By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
The government’s proposed legislation to regulate non-profit organisations (NPOs) is no longer “the scary Bill that could have decimated the sector”, a prominent activist revealed yesterday.
Mark Palmer, Civil Society Bahamas secretary, told Tribune Business that the non-profit sector was “very close to finalising” its review of the revised Bill before setting up final discussions with the Attorney General’s Office.
Describing the regulatory effort as “definitely moving in the right direction”, Mr Palmer said that while there were still areas that non-profits would like to see “improvements”, the government had made “quite a few concessions” compared to the initial version that made it to Parliament - but did not pass into law - in early 2019.
He added that Civil Society and other non-profits had agreed with Carl Bethel QC, the attorney general, not to publicly discuss the Bill’s details until it was finalised and the consultation process finished.
However, Mr Palmer said the present version would be better for “striking a balance” between the non-profit industry’s growth and satisfying the concerns of international standard-setters such as the Financial Action Task Force (FATF).
He also backed the risk-based approach to supervision taken by the Central Bank, which this week concluded that the non-profit sector - both religious and non-religious - did not present a major financial crime risk based on its 2018 survey of deposit inflows into the Bahamian commercial banking industry.
Mr Bethel earlier this week said he hoped to bring the revised Non-Profit Organisations Bill back to Parliament for debate in July and August, and Mr Palmer confirmed the sector was
“very near finishing” its review of the draft legislation.
“There’s still areas in the Bill where we’d like to see improvements, but they’ve made quite a few concessions,” he told Tribune Business. “We want to strengthen the sector, and the Bill is a good aspect of that.
“Once we see it in final form it will not be the scary Bill it was that could have decimated the sector. Every country is different, and the attorney general has recognised that. It’s going to strike a balance that’s fair for the sector and fair for the FATF and Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD). It’s definitely moving in the right direction.”
Mr Palmer said 30 different non-profits had participated in reviewing the Bill, and giving advice and feedback during the consultation process. He estimated that the sector will be ready “in a week or two” to set up a final meeting with Mr Bethel and his team to finalise the Bill.
The Central Bank, in its survey this week, found that while churches and religious organisations received almost 50 percent, or $77m out of $155m in Bahamian dollar deposit inflows, in cash, there was no evidence the sector presented a money laundering or terror financing risk - especially given that there were no foreign currency inflows.
“Churches and other NGOs (non-governmental organisations) have been raised from time to time as money laundering or terrorist financing risks,” the regulator acknowledged. “In The Bahamas, churches are a reasonably large and cash-heavy business, but have essentially zero incoming foreign currency flows.
“In the absence of any evidence of AML/CTF crime in the church sector, the local facts suggest that this segment is not an AML/CTF risk. Similar considerations apply to other NGOs, which are about the same size as the church sector, with much less cash, a bit more international funds flow, but zero evidence of support for terrorism.”
Mr Palmer yesterday backed the Central Bank’s risked-based approach and findings, adding that he had heard of no money laundering or terror financing issues concerning Bahamian non-profits. He argued that Bahamian political parties, with their overseas donations, likely represented a greater risk even though they were exempt from the Non-Profits Bill.
The Civil Society Bahamas secretary, though, conceded that many Bahamian non-profits still need to “up their game” to give donors greater comfort via improved transparency and accountability.
“Once there is registration we will be able to assess the sector better,” Mr Palmer told Tribune Business. “We are working on a self-regulation system that will take five years to roll-out in various iterations.”