity building through innovative solutions, including looking for means to sustain themselves.
Knowing the importance of CSOs and the role they can play, the National Council (NC) introduced the Bill as a private Member Bill, deliberated during the 27th Session. Though the NC proposed 25 sections and 6 new sections for an amendment, the number of sections has increased after a thorough review by the National Assembly (NA).
NC proposed for an amendment with an aim to strengthen the existing regulatory framework and to facilitate the formation of CSOs by developing model documents. It is also to hold them accountable, ensure transparency, and to ensure that the communities are benefited.
This will create an enabling environment to operate. In addition, it was learnt that the CSOs themselves wanted the CSO Act of Bhutan 2007 to be amended because they thought that CSOs should be more coordinated, responsible and accountable.
The Member of the Parliament (MP) Passang Dorji from Bartsham Shongphu constituency, who was the Deputy Chair of the Joint Committee of the CSO (Amendment) Bill of Bhutan 2021 said that elsewhere, there are three primary roles of CSOs.
“They are to supplement and support government in areas, which and where government cannot cover and reach, to promote civil space and to provide some level of check and balance on how the government functions,” he added.
Moreover, he said that when the country is graduating to Least Develop Countries (LDC) in future, the CSOs can play better roles, in terms of providing better employment opportunities and to bring in more funds or donors.
There are ways that CSOs can help to support the government, he said, adding that this can be the best contribution a CSO can make to the nation, while contributing towards a more vibrant democracy.
Meanwhile, he said that while reviewing the Bill, it was learnt that that some of the regulatory challenges faced by the authority is due to the proliferation of informal groups, increasing number of applicants to register as CSO, unauthorized fundraising by informal CSOs and monitoring of diverse funding sources for CSOs both from within and outside the country.
“We also have observed that there existed weak institutional linkages between CSOs and other relevant government agencies, low visibility of the authority and lack of financial and HR to implement plans and programs of the authority,” he added.
During the discussions in both the NA and NC there were concerns expressed on brief case CSOs, unregistered CSOs, transparency over funds being collected and on how CSOs are being run.
The two Houses had 24 disputed clauses, which is why a joint committee was formed to work on the Amendment Bill. The disputed clauses have been resolved after thorough discussions.
He said, on section 9 of the CSO Act of Bhutan 2007 with regard to the inclusion of members in the board member of the CSO Authority, “The NC has initially proposed to have seven members in the board with Home Secretary as its ex-officio Chairperson and two representatives from the CSO. However, NA’s recommendation was to have Home Minister instead of Secretary with three representatives from the CSO.”
With so much of deliberation during the joint committee meeting, they concluded to have seven members in the authority with Home Minister as a Chairperson, representatives each from MoFA, DLO, GNHC, two representatives from CSOs and the Director of the authority.
The other disputed clause was on the new section recommended by the NA on a small-scale CSO. NA proposed that a small-scale CSO does not have to be formally registered, but it shall be allowed to legally operate upon obtaining written permission from the CSO Authority.
However, he said, “The NC did not support the new clause which is why during the joint sitting they concluded not to insert the new section in the Bill. Along with this, we could resolve all the remaining 22 other disputed clauses.”
Likewise, NC and NA discussed on person disqualified from being board members, dissolution, profit upon dissolution and cancellation of registration due to cessation of activities are some of the discussed clauses.
The joint sitting endorsed all the recommendations submitted by the joint committee, and they have adopted the CSO (Amendment) Bill of Bhutan 2021. The Bill will be submitted for the Royal Assent.