On polemics and the art of NGO bashing

On polemics and the art of NGO bashing

H.L.D Mahindapala’s recent critique on NGOs ends with a call for a polemical debate on the issues he raises. I do not know the basis for his claims that NGOlogists (ah, that endearing term again) avoid such debate, but surely polemics is a useful tool in examining the issues that he wishes to explore. It is also cause for great mirth to be mentioned in the same breath as those who Mr. Mahindapala identifies as being miserable failures and social discards in the service of NGOs. The article is nevertheless very worthy of a reply, despite the enfilade of pointed criticisms levelled at NGOs conflates fact with fiction, is non-constructive and non-transformative, one-sided, self-defeating and disingenuous.

Fact with fiction coalesces in Mr. Mahindapala’s article. By mentioning only in passing the evolution of NGOs in Sri Lanka and juxtaposing his 18 point invective as fact, Mr. Mahindapala applies his own moral standards carte blanche to all NGOs. It is non-constructive and non-transformative because is panders clichéd arguments instead of eschewing fatigued diatribes in the thrust and parry of informed wit, which Mr. Mahindapala will recognise is the bedrock of polemics. It is one-sided because it fails to address the complexity and rich texture of NGOs, social activism, civil society and politics in Sri Lanka. Such a study might in fact concur with some of the points that Mr. Mahindapala makes, but again, will not base such findings on flights of fancy. It is self-defeating because Mr. Mahindapala’s endeavour for a timely critique of NGOs and NGO activism in Sri Lanka, which I fully support as a venture worthy of serious debate, is negated by his selective imagination, which does not entertain, for starters, the agency of an individual to locate himself / herself within NGOs and yet be critically constructive of its modus operandi. In sum, Mr. Mahindapala covers with broad brushstrokes issues that are extremely pertinent for the future of Sri Lanka’s socio-political fabric, but does so with an intellectual lethargy that is unbecoming of the very polemics that he, quite rightly, seeks to instil into Sri Lankan political debate.

Mr. Mahindapala’s article, for all its weaknesses, is an interesting and very entertaining read. It brings up a number of points worthy of exploration – the role and nature of NGOs, their historical evolution (both in Sri Lanka and the world system), their ideological roots, the linkages between western funding and NGO interventions in Sri Lanka, the constitution of NGOs et al. I am deeply humbled by the exposure that Mr. Mahindapala gives me and consider it a compliment that he spends so much time examining my arguments. It is therefore so much more unfortunate that he bases his critique on an extremely selective reading of my article. The unfaithfulness to the original text is made by Mr. Mahindapala interpreting my opening line as being intolerant of counter-arguments that challenge my stated positions. One celebrates challenge and debate, but at the same time abhors the intolerance of those, unused to the constructive exchange of words, resort to the threat of violence or violence itself to drive home a point. Mr. Mahindapala’s word play here is interesting, since he chooses to portray a principled opposition to voices of intolerance and hate as being bigoted against healthy debate on the very issues that he wishes to engage NGOs on.

The two, Mr. Mahindapala, are not the same.

Mr. Mahindapala’s construct of “goody-goody attempts to bring in a new media culture” which is inextricably entwined with “pro-NGO politics” is indicative of a remarkable lapse of judgement. It is a travesty to colour efforts at media reform in as a thinly veiled attempt to “brain-wash” Sri Lankan journalists into giving NGOs “wide coverage” to press releases. The irony is that even if NGOs desperately wanted to do so, Sri Lankan journalists show a remarkable resilience to brain-washing and indoctrination, which undermines Mr. Mahindapala’s contention substantially. The media reform project in Sri Lanka needs to be one that is reflective of and geared towards local interests, sustainable knowledge transfers and the organic development of national capacities. Working towards media that is accurate, impartial and fair requires constructive and sustainable dialogues that make Sri Lankan media and journalists responsive to the need to create frameworks supportive of peace and peacebuilding. As I have written earlier, this does not mean slavish and partisan support, but critical engagement with peace processes in the public interest. This, Mr. Mahindapala, is a media reform blueprint with an emphasis on Sri Lanka, rather than the introduction of Western frameworks that may well be an ill-fit to our own socio-political dynamics.

Mr. Mahindapala’s unfaithfulness to the original text is made evident in his next allegation of my own partisan bias. In flagging part of a single sentence – “The historical incapacity of the Sri Lankan state to safeguard the rights of the Tamil community” – and basing his whole critique on this selection, Mr. Mahindapala misconstrues the import of the larger paragraph:

We are obviously concerned about all human rights abuses. The historical incapacity of the Sri Lankan state to safeguard the rights of the Tamil community, the problems of the LTTE appropriating the fight for Tamil rights by the brutal and continued elimination plural voices within its own community, the recent hate speech promoted by the JVP, the venomous froth purveyed by the likes of the JHU – these and much more gravely threaten our lives, our collective future and the democratic contours of the State.

The failure of the State to safeguard and promote the aspirations of all communities is in fact central to the Tamil question, the erosion of democracy in the South and our continuing rumba with violent conflict. Acceptance of this however should not negate acquiescence that the lot of the Tamil community and Tamil speaking peoples after 1948 hasn’t been on a level playing field with the Sinhalese. This is not to say that communal antagonism arose out of ether after independence. Rather it is the tragic inability of the Sri Lankan State to realise and celebrate its multicultural fabric, which as you very correctly point out existed before they “became buzz words” for NGOs. The rubric of your language to explore this State failure further – manipulating historical values to “brain-wash and proselytize the heathen natives to accept the invading values of globalisation” – is, to paraphrase a literary great (unfortunately non-Sri Lankan), full of sound and fury signifying nothing.

Mr. Mahindapala’s erroneous reading of the article continues further and bedevils attempts to take him seriously. In a remarkable failure of comprehension, Mr. Mahindapala ignores my comments on the LTTE in the paragraph above and instead chooses to use, again, a selective reading of the paragraph to under-gird a pyrrhic moral victory which he flails in the service of exposing my partisan nature. As I stated, “problems of the LTTE appropriating the fight for Tamil rights by the brutal and continued elimination plural voices within its own community” continue a critique of the LTTE that I have written on earlier:

Hypocrisy is also shown, by the LTTE’s own condemnation of Sivaram’s murder. Lest we forget, the LTTE is not known for its openness for diversity and pluralism, much less democracy. Conferring titles posthumously does little to uplift an image of intolerance to voices within the Tamil community that questioned its modus operandi in addressing legitimate Tamil aspirations. Again, while censure is easy, and the reasons for it are many, more difficult is to ask ourselves how to engage, without appeasement, the LTTE in dialogues that prise open democratic debate and weakens its role as a hegemon in the NE. While acknowledging the difficulties involved in a transition from sub-state secessionism to the democratic mainstream we cannot condone the LTTE’s intolerance of opinions contrary to its own set of beliefs – put simple, it’s self-definition as the sole representatives of the Tamil people is as dangerous as accepting the JHU’s voice as the voice of the Sangha, or the JVP’s rhetoric as that of the majority of people in the South. (Compassion in a Time of Hatred: What’s wrong with our society today? http://www.theacademic.org/feature/115544901079193/index.shtml)

Moving forward, given his recent impassioned article expounding the virtues of his (Sinhala-Buddhist) community, one would assume that Mr. Mahindapala should be at the frontlines fighting against a growing radicalisation of Southern polity and society. Given that we should engage with such extremism in the hope of transforming it, it would behove both Mr. Mahindapala and I, based on the principled approach that such extremism is intolerable in any context, work together to fight against fanaticism of all nature in Sri Lanka.

Or put another way, we cannot hope to critique the lack of pluralism in the North-East in the face of its erosion in the South. Surely, the moral advantage of the South against the lack of democratic space in the North-East can only be maintained if the State strengthens law & order, safeguards basic human rights and promotes cultures in which the very celebration of multiple voices, engaged in a rigorous debate about pressing issues that shape our collective futures, would be a trump card in the fight against fascism.

Furthermore, given Mr. Mahindapala’s selective dissection of my article, it is worth re-stating an argument that I made in it that he ignores:

“…debate on ideas, on reforms, on constructive and sustainable engagements within and between NGOs and their target audiences, and dialogues between groups in the peace process writ large, requires the capacity to transcend partisan bias, acknowledge the errors of one’s own ways, assess self-critically one’s actions and interventions, retrospectively look at the inequalities that have given rise to the Sri Lanka we know now and finally, the sincerity to commit ourselves to a vision that takes us from narrow, bitter and personal diatribes to a fight for larger ideals of democracy and pluralism.”

In sum, Mr. Mahindapala and I agree on a project of deep introspection that NGOs need to embark upon to validate their imprint in Sri Lanka. However, we diverge on how we should approach such a grand project. Mr. Mahindapala’s diatribes do not do justice to the quality of engagement necessary with the NGO constituency. By refusing to see the diversity within NGOs, by glossing over progressive elements within NGOs that are as keen as he is to prevent the outgrowth of regressive NGO activism and by the condescending dismissal of those who are engaged in nation-building at great risk to their lives, Mr. Mahindapala substitutes pedestrian arguments for polemical debate.

While I appreciate Mr. Mahindapala’s kindness to envelop me in the “flimsy fabric” with which I try to convince readers that I “stand way above the rest of the mod”, it is most unfortunately more resonant as a critique of Mr. Mahindapala’s own arguments in this article. Unlike Sisyphus, who at least thinks he is doing something worthwhile, the spirit of my interlocutor’s article reminds us of the flight of Icarus, who tried to do something grand, but only succeeded in crashing ignobly.

This does not, in any way, undermine the puissance of the issues that Mr. Mahindapala brings to light. It is important that we recognise the influential character of NGOs – which seeks to influence those in power instead of corralling power into its own hands. Mr. Mahindapala makes a fatal error in conflating the public service with actions that are in the service of public good. You don’t necessarily need to be in the Civil Service to act in support of the public good. In fact, elected officials and politicians have a demonstrably bad track record for realising the good life for communities in Sri Lanka. It is in this space, in engagements with government based on socio-political alternatives that the role of NGOs needs to be examined, especially after the introduction of open market policies and our entry into global markets in the late 70’s. There is incredibly rich debate on the role of NGOs in nation-building – from those who believe that it would be wrong for NGOs to assume they have a role in re-fashioning institutional decay to others who think that they play a catalytic role in energising marginalised voices in communities and helping them articulate better frameworks of governance that are responsive to their unique and shared needs. There is very real tension between those who think that people are galvanising themselves around NGOs because they are more responsive to key issues (coupled with the consonant decline in the professionalism in mainstream party politics) and those who think that NGOs are, for all the reasons that Mr. Mahindapala brings up and more, ill-suited to fuel social and political activism, because of entrenched religio-political ideologies that are incompatible with the texture of societies they supposedly represent. NGOs themselves have much soul searching to do. The global construct of the tantalisingly close possibility of alternative world, where peace, justice and the good life are all to be found in abundance, remains elusive and ineffective in the face of the intra-state contradictions between NGOs and their parochial agendas and the inter-state bickering between them as to whose vision of the ‘good life’ under-girds the new world order.

This does not erase the positive role that NGOs can and do play in Sri Lanka. However, it is premised on a notion that the raison d’etre of NGOs must be to create frameworks of participatory democracy (sometimes called discursive democracy) that engender cultures of non-violent conflict management, critical understanding of issues and most importantly, people who are able to question the very tenets of the good life as promoted by NGOs. In short, NGOs must establish socio-political structures that question the validity and usefulness of their own interventions – which must be seen as a good thing, writ against the larger palette of true democracy. This healthy contestation is to be welcomed as an interaction that is mutually beneficial and strengthens both the voice of NGOs and the agency of communities to more fully participate in governance.

It is most unfortunate that Mr. Mahindapala’s inelegant bludgeon blow of critique does little to explore these issues. However, the author believes that if he applies his mind more tenaciously to the purpose, Mr. Mahindapala would be an invaluable voice in the debates that examine the role of NGOs in Sri Lanka with a view to weeding out the corruption and buttressing what is good and genuinely helpful.

Unlike Mr. Mahindapala’s final claim, there is no last word in writing, unless he himself wishes to foreclose further debate on these vital topics. Polemics does not suffer patiently the ignorance of fools or the vacuity of jaded arguments, but roundly welcomes measured debate, well crafted wit and creative, forward thinking, holistic arguments. Polemics is grounded on two central requisites – reciprocity and openness. As the South African writer Njabulo Ndebele states (far removed from the Western(ised) canon that Mr. Mahindapala seems to be so much against) it is useful because it “allows us the potential to locate ourselves within questions posed by others”. Put another way, Mr. Mahindapala’s trenchant critique, if it were better written, would allow those us who locate ourselves in NGOs gain a better appreciation of our role by self-critically appraising our beliefs and work. What seems to be important here, to call upon one of Nietzsche’s aphorisms, is not “having the courage of one’s convictions” but “having the courage for an attack on one’s convictions”.

Finally, the author wishes to sincerely thank Mr. Mahindapala for sharing his thoughts in a manner that encouraged a response. The author hopes that in the spirit of polemics, the exchange of wit and a mutual appreciation for the intellect of ones interlocutor, underpins what will hopefully be continued discussions on topics that define our shared zeitgeist.

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