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What happens when NGOs break the law?

What happens when NGOs break the law?

By Ingrid Nanne

I am a Guatemalan national working with a local NGO–thankfully a law-abiding, well-organised foundation that pays me my scheduled salaries and deducts taxes and social security from each paycheck, as required by law. The organisation helps all of its staff stay in line, respecting the rule of law.

Yet, I’ve encountered numerous NGOs that do not. I see this frequently in Guatemala, and I saw it in West Africa, where I worked previously, as well. The organisations with the most infringements tend to be run by foreigners, and are often small ones, that don’t draw much attention.

They break the laws in small ways, either through negligence or ignorance.

For example, in Guatemala, the law requires salaries to be paid 14 times a year, yet many organisations limit it to the 12 paychecks (one per month) you might expect elsewhere, ignoring the fact that this is not how in works here. At least for Guatemalan staff, regardless of where the organisation’s home base is, compensation must be paid in accordance to Guatemalan laws.

I’ve also seen NGOs skip registering employees in the national Social Security system (another legal requirement), and in some cases, pay employees below minimum wage. How can these organisations claim to help the nation’s development when, through corruption, they weaken the rule of law? How can we deal with this hypocrisy?

Guatemala has one of the lowest tax collection rates in the world, and NGOs make it worse by not declaring their employees’ income. Social Security is falling apart, and organisations that do not register legally, nor require their employees to sign up, deprive staff of the benefits–including maternity and sick leave–and stunt the capacity of Social Security to provide a safety net to others. Sometimes organisations do provide alternate healthcare services, but according to the law, these should be given in addition to the national system, not in its stead.

Of course, the national system has flaws, but bypassing it does not improve it. And as a foreign entity, it is not their call to boycott Social Security, especially if it’s not done with a purpose of advocacy.

It’s sad to see the many NGOs that function this way. These are small infractions, but they’re obviously contrary to the mission of organisations that claim to work toward the greater wellbeing of a nation’s people. I often wonder if they see their own hypocrisy, or justify it because they are cutting costs, or if they simply abide only by laws that are enforced (and unfortunately, the Guatemalan government is not very effective at this). Lastly, maybe it is willful ignorance, assuming all labor laws are the same in all countries, or that it doesn’t matter if certain laws are not complied with.

The question is, as an aid worker or a job seeker, do you turn a blind eye to this corruption, or to you report these organisations to the authorities? Many private companies are hounded by human rights activists who have become watchdogs for labor rights, but I have never heard of a non-profit organisation, especially small ones that easily fly under the radar, being called out for infringing on workers’ rights.

There is also the moral dilemma of what to do if the organisation does really good work–do you risk damaging that organisation by reporting them? Or do you accept positions at these organisations, even if you know they’re breaking the law?

I think it’s easy to take the moral high ground when you’re not in need. But when you are unemployed and need a job, are you going to demand a complete change of internal policy of an organisation that has functioned outside of the law for years (in which case you can probably forget about getting an offer from them)?

In the end, it is important for organisations to think about the impact they have in the countries where they work, in terms of abiding by national laws, treating their employees with dignity and paying taxes that are due. No matter how good their work is, they undermine their own goals if they don’t support governance by following the law. Lastly, it is important as employees to take this into consideration when accepting a job, and to recognise that our work in development is pushed forward or held back by the organisations we work with.

Ingrid Nanne is a local development worker in Guatemala. She previously worked in West Africa, mainly focusing on evaluation and health programs on Senegal, Mali and Ghana. Ingrid holds an MPA in Development Practice from Columbia University. You can also follow her on Twitter.

Featured image shows students in Panabaj, Guatemala during a class party. Photo by Erik Torner.

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Ingrid Nanne

Ingrid Nanne is a local development worker in Guatemala. She previously worked in West Africa, mainly focusing on evaluation and health programs in Senegal, Mali and Ghana. Ingrid holds an MPA in Development Practice from Columbia University.

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One thought on “What happens when NGOs break the law?

  1. My grandpa recomended me that blog.

    This article makes a good reading. Thank you

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