An inquiry into NGO phobia and NGO bashing
by Kumar Rupesinghe
@ The Island / 23MAR2006
I would like to take this opportunity to engage in a discussion on the role of NGOs in the peace process. In our country there are often epidemics of NGO bashing. Often the so called national press of the country provides space for those with a phobia against NGOs and to provide them with a platform to give vent to their feelings. NGO bashing has become a fashionable past time. A phobia here is defined as a strong and persistent fear of situations, objects, activities or persons. The many symptoms of this disorder are the excessive and unreasonable need to avoid a feared object, often to castigate such a feared object. The feelings are expressed in unkindly language; half truths and vituperation. The gist of their arguments about NGOs is the following. NGOs are dependent on foreign funds. The word used in Sinhalese are the "dollar Kakkas"( dollar crows). These NGOs are not financially transparent. They are a law unto themselves, holding seminars in five star hotels, and spending very extravagantly. Some NGOs particularly those who are involved in the advocacy for peace in the country are acting against the sovereignty of the country. They stand for the division of the country.
Who are the critics of NGOs?
There are critics who are genuinely concerned about NGOs and their role in society. These criticisms take many forms. Some do question whether NGOs are accountable to the wider public and this criticism is certainly to be taken seriously. Other criticizes NGO as being part of the Globalization process and see NGOs as instruments of globalization. This discussion is quite widespread in Indian and there is a healthy discussion about these issues. There are also criticisms with regards NGOs governance structures where NGOs lack minimum forms of internal democracy, where leaders make it a family business or become directors for life.
There is another group of critics who pretend to be patriots and engage in personal vilification. Their diatribe against the NGOs takes the form of personal vilification. Fortunately they are very few in number but do enjoy space in the national newspapers. They are all pseudo patriots who are what I call failed cosmopolitans. They are filled with personal jealousy and animosity against individuals and go against the very doctrine which they preach, the doctrine of Buddhism. They all are vociferous in the defense of Buddhism but their writings are full of hatred, jealousy and revenge. All of them have certain characteristics in common. They all have lived abroad for a long period of time and have enjoyed the fruits of westernization which they now detest. They all carry foreign passports. They all have a huge phobia against Norway. They have all received and applied for foreign funding. The most interesting characteristic which define their behavior is that they do not attack the President or his political party, or the left parties or other constituent parties, Ministers in government or public institutions that support the peace process and who are committed to a negotiated settlement, and has declared their support for Norwegian facilitation NGO bashing and bullying is safer for they know that NGOs do not usually retaliate.
But now let me go into the substantive arguments that have been raised in general by the media and others with regards NGOs.
The evolution of NGOs
It is important to state what NGOs are. NGOs are those who voluntarily get together to form an association to act for the public good. The growth of Non Governmental Organizations has been phenomenal in all parts of the world. NGOs have proliferated because the State by itself has not been able to fulfill all the aspirations of people. Therefore even from the beginning of the 20th Century people of good will worked towards the alleviation of poverty, women’s rights, human rights, peace, environment and a number of issues. Through the evolution of the NGO sector global institutions began to emerge specializing in development, human rights, conflict resolution, environment etc. The sum total of activities of the NGOs has therefore filled the space the state and the merchant could not fill. Today the power of the third sector cannot be underestimated in the promotion of human rights, democracy, good governance and many other issues.
In Sri Lanka NGOs emerged at the end of the 19th century, some against colonial rule, some against poverty and some for social justice. But it was only since the 1960s that NGOs have proliferated in the country. Some were donor driven such as the support for development, environment and women’s issues. With the beginning of the ethnic conflict many research Institutions such as the Marga Institute, the International Center for Ethnic studies, and the Social Science Association were formed. In a situation where research was almost non existent in the Universities the private research institutions played an important role in public policy debates. The international community had also made peace the highest priority in Sri Lanka. In this sense support for NGOs working for peace and conflict resolution were also strengthened. It is here that originations such as the National Peace Council, the Center for Policy Alternatives, and the Women’s Media Collective were born. From the period of the war for peace campaign these NGOs worked against the tide in advocating peace for the country often at great risk for themselves.
It was only after the Tsunami that the commitment and power of the NGOs to respond to a tragedy were demonstrated. Given the enormous international solidarity shown there was also a proliferation of international NGOs. But it was primarily the local and national organizations which responded during the first phase of the tragedy by supplying relief, medical assistance and livelihood support. It was also a tribute to the international NGOs for their role in supporting the relief and rehabilitation effort. It was in this backdrop that the JVP propaganda secretary called upon the people to spit on NGOs and called them traitors.
The dollar Kakkas (crows) argument.
The main argument that is brought out against NGOs is that they are foreign funded. There is no doubt that this is true. They rarely use Sri Lankan tax payer’s money. Unlike in India and Pakistan where the NGOs can apply for funds from the government or where tax concessions are provided to business houses to support NGOs such a mechanism does not exist in Sri Lanka.
The peace related NGOs continue to be funded and this is a decision taken by the international community that peace is the highest priority for the country. What do peace NGOs do? They are primarily advocates for peace and a negotiated solution. They have awareness raising campaigns, some focus on the need for power sharing such as a federal solution, others promote coexistence in war torn areas, and others focus on advocacy campaigns to end the war. Their impact in the country is substantial in that every opinion suggests that the public overwhelmingly support the peace process, approve the Presidents handling of the negotiations and last but all approve the role of Norway as a facilitator.
Those who argue against foreign funding should take a serious look at themselves. The political parties such as the JVP are foreign funded. All political except for a few have not revealed their assets or their budgets to the Elections Commission which is a statutory requirement. . Even the Government is dependent on foreign funds and loans.. Sri Lanka’s economy depends on trade and markets with the outside world. and many of our young people have received scholarships from abroad.. Thus it cannot be that foreign funding is the problem.
Transparency of finance and accountability
The argument here is that NGOs are a law unto themselves. It is argued that they spend lavishly and defraud their donors and have little accountability. But this is not something of which only NGOs are guilty. The Auditor Generals reports suggest that there is widespread corruption in Government. The Bribery Commission has revealed disturbing information about corruption by government officials and politicians. The Transparency International has frequently called for clean government.
However I suggest that the people who criticize NGOs do not know the rules governing NGO funding. The foreign funding which comes to Sri Lanka is based on tax payer’s money in those countries. In the countries concerned the funding for development assistance is scrutinized in Parliament and is subject to audit queries. Further the donor funds which are sent to NGOs are scrutinized by the donors and there are stringent conditions attached and conditionality imposed on the NGO. For example it is customary that quarterly reports are submitted to the donor and narrative reports submitted regarding the projected activities conducted by the NGO. The NGO is bound to adhere to these rules and regulations. If an NGO has to spend any money outside the project for which money has been disbursed then the NGO has to ask the permission from the donor. Further NGOs are either registered under the Registrar of Companies or often also with the Ministry of Social Services. Under the Registrar of Companies act an NGO is required to submit audited accounts duly certified by the auditor and the board. The Registrar has the right to intervene and examine the book of accounts if the public so desires and has sufficient evidence of fraud. The public have access to the annual reports of NGOs.
There is however a serious concern about NGO accountability. .Whilst NGOs are accountable to the Registrar of Companies, to the auditor and to their donors they are not necessarily accountable to the public. The Tsunami disaster bought this weakness out clearly when International Non Governmental Organizations (INGOs) often did not consult people or other public institutions in implementing their projects. One case in point is the building of small boats. In their enthusiasm building small boats were oversubscribed, where non fishermen received over 50% of the boats and often the boats that were produced were not fit for local conditions. This initiative may have also created a situation where there are more small boats than is required and which has the potential of depleting the stock in shallow waters. . There are numerous examples of such practices.
NGOs acting against the sovereignty of the country
Here comes the crux of the matter. These accusations are primarily against those NGOs who are working for peace, human rights and stand for power sharing of the country. They call these individuals and institutions traitors to the country. They argue that they are mere proxy’s of the LTTE.. Supporting Federalism is tantamount to supporting division. They hate Norway and do not wish to have third party intervention. They do not wish to have a negotiated solution but argue for war and the annihilation of the LTTE. They do not wish to give any rights to the Tamils or Muslims and wish to perpetuate the Singhalese hegemonic state. It is this mindset which is the problem for the country. It is this mindset which has taken the country towards disaster. It is this phobia which demonizes those who stand for peace with justice. They do not represent the majority of Sinhalese in this country. They are a small minority. But they do have contacts with some of the national papers where editors pander to the lowest denominator of humanity. It is this mindset with its intolerance and hatred for the minorities which drove the Tamils to call for a separate state. It is this mindset which thinks that the Sinhalese are an engendered species which has to be defended at all cost. Primarily they are wedded to an archaic and lopsided world view where they seek to defend the Unitary State at all costs..
It is my argument that our political leaders since independence with their short term opportunism and pandering to majoritarian hegemony took the country to disaster. The examples are many. The disenfranchisement of the people of Indian Origin and denying them citizenship rights is one such example. The Sinhala Only Act and the promise to make the Sinhalese the official language within 24 hours was another example of political folly. Not only did it deprive the Tamils of using their linguistic rights in the country but robbed generations of our Sinhalese youth of knowledge and mobility. The hegemonic unitary state has been a disaster to the country. For example 95% of a bloated administrative service is manned by Sinhalese. The armed forces consist of 99% Sinhalese. Tamil as an official language has not been implemented. There is obvious discrimination in employment. The Hill Country Tamils who are the main bread winners of the country still live in unacceptable conditions and are denied the right to language, health and education. Less than one percent of Hill country Tamils has a place in the University.
It is quite clear that NGOs who work for peace stand for a change in this mindset, and their values are based on the premise that all peoples in this country should enjoy equal rights. Further they argue that there should be a significant devolution of power in the country. They argue for a negotiated solution with the assistance of a third party. They seek an end to this horrendous war. With regards their attitude towards the LTTE it is my view that the entire NGO community condemns the political killings, child recruitment and the lack of space for pluralism and democracy in the Northeast. They do not stand for a divided country but suggest that the only way to avoid division is power sharing with the communities.