Ask only what you can do for the contry!
— Ramesh Beeharry
A lot of humbug hyperbole has been written and spoken on the recent debacle concerning the Association pour la protection des Consommateurs de l’Ile Maurice (ACIM) affair. It is to be hoped that many, if not all, of the authors have become fully paid up members of ACIM, to confirm the solidarity and commitment to its cause. Anyway, now that the dust has settled on this saga, it would be an opportune moment to take a critical, dispassionate look at the question of government grants and subsidies not only to ACIM but to Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) in general.
But first, for those (including overseas readers in particular) who may not be familiar with it, a recap on ACIM would not be inappropriate. It would seem that this NGO was formed some 20 years ago to “protect consumers.” Ever since its foundation, it has received a government grant that covers all its expenses in full, thus (conveniently) leaving it with no real incentive to try to raise even some of its funding requirements from other sources.
Asked in an interview in last Friday’s l’express (05-Feb-10) whether NGOs would not gain proper legitimacy and be really representative if they were to get their funding through membership, all ACIM’s secretary-general Jayen Chellum could say was: “Il faudra y réfléchir.” Good for him and good for everyone else! Because, from what we read in the papers, the current government grant to ACIM is in the order of Rs700k of which a massive 85 percent is spent on salaries and the remainder on office location and transport, leaving nothing for anything else like consumer awareness education. In the circumstances, one is left wondering whether ACIM has got its priorities quite right and whether the taxpayer is getting value for money.
Be that as it may, this payment continued till the end of 2008 but, for reasons best know to itself, Dr Ramgoolam’s government decided to stop it in 2009. It is only recently that Social Security Minister Bapoo has come forward to explain that her government’s decision followed the ACIM-led (traffic) go slow in November 2008 to protest against a hike in the price of petrol. It would be recalled that this action, inter alia, caused serious inconvenience to hundreds of youngsters who were sitting for the critical SC/HSC exams at the time. Since then, a MES report has come to confirm that the additional stress had a negative impact on results. Hardly the best example of mature, responsible behaviour!
Undaunted, the intrepid Mr Chellum tried on numerous occasions to persuade the government to change its mind, but to no avail. Consequently, he decided to stage a hunger strike on 22-Jan-10 in protest. For a 61 year-old, it must have taken enormous courage to take this drastic, dramatic decision and should command admiration. Besides, Port Louis is not the easiest of places to undertake such a venture in the extreme, suffocating heat of January. But, the brave man struggled on resolutely for 12 days, whilst the government vacillated on how best to respond.
Eventually, on 02-Feb-10, it decided to negotiate with (some say capitulate to!) Mr Chellum and ended up paying all the moneys due, plus some extra like MRA and NPF arrears. ACIM can rightly claim a triumphant victory. Having got the money, it can now pay its staff and creditors and get back to business as usual. But, once again, it is the poor taxpayer — the piggy in the middle as it were — who foots the bill and nobody deigns to ask him whether this is alright by him.
From all press accounts, it would seem that the public — who also happens to be the taxpayer — was largely absent from the goings on at St Louis Cathedral, the scene of Mr Chellum’s hunger strike. In other words, people showed a total lack of interest in and a telling indifference to the fact that ACIM had been deprived of its income and, by deduction, were not prepared to pay for it. On the other hand, one would have expected MACOSS and all the (brother) NGOs to rally round him but, mysteriously, they were also nowhere to be seen for the most part.
Whatever the reasons for the other NGOs’ absence, the public probably reasoned that ACIM is an NGO; and an NGO, which has been set up to fight for the right of consumers, should seek its funding from the patrons/beneficiaries (in this case consumers) of its mission and not from the public purse. If government starts paying all its salaries and costs, as it seems to have done for the past 20 years, it effectively becomes a government department and its staff can only be regarded as civil servants. This is akin to joining the civil service without the blessing of the PSC, through the back door. Cannot be right, can it? Apart from anything else, conflicts of interest may arise if the NGO finds itself disagreeing with government policy/decision.
We are probably also the only country to be blessed with two consumer protection NGOs, both funded by government, doing practically the same thing. One is left wondering whether they would continue doing so if this source of funds dried up one fine day. More to the point, do we really need competition on matters relating to consumer protection? Would it not make more sense to join forces and avoid the duplication of administrative costs?
More than likely, but one suspects the allure of rubbing shoulders with the princes of the day, sitting on important QUANGOs with attendance allowance and free foreign travel is a tad too much to resist. Somewhere in the l’express interview, Mr Chellum laments the fact that he has not travelled for two years (on the taxpayers’ expense no doubt!). Poor thing; perhaps someone should point out to him that many of those hard-pressed taxpayers have not savoured this luxury even once in a lifetime.
By definition, an NGO is an independent, non-profit making, voluntary citizens group, usually set up by people of goodwill to work for a social cause. If the cause is right and the action of the founders/members is transparent, it should not normally have much difficulty raising its funds from the public. If there is no interest from the latter, it can be safely assumed that that the public does not see its usefulness; it would then be time to pack it in.
To expect government handouts to manage its affairs goes against all that a voluntary organisation is supposed to stand for. Save for some exceptional cases, voluntary work should not be expected to be remunerated because it then ceases to be voluntary and becomes a job like any other. We are aware that there are some large international NGOs who pay their executives a salary, but the money normally comes from members, sponsors and, crucially, public collection carried out by thousands of voluntary foot soldiers. Not the taxpayer! The beauty of self-funding is that it comes with no strings attached and guarantees total independence.
Unfortunately, we Mauritians have this funny idea that government must do everything for us. We have too many kids — sometimes with several partners — that we cannot afford to look after, the government must pay for their upkeep. We lose our property because we have not bothered to repay our creditor, the government must bail us out. Why, the PM was even asked on one of his overseas missions whether it is true that his government paid its people to pray.
Enough is Enough
But, the indifference shown by the public in the recent ACIM affair is sending a signal that could not be clearer. That it is high time the authorities undertook a thorough clear-out of the cluttered Augean stables. Over the past 30-40 years, all manner of grants and subsidies have come into existence to pay for all manner of activities — some of them mere vehicles for the founders/members joyride — which is not of the government domain. It is time to stand up to all these NGOs and their lobbies and tell them in no uncertain terms that there is no money. And, deliver the beleaguered taxpayer from this parasitic pestilence!
In a democracy, everybody is free to pray and undertake all kinds of legitimate social activities, but they must not expect a (secular) government to have to pay them for it. Like everyone else, the taxpayers’ tolerance threshold has its limits and many believe this has been crossed many times over. And are saying loud and clear, Enough is Enough!