Friday, August 21, 2009

War weary Lanka wary of NGOs

A reported five abductions take place daily in Sri Lanka, often perpetrated by government-funded paramilitaries. Reports also suggest that the military escalation has resulted in a corresponding rise in sexual assaults at checkpoints. Doctors and teachers face harassment on their way to work and there is no end to the fatalities in the Tamil refugee camps…

Nearly two months have passed since the military defeat of the LTTE and the government of Sri Lanka has done little to ameliorate the situation of the Tamil refugees.

Not that it is not trying enough, but what amuses the world essentially is that at a time when humanitarian assistance is required utmost in Sri Lanka, the government has strangely ordered the ICRC, UN and other INGOs and foreign funded NGOs to scale down their operations.

Also it has refused to extend the visa of foreign professionals working with these humanitarian organizations.

The process in fact started in late 2008 itself. The UN closed several branches in Kilinochi at the government’s request and since then, the activities of the operational UN agencies (UNHCR, Habitat, UNDP and UNICEF) have been directly linked to negotiations by senior officials on broader issues of access and ‘humanitarian pause.’

Why is the war convalescing nation so wary of the NGOs?

NGO penetration occurred in Sri Lanka in the 1980 and the past three years have made Serendip the most attractive place for the NGOs of the world. At present, there are more than 1,000 registered NGOs in the country, with at least 10 percent of that number being INGOs.

There is a rapid increase in the number of NGOs working in the country and the Island nation’s worry stems out from the same. The number of foreign workers per INGO jumped to 50 from just four after the tsunami. A factor, which complicates the estimates are the short-lived NGOs. “These are the ‘Laptop NGOs’ existing only in the hard-drive of a portable computer! They are born during the aftermath of a disaster, with little accountability and quietly fade away without completing their charitable objectives. They tend to be reborn with each fresh natural or man-made disaster,” says a 2006 report in Island.

Meenakshi Iyer takes a close look at what is it about these NGOs that irk Colombo.

Privatizing Foreign Policy
As the Cold War ended, there was a conscious policy change in the Western countries and through them in international agencies to sponsor NGOs in the developing nations. The result – INGOs emerged to challenge and modify the international political system. In the words of Paul Ghils, author of International Civil Society: International NGOs in the International system, “acting autonomously or in competition with the states, these organizations play a major role in shaping public opinion and influencing international laws.”

Sri Lanka maintains that vital sections of foreign policy have been privatized through foreign funded NGOs. The privatization has occurred mainly through the ethnic war in the North. If Susantha Goonatilake, author of Recolonisation: Foreign Funded NGOs in Sri Lanka, is to be believed, “the calls by the NGOs for foreign intervention have tended to take Sri Lankan decision-making away from its elected government…These NGOs have worked against Sri Lanka’s sovereignty. They wanted to restructure the State and Armed Forces under foreign guidance and wanted the international community to have a stake in Sri Lanka”.

Germany-based Berghof Foundation, for example, has been accused by the Lankan government of bringing the country’s armed forces under foreign control first time since the country’s independence. The Foundation documents, however, term the same as a ‘security sector reform’.

Sections of the government maintain that Sri Lanka was coerced by the NGOs to call countries like India, EU and USA to get involved in the ethnic crisis.

Cooking up facts
President Mahinda Rajapaksa and his nationalist government have accused the INGOs of exaggerating facts and disseminating wrong information to the media on the civil war with Tamil rebels and human rights issues. “Most of these NGOs operate in contravention of the law and the State policies. They function according to their own agendas and have minimum transparency in auditing. They do not have a clear knowledge about the Act on NGOs and they do not prepare the accounts and audit reports in compliance with the accepted standards of Sri Lanka,” says Vijitha Herath, Chairman of the Parliamentary Select Committee on NGOs.

In order to prolong and further their suitability for funding from their respective Government(s), these NGOs are required to prove their work in Sri Lanka. For this, the NGOs have devised an easy cheating mechanism, namely releasing reports. Majority of the NGOs seldom visits the areas that were affected by the war. Yet, their reports give the illusion that they have collected firsthand information from the epicenter.

According to a report in the (Dec 8, 2004), most of these NGO personnel “stay in luxury hotel in Colombo. Infuse a negligible share of the fortune secured from the donor nations to local rogues who themselves have various local NGOs registered in their names. Use Public Relation stunts to create experts out of these local rogues. Using the names of these local NGOs as supporting evidence, they release studies or reports that push fabricated stories which the western readers would accept with less or no scrutiny”.

The international news agencies regularly pick up these fictitious studies or reports released by various NGOs, which play a strong role in shaping the international opinion about Colombo.

Recently, London-based daily Times said about 1,400 people are dying every week at the Manik Farm welfare center in Vavuniya citing a senior international aid source. The news report doesn’t name the source, but strongly rejecting that news item, Sri Lanka Health Secretary pointed out there were only 163 deaths reported from welfare centers in the North during the period between 15th of June and 14th of July.

Security Concerns
Sri Lanka’s Ministry of Defense website calls NGOs as “savior of LTTE terrorism”. Prominent foreign funded NGOs operating in Sri Lanka such as Centre for Policy Alternatives, International Alert, National Peace Council and International Centre for Ethnic Studies are in the habit of issuing statements and media releases directly and indirectly encouraging and justifying the LTTE agenda.

The Sri Lankan government also alleges that the LTTE used NGO vehicles to construct defense bunds. It also asserts that these NGOs diverted tsunami money to the LTTE. Among these groups were Save the Children, Britain, World Food Program (WFP) and the Swiss-based ZOA. They have all vigorously denied the allegations and said humanitarian aid was meant for affected people.

In some cases, the parliamentary committee cancelled or did not extend the visas of 40 foreign workers for security reasons - implying suspicion of links with the Tigers.

"...They (some NGOs) are even worse than terrorists. At least the terrorists fought for a cause they believed in for which they were prepared to sacrifice their lives. The NGO vocalists sang for their supper for which they were rewarded and now the entire NGO community has to suffer being regulated. The bottom line is that the nationalists have now set rules for the internationalists for being unbalanced and getting their equation bizarre," Colombo’s prominent lawyer Gomin Dayasiri was quoted as saying in a report.

The Berghof Foundation had sent a LTTE delegation to Europe on a study tour. According to the Committee findings, Dr. Norbert Rophers who was in Sri Lanka for six years with the Foundation, accepted that he had direct links with LTTE ideologue Anton Balasingham in London and Pulidevan in Kilinochchi.

In essence no one can even ascertain how many NGOs operate in the Third World but over $15 billion is given to them in funding from international financial institutions and Governmental agencies.

Officials say Sri Lanka had received Rs.16.3 billion in foreign funds and Rs.2 billion in local funds since the tsunami for 147 NGOs and INGOs while the action plans implemented exceeded 450 with more than 1,000 various development projects being carried out with these funds.

Sadly, none of these NGOs have to date made any improvement to the living conditions of the very people they've used to secure funds.

To add to the country’s woes, some of these NGOs, say Lankan officials, use these funds for anti-national efforts and are merely a cover for several undesirable activities. Their support to the LTTE is already discussed above.

According to parliamentary committee’s finding, the ILO, Save the Children, Action Aid International and the UNICEF are the organizations that provided aid to the Tamil Rehabilitation Organization (TRO), an LTTE affiliation. These organizations have direct agreements with the TRO which used most of the fund to strengthen the military capabilities of the LTTE. TRO had received US $10 million for post -tsunami activities from the USA in 2006.

NGOs and conversions
The NGOs have also become suspect because of an “externally financed and NGO-fomented spate of forced and induced religious conversions,” to Christianity, according to Goonatilake.

They are accused of targeting the poverty stricken nations of the world and converting them to Christian faith by providing them monetary assistance - this was the practice that colonial rulers adopted and it seems the very same doctrine is being repeated through NGOs. Around 1,000 Evangelical organizations are operating in Lanka today.

“From time to time Norwegian Peace Research Institute of Oslo (PRIO) also sponsored studies which resulted in papers drawing up programs on how best Norway could infiltrate key areas like the community of Buddhist monks to push their political line — all in the name of peace, of course,” says Goonatilake.

The Flip Side
Most of the INGOs and NGOs have only refuted these allegations, but pro Tamil groups in Sri Lanka say that the government doesn’t want the world to know about the war crimes committed by its army. The army in refugee camps has been accused of torturing refugees, raping and assaulting refugees. During the war with the LTTE, it was reported that the army shelled civilian camps, hospitals and even no fire zones which they didn’t want the international community to know and hence they restricted NGO and media penetration.

Sri Lanka’s grudge against the NGOs also stems from the fact that it was denied seat in the UN Human Rights Council at the insistence of international rights groups, INGOs and NGOs in 2008.

Despite all these tall claims of ‘recolonisation’ by Sri Lanka, it is indeed surprising to note that Colombo still wants New Delhi to play a role an active role in reconstruction, reconciliation and rehabilitation in Sri Lanka. “I had always urged India to play an active role and to get actively involved in the peace process during the last three years. I again invite India and the world to participate in the reconstruction of the war areas, in the rehabilitation of people,” President Mahinda Rajapaksa was quoted as saying in a recent Tehelka report.

If Sri Lanka and academicians like Susantha Goonatilake believe that NGOs are inciting a recolonisation project in Lanka, they themselves are to be blamed for it!

According to the findings of the Sri Lankan Committee of Parliament for Investigation of the Operations of NGOs, the country has no proper bodies to monitor these NGOs, the quantum of money brought by them to Sri Lanka and the amount that they have spent for projects are not monitored. The development activities of their projects are not properly evaluated.

As per the existing laws, the registration of NGOs is not obligatory, which explains the burgeoning of ‘laptop NGOs’ and in the absence of a clear regulatory mechanism, these NGOs are controlled by their mother countries.

Nevertheless, the government is waking up and a new bill governing NGOs is set to be tabled in the parliament soon.

As published in the South Asian Times, United States (Pg 9, Op-Ed)


Anonymous said...

Sri Lanka is getting paranoid unnecessarily!

A Tamil Voice said...

These bloody imperialists talk of colonisation! Isn't Jaffna or for that matter, all the tamil areas their colony? They treat us like slaves and now with the SLA winning war...things are going to be worse. At least these NGOs and INGOs show some degree of concern and humanity, but Sri Lankan Govt..I have NO HOPES. They should be tried for genocide of tamils. Thanks

A.J. Gunesekera said...

I completely agree with you that much of what is happening in Sri Lanka is due to Colombo's own fault. A few specific measures which I think might be of use while considering a regulatory framework. I am sure this would help you as you have not put it in the story in detail.

1. It is essential to have a clear statement on the obligations of the government towards civil society, NGOs and INGOs. Sri Lanka needs to strengthen its legislation and regulatory apparatus in a rational way. Legislations or regulations should not automatically mean restricting work and the Government must change its attitude from ‘restricting NGOs’ to ‘working together with NGOs’. For this purpose, legislation ought to include obligations by the Government (e.g. coordination, promotion of work in certain areas, actively promote work in areas of development) and a strict code of conduct for government officials too. Government must ensure that there is no witch-hunt or ostracising of religious NGOs. Extreme caution must be exercised when dealing with NGOs working in the northern and eastern parts of the country. The benefits of humanitarian assistance by the NGOs must be balanced with the risks to national security, and the risks to the lives of NGO workers. Some NGOs perform a vital function by highlighting human rights violations of the state and environmental issues. These are on the long-term beneficial to Sri Lanka.

2. Registration of NGOs is an obvious step, which is being done now. In order to the registered, Sri Lanka has to re-look at the criteria being used. Thailand takes into consideration the following: Thailand’s national economic and social development policies; national security; Thailand’s relations with other countries; policies and goals of foreign NGOs concerned; as well as views and suggestions of Thai agencies concerned. Furthermore, foreign NGOs intending to operate in Thailand must be non-profit and non-political organisations.`A0

3. The Register must be freely available to any citizen of the country and have information on the objectives. For example, the Charity Commissioner UK, responsible for registering charities has the following site ... efault.asp . (You can obtain information about many of the International NGOs operating in Sri Lanka from this site). The register must contain funding sources. (Are the funds coming from foreign governments, or communities, or from a left or right wing extremist group?). What are the administrative costs compared to the funds, which reached the beneficiaries? This information should be available without having to go through complicated accounts and audits.

4. The information on objectives, funding and type of assistance must be available in the publicity material of the NGOs (e.g. leaflets). The NGO should clearly state in the leaflets its political and religious affiliations. The much talked about transparency should be practiced by the NGOs. This will enable people whom they wish to help know what to expect. NGOs, which deliberately avoid giving such information, are guilty of violating the basic human right of Sri Lankans to information.

5. Broad guiding principles on humanitarian aid in the country have to be stated by the Government. This will help to direct resources where it is needed.

a. Priorities for humanitarian assistance in the country should be listed and described (e.g. shelter for Internally Displaced)

b. Specific areas where NGOs are not welcome must be stated, such as work compromising national security or adversely affecting the harmonious co-existence of a multi-cultural society

c. Guidelines on utilisation of funds (e.g. a ceiling on the proportion which can be spent as administrative costs and on foreign consultants).

Hope you will find this info useful.
Regards, A.J. Gunesekera

Rosy Mishra said...

Very well-researched and well-presented!

In recent years, the number of NGO/INGOs has grown rapidly. And there has been no dearth of funding for such bodies by major donors, including the World Bank. But not much has been done to gauge their actual accomplishment. It’s yet to be established whether all NGOs produce the desired results. There may a few good ones though.

Kamran Haider said...

Iyer, Sri Lanka is not the only country which is wary of NGOs...Look at Africa...I mean if you compare the situation, the scene in Africa is worse! It is the best example of colonisation by the INGOs. It is a big business esp in the underdeveloped and developing nations, you can see in South Asia only...I suggest you also analyse the situation in Pakistan, Bangladesh, Afghanistan and India.
All in all, a brilliant piece. Keep up the good work. Cheers Kamran

Naveed Awan said...

No national government can do like this, it needs better command to control such events. Present situation in Lanka gives hope that the situation may lead to better law & order resulting in progress, prosperity & better security of the people. Now Govt. should start short term, medium term & long term programmes to deal with urgent & important humane issues.