23/02/2011

Proposals of the NGOʼs CAMPAIGN FOR THE CONSTITUTION AND INSTITUTIONS to the Greek Parliamentʼs Committee on Institutions and Transparency, relating to the regulation of volunteerism and NGOs

I come from the field of environmental organizations, namely from the association ARCHELON, which is dedicated to the protection of sea turtles. I bring with me the wide range of experiences we have acquired during our many years of operation, in the areas of 1) organizing a large number of volunteers for a long period of time (specifically, about 500 volunteers annually, mainly from abroad, for a period of at least four weeksʼ participation in field programs, 2) administration and finance management, and 3) collaboration with local government, agencies, and organizations.

Civil Society is concerned with principles and values; it does not represent individuals or private interests. Such representation is not characteristic of NGOs. The volunteers are not represented by third parties, and no matter where they are, they act directly. The size or the number of members of an organization is not important. What is important is the groupʼs dedication to achieve its goals.

For a long time now, there has been a common direction within the civil society and its organizations towards self-commitment, self- adjustment, transparency and accountability, and to identify common policy principles and practices. We recognize that transparency and accountability are essential for good management, whether in governments, public organizations, businesses, or non-governmental/non-profit organizations.

For these reasons, the NGO CAMPAIGN FOR THE CONSTITUTION AND INSTITUTIONS has created a ʽmapʼ relating to the obligations and self-regulation of NGOs. It is called APOPLOYS, which (roughly translated from Greek) means Principles of Commitment for Quality Operation and Organization to Facilitate Achieving our Goals. In addition, another group of organizations prepared a corresponding international ʽmapʼ relating to disengagement, and transparency.

Furthermore, for the past four years, members of the NGO CAMPAIGN FOR THE CONSTITUTION AND INSTITUTIONS have been studying the problems faced by Civil Society and its organizations. We have put together a series of proposals, which we are offering to the public for discussion. After that stage has been completed, we plan to present the proposals to the Greek Parliament, political parties, organizations, and at conferences and seminars.

These proposals are as follows:

1. The State and NGOs: The need for a complete adjustment of the relationship between the State and NGOs

A large number of NGOs, as well as the CAMPAIGN FOR THE CONSTITUTION AND INSTITUTIONS, have confirmed the need for changes in the relationship between voluntary service and the NGOs and the State, which should consist of respect toward the civil society as a sector of freedom, self-commitment, independence and share a feeling of solidarity with their fellow men.

The change could be brought about by civil groups (for example, by means of expressing their commitment to achieve a certain goal), by the State, or by both simultaneously. A legislative initiative by the State relating to this would be evaluated by the NGOs and the CAMPAIGN in a positive way, in the context of discussion and negotiation, which we consider to be a matter of course. The request for a modern constitutional amendment maintains its value.

Our intervention in this matter relates exclusively to the establishment of the institutional framework, organization, and operation of NGOs, regardless of sector and scope.

2. Economic aspects of the activities of NGOs: Less bureaucracy, more efficiency, transparency and dissemination of information

The most important issue facing NGOs is the need to change t status under the present system of tax regulations. Some of the most urgent problems are: 1) maintaining the non-commercial nature of their activities, 2) adjustment of FPA issues, and 3) adjustment of economic and operational regulation of NGOs, with accompanying simplification of online procedures, while 4) the improvement of funding and disbursement mechanisms are also necessary.

Promoting principles of transparency and mutual commitment between NGOs and State agencies is vital on all levels of government. This can be achieved by establishing strong NGO selection criteria on the basis of standards which are agreed upon after discussion and negotiation by sector, by the evaluation of how programs are carried out and finally, with civil and State accountability.

Furthermore, we consider the presentation of official analytical information about State/European funding to the NGOs, as well as the annual report of State funding and economic information about the NGOsʼ activities and their relationship with the State, as a matter of principle, in order to protect both the NGOs and the State from the suspicion of unlawful transactions.

The guarantee of cooperation through the finalization of contracts for NGO programs and the implementation of projects is critical, since they are undertaken in any case, but move slowly in a vague context, creating problems and accusations of improper operation.

Potential partners may be third-sector aggregate bodies, such as secondary and/or tertiary constitutions, umbrella organizations, corporate associations, local and regional networks, etc., or other NGOs.

Another important step would be the strengthening of corporate social responsibility by the introduction of regulations, while the strengthening of the sponsorship law would contribute to the much-needed independence of NGOs from State funding. At the same time, resolving the issue of donations requires a uniform effort by NGOs.

Finally, as an alternative to being funded by the State, the existence of private or public bank credit (loans) to implement projects would be a fair and important tool for improving the way NGOs operate.

3. Organizational aspects of NGO activities: The importance of volunteerism

Volunteerism is a central concept of the Civil Society. Itʼs related to the desire to use oneʼs talents to achieve broader social objectives which benefit society, nature, and cultural values, without regard for personal or political gain. The State should actively implement measures to inform citizens about the benefits of volunteerism and to provide incentives to motivate people to become volunteers, while also working to eliminate malicious, outdated thinking about volunteerism.

At the same time, a high priority of NGOs is safeguarding their right to ʽemployʼ volunteers for their activities, and consequently to receive special consideration for ʽvolunteer employeesʼ, as far as the labor laws are concerned. It is also worth noting that, in our opinion, volunteers should be provided with accident, health and life insurance (public or private), and that the head of each NGO is responsible for this. However, insuring volunteers is currently not compulsory, but should be made so by the State.

4. Collaboration between the State and NGOs: Context and Transparency

It would be an example of progressive government policy for State officials, the institutions of government, and local authorities of any level, elected or otherwise, to begin discussions and collaboration with agencies of the Third Sector (i.e. Volunteers). In addition, the Rules of Parliament should be adjusted so as to take into account the NGOsʼ opinion or view when it relates to the function assigned to them by a Parliamentary Committee. The work of the Committee could be reinforced and supported by the contributions of the Civil Society.

A basic condition for effective collaboration is the establishment of a single register of NGOs. The creation (within a specified period of time) of such a register for use by the entire public administration would solve many problems. Creating this register involves defining the criteria for registering, defining procedures for updating and adjusting the register regularly, and making it accessible to all Greek citizens.

Along with this, the consolidation of good practices for effective collaboration would be helped if key members at all levels of public administration (i.e. local, regional, national, and EU), are informed, trained, and made aware of their responsibilities regarding NGOs.

Essential conditions for effective cooperation and transparency between the State and NGOs include permanent and continuous online communication between the State and the Civil Society through the appropriate government agency, the transmission of uniform information about all the administrative and legislative changes, as well as information about NGO-related funding.

Finally, we recommend the creation of a Parliamentary Committee for NGOs, or explicit inclusion of NGOs in one of the existing Committees. The Central Committee will be charged with the institutional issues and will systematize collaboration according to area of interest.

5. Recommendations for managing the above issues: Further comments

The adoption of a uniform policy to implement the suggested changes, with the goal of clear delineating the relationship between the State and NGOs and, consequently the guarantee of the NGOsʼ independence, is crucial.

In addition, we recommend a study be made into the safeguarding of NGOsʼ legal status, taking into account EU policies.

SYNOPSIS In the first phase, we feel it is vital to take the following measures: A) Safeguarding of NGOsʼ legal status which, in turn, will result in the building of a stable framework for the relationship of the State and NGOs. B) Change of the NGOsʼ tax status, as well as issues relating to their economic and administrative regulation. C) Extension of the use of criteria and the introduction of a standard contract program for the aggregate of Third Sector funding agencies and the NGOs. D) Safeguarding of the right of NGOs to ʽemployʼ volunteers in their activities, in compliance with labor laws. Provision of accident, health, and life insurance to volunteer workers should be compulsory. E) Creation of a uniform register of NGOs to be used by all government offices with provisions for: the time period for its creation, and the definition of the updating procedures and the criteria for registering. F) Compulsory collaboration between NGOs (and other agents of the Third Sector) and public officials and Local Self-government Organizations in cases where the NGOs have knowledge, experience and proven expertise. G) Permanent and continuous online communication between the State and the Civil Society through the appropriate government agency, receipt of uniform information about all administrative and legislative changes and NGO-related funding, and preparation of an annual report relating to NGOʼs collaboration with the State.

Αθήνα, 22 Φεβρουαρίου 2011 Athens, 22 February 2011 Ραΐσης Νικόλας Nicholas Raissis Καμπάνια των ΜΚΟ για το Σύνταγμα και τους Θεσμούς NGO Campaign for the Constitution and Institutions ΑΡΧΕΛΩΝ, Σύλλογος για την Προστασία της θαλάσσιας χελώνας ARCHELON, The Sea Turtle Protection Society

(Translation by Joanne Stournara)

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