Registered CSOs feel their credibility is hampered due to the lack of transparency and misuse of funds by these unregistered CSOs
Bhutan has 54 registered Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) with the Civil Society Organization Authority (CSOA) with their own mandates. However, the growing number of informal and unregistered CSOs are posing numerous challenges to both the authority and the registered CSOs.
Not having to follow any regulations, the question on transparency and accountability remains, especially over funds.
Some registered CSOs said that it is due to the improper operations of these informal CSOs that people have trust issues with even the registered CSOs wherein they think they are misusing the funds.
The two main areas where informal CSOs are coming up and are raising funds, are either in the name of various religious activities or in the name of saving animals or animal welfare, however, there are others too. There is often no transparency on how much is collected, how the money is spent, no proper accounts are given and they are not audited like registered CSOs.
The amended CSO Act is to hold CSOs accountable and transparent. The government is working towards addressing the existence of the informal CSOs so as to make the registered ones more vibrant.
The Officiating Director of Department of Law and Order (DLO) Karma Dorji said that they are concerned over the issue because firstly, it undermines the very law put in place, and it also undermines the existence of the legally registered CSOs.
“As registered CSOs, they are regulated in terms of funding and funding process. Even to solicit the funding they have to seek permission. And none of these matters to the informal CSOs wherein they need not have to go through audit and so they do not have accountability,” he added.
DLO has submitted a letter to CSOA to monitor not only the registered CSOs, but to also monitor the informal CSOs that are illegal.
Accordingly, the CSOA has acknowledged the DLO letter and agreed to support it.
Registered CSOs are being regulated while they are not sure of what the informal CSOs are up to. There are some who do things openly and apparently for a good cause, however, they have no legal understanding, he said.
DLO is going to write to all the 20 districts on the need to monitor such informal organizations acting like CSOs. If they want to carry out any social activities, they will have to be registered.
He said, “We have issued a notification for the informal CSOs, and right after that some came to us seeking permission to raise funds, but we have not allowed any. We clearly said that they do not have the legal stand and have to register formally.”
He said those who were caught raising funds illegally were being sensitized on the legality. Awareness is now spreading that people are not supposed to engage in soliciting donations without approval.
It is not fair for the registered CSOs when the informal CSOs are functioning without any regulations, he said, adding that they are now trying to monitor and they are hopeful that they will be able to resolve the matter because CSOs have to be vibrant and dynamic.
He said, “By the fact that they are illegally operating, whatever funds they raise is illegal by default. So, unlawful raising of funds can be addressed. It is challenging, however, there are means to track them down.”
The acting Director said if they want to fund raise for the religious purpose, he said that they have certain regulations to follow, whereby they have to submit a pre-donor list, meaning they can collect donations only from that particular community. That way they will have no ability to collect at the national level.
Department of Culture allows as per the need and after thorough study. However, there is not set regulation and monitoring for offered money (Nendar) as that is done for individual’s wellbeing. Otherwise, no one is allowed to collect donations taking metal boxes at a religious event.
Meanwhile, an official from Bhutan Transparency Initiative (BTI) said that informal CSOs come into competition with the registered CSOs, because they do not have a cost factor, as they do not have to run a secretariat or they do not have to bear operational costs as they have no requirements like registered CSOs.
“As a registered CSO, we have a lot of compliance requirements and from a lot of angles we have stringent internal governance. Our concern would be on how or what are the governance system for the informal CSOs,” the official added.
The Executive Director of Loden Foundation, Tshewang Tashi said, “People criticize CSOs for misuse of funds and that happens among the informal CSOs because we are audited and have lots of formalities in place. Therefore, we have no ways to misuse the funds in the first place.”
She further said that even if the wrongs are done by the informal CSOs, the impact directly falls on the registered CSOs and once people lose trust then there is little the CSOs can do, even when it is for a good cause.
Sustainability is a major challenge for the CSOs, she said, and they are doing their best and there are lot more to be done, but there are gaps to be filled.
Likewise, officials from other registered CSOs also said that they are controlled and monitored by the CSOA, which is why they are more transparent and accountable with lots of regulations in place.
On the other hand, the informal CSOs have no need to show accountability and transparency, as they are exempts from the regulations. They said that no individual will question or check if anyone who is raising fund is registered or informal CSOs.
“Those doing illegally will have no one to report to and even if people ask, they would say they are registered CSO as there will be no one to cross check. That way, they would keep doing what they like and accountability becomes questionable,” a CSO member added.