NGOs in Sri Lanka: A Personal Reflection

While the first NGOs to Sri Lanka came in time of the British, discussion on their role in Sri Lanka’s socio-political frameworks has increased dramatically in recent years. The recent article by H.L.D Mahindapala is essential reading in this regard. In the absence of any recent critique that is as well articulated, it is also a tableau upon which an alternative view of NGOs can be constructed – one that attempts to reflect more fully the complex, multifaceted and dynamic nature of NGOs and encourages them to reflect upon their role in Sri Lanka.

It is important to first clarify what is meant by NGOs in this article. The Law & Society Trust in Politics, National Security and the Vibrancy of Non-Governmental Organizations has one such concise definition, which states that an NGO is an “association or organization that is non-profit and non-governmental, and engaged in relief and rehabilitation, social justice, social welfare, gender equality, development and human rights”. We recognise that even within this definition, there can be a myriad of different NGOs with different foci and different constitutions. We need to also distinguish NGOs from civil society, given the unhealthy tendency to conflate the two in Sri Lanka. To this end, the DFID Consultation Paper on Strengthening Support for Civil Society (May 1998) has a useful paragraph:

“Civil society” is used to describe the broad range of organisations in society which fall outside government and which are not primarily motivated by profit. The include voluntary associations, women’s groups, trade unions, community groups, chambers of commerce, farming and housing cooperatives, religious or tribal-based groups, cultural groups, sports associations, academic and research institutions, consumer groups, and so on.

As such, while NGOs are part of civil society, they do not constitute the totality of civil society. Civil society is a larger and more complex construct, within which we must locate NGOs as entities that in Sri Lanka command the most attention / derision. While not expressly stated as such, critique such as Mr. Mahindapala’s deals with the more urbane NGOs – those which primarily have their head offices in Colombo or in some cases, Kandy and other urban centres.

According to statistics in the LST report, in 1990 there were around 3,000 NGOs in Sri Lanka. One can expect this number to have exponentially grown in the previous decade, with a growth spike in the recent past to ostensibly meet the perceived needs of communities affected by the tsunami. This article lays no claim to be an authoritative guide to the psyche of NGOs or an analysis into their genesis and evolution into the present day avatars. This is a project to be undertaken in a different forum at a later date. Furthermore, the author is unfamiliar with the workings of NGOs that exist outside the scope of centrifugal activism from urban centres. As such, the usage of the term NGOs in this article is not reflective of the rich diversity of such institutions as they exist in Sri Lanka.

The attempt here is to map possible channels for constructive dialogue between NGOs and their detractors. Interlocutors such as Mr. Mahindapala cannot be dismissed with a nonchalant sweep of one’s hand – the points he raises are valid, even if their applicability to all NGOs can be called to question. This article is also guided by a long standing belief that unless such introspection is undertaken as a continuous process of re-evaluating one’s activism and interventions in a given context, NGOs run the very real risk of developing a hubris that strengthens (and perhaps even corroborates) the allegations of those who are opposed to all such forms of intervention.

At the same time, as Jayadeva Uyangoda notes in a recent article, many of those trying to discredit, carte blanche, the work of NGOs do so without any rigorous analysis of the term, its socio-political location in civil society and the wider context of Sri Lanka and are most often thinly veiled personal attacks against individuals who promote ideas that are in opposition to those of the interlocutor. While Mr. Uyangoda suspects that the sweeping damnation of all NGOs is giving rise to a “new authoritarianism”, it may well be that such a trend can be checked by a proactive engagement with the purveyors of the more moderate criticism, so as to create dialogues to address perceived grievances and legitimate concerns. Such dialogues, which must take place at many levels, need to be conducted in the spirit of democracy – so that NGOs on the one hand listen seriously to the issues that are laid out before them and that those who bring up these issues are also interested in genuine addresal and engagement. As with any sustainable process, a culture of openness and reciprocity needs to be cultivated in order for the long term transformation of distrust into partnerships of cooperation for the larger ideals of nation-building.

Some of the best minds I have encountered – those who emotionally and passionately connected to the conflict and its transformation, who believe in peace without appeasement, peace with justice, peace with human dignity, peace without erasing the past – reside in NGOs. These are inspiring individuals, whose love for their work far exceeds, perhaps foolishly, considerations of their personal safety and any financial recompense. Some have already paid with their lives, to paraphrase Che, not knowing how useful their contribution was to the society that sacrificed them. Others continue to struggle against a seemingly endless barrage of denigration to continue, best they can, work that builds the capacity of communities to mediate violent conflict.

Some of the worst people I have met also reside in NGOs – those to whom peacebuilding is a lucrative business. These individuals and the NGOs they head insidiously ingrain dependencies into the social fabric so as to make their role indispensable. Entire web-pages are devoted to the project of self-aggrandizement. This onanistic is tendency is present in all aspects of their interventions. Multi-million rupee projects become a means of hoarding private coffers or the vehicle through which monetary favours are doled out with great largesse to cronies. It is a great irony that some of these distasteful characters display a high degree of intelligence. This however only strengthens the inherent hypocrisy of their stated mission and vision, which oftentimes is the polar opposite to the actual actions of the organisation.

Much more can be said about these NGOs, but restraint is called for. The larger project of NGO reform is to not engage with what everybody knows is wrong, but rather, what can be done to make things right. This is a discourse that needs to take place within NGOs, not just fuelled as responses to interlocutors from outside.

This endeavour is critical because NGOs exist in a symbiotic relationship with their constituencies. An increasingly radicalised constituency will be moved more by the brute passions of rousing, emotional appeals against the ‘evil’ of NGOs than by appeals to reason, democracy, pluralism etc. NGOs cannot assume, even though it may be the ideal that they work towards, that social empowerment can be conflated with unqualified support for NGOs in light of increasing attacks on their activities. Like it or not, NGOs must and should deal with criticism levelled against them. The essential fragility of NGO interventions in the light of growing extremism and intolerance is becoming far too evident. NGOs need to develop ways in which they engage with such criticism head-on. It is only in the continuous process of dialogue with its harshest critics that NGOs can hope to maintain a semblance of credibility in the eyes of these critics.

It would be erroneous to assume that such engagement will automatically lead to a transformation of mindsets. NGOs cannot assume that even the most sincere attempt to address such criticism has any guarantee of success in changing the viewpoints of those who are opposed to their activism. However, the alternatives – disengagement, silence or marginalising such voices – are even more unpalatable.

A central problem of NGOs and centrifugal activism from urban centres in the South is their stance with regard to the LTTE. It is imperative that NGOs engage with the LTTE in the pursuit of conflict transformation in Sri Lanka. At the same time, a policy of strategic silence in the face of the LTTE’s continued intransigence in the peace process is by no means beneficial to trust building and a principled approach to such engagements. As I have written earlier, distinction has to be made between the terrorism of the LTTE and the aspirations of the Tamil people. The desire of the majority of Tamil people is to live with dignity and equality within a united Sri Lanka. The LTTE on the other hand believe a state of Eelam will best guarantee the realisation of this aspiration. While the terrorism of the LTTE against the state is symptomatic of the chutzpah of the Sri Lankan state, which for decades ignored or undermined the aspirations of the Tamil peoples, it cannot be equated with the totality of desires of Tamil peoples, who whilst recognising the primacy of the LTTE in the North-East, do not support its modus operandi by rote.

NGOs need to realise this clear distinction and also appreciate that prising open the almost non-existent fibre of pluralism and democracy in the North-East requires the same yardsticks of censure as they employ with the erosion of the same in the South. Acknowledging the difficulties of a full and sustainable transition to democracy by the LTTE (and the difficulties of establishing consonant frameworks in the peace process that must be created in support of such a transition) must blind NGOs to full censure of the LTTE in the face of proven human rights violations, zero-sum posturing and proven violations of the ceasefire agreement.

As such, a re-evaluation of the strategic engagements between NGOs and the LTTE may be called for – to strongly underpin all such engagements under an umbrella of a just moral code that holds supreme the sanctity of all peoples to live without the fear of oppression and death.

The author proposes some possibilities that may qualitatively enhance the relationships between those who are deeply critical of all NGO activities, those in rural NGOs who are envious of their urban counterparts, the recipients and target constituencies of NGO interventions and those outside of NGOs who may have vague notion of the term itself, but firm opinions NGO interventions in a geographical area or context.

1. Transparency and Accountability

Issues of transparency and accountability are at the core of much criticism levelled against NGOs. Given the vast sums of money that are involved, it is not unfair to request ways in which NGOs open up, best they can, on-going interventions to public scrutiny.

Many NGOs do not publish details of projects and interventions. It is a challenge to even get them to exchange information between themselves, because of an incredible culture of secrecy that pervades organisational activities. It is therefore hypocritical to promote (and worse, criticise a lack of) values that many NGOs themselves do not abide by. It is unfortunate that even when the resources exist, NGOs (and international financial institutions and donors are no exception to this) do not like to exchange information on programming and interventions in similar focus areas and geographical contexts. The re-invention of the wheel is a common malaise in many projects, leading to heightened levels of cynicism on the ground, workshop fatigue, and a multiplicity of unsustainable interventions.

Publicising project outcomes, creating direct linkages between media and communities who have benefited from projects that have built local capacities, publishing project details, outcomes and any related material (ideally, in Sinhala and Tamil as well as in English), a short write up in the provincial edition of newspapers, posting relevant material on-demand to those who request it etc can help in creating frameworks that are more open to the rigour of constructive investigation and resilient to probative inquiries on the accountability and transparency of such interventions.

If and when introduced, a comprehensive Freedom of Information regime in Sri Lanka will necessarily empower communities to request information from NGOs whether or not they are initially willing to entertain such requests. Much the same argument in support of FoI in Sri Lanka can be used to leverage such a regime to address concerns that are raised on the miasma that surrounds many NGO interventions at present.

Embracing a culture of accountability and transparency also creates a verifiable corpus of information on the impact of NGO interventions. From the number of beneficiaries in a project, to the ways in which local capacities were augmented, the paucity of such information at present only fuels the engines of those who run down all activities of NGOs.

2. Self-effacing nature

NGOs should not create dependencies. Peacebuilding is about a committed and sincere attempt to work oneself out of a job. To transfer knowledge to local actors. To eschew the creation of new dependencies which may create new fault-lines between and within communities. To build systems and social networks that function long after donor aid has dried up.

NGOs activities must be prefaced by a sincere commitment to build organic capacities, recognising the primacy that needs to be given to the local ownership of processes as opposed to ill-fitting Western models and a donor driven agenda. The danger of acquiescing to such an agenda that is discordant with building local capacities is that it creates in the minds of those who most desperately need assistance the impression that one is only trying to help for parochial or mercenary gain, instead of a deep seated commitment to help the community stand on its own feet. Any NGO that is commitment principles of social justice and social empowerment would find this perception anathema and a death blow to any trust that can be built over the long term.

3. Internal evaluation

Serious internal discussions need to take place on the foci, scope and strategic engagements that NGOs undertake in pursuit of their ideals. Recognising the fallibility of even the best amongst us, it is not inappropriate to raise issues internally that question the direction of interventions. Such internal debate need to be championed by the management levels of NGOs, but need to involve all levels in order to be sustainable. The author finds remarkable political acumen in the security guards, drivers and gardeners employed by NGOs which are very useful in ascertaining the general mood of polity and society. While this may be an extreme example, the thrust of this argument is that the upper echelons of NGO management may, over time, lost touch with the actual impact of interventions on the ground. From outside, it is easy to criticise this development, but from within, given the multifaceted nature of activism, overlapping deadlines, the heady intoxication of creating, conducting and evaluating interventions, all take their toll on project staff. From organisational retreats to informal tea meetings, from internal newsletters and email lists to formal meetings with the management, the rich diversity of political opinion within NGOs themselves must be captured in the larger processes of programming to avoid the growth of discontent within the organisation itself.

4. Effective communication strategies

A fundamental problem with NGOs is that across the spectrum, their impact in shaping the mindset of the masses is limited by their ineffective engagement with the mainstream media. This is primarily due to inadequate training on how best to use mainstream media for advocacy purposes.

Many Sri Lankan NGOs fail to publicize their activities and circulate their ideas in the media to incorporate the values they promote into the political arena. They are unable to inform and shape public opinion, clearly picture the situation of the on-going peace process, and fully address the concerns of the public regarding the peace process.

To this end, NGOs clearly need to build capacities to effectively formulate messages and utilize the mainstream media to disseminate policy alternatives that advocate in favour of peace, stability, and mutual understanding within the Sri Lankan society. It is expected that this results in a more informed and participatory polity and society engaged in vigorous debates, conscious and respectful of common interests, values and cultures, and eager to contribute to the development of democracy in Sri Lanka.

5. Donor support

Donors need to support measures through which NGOs become more responsive to the demands for accountability placed on them. Such frameworks require human resources, expertise in the design of effective frameworks and sustainable funding to ensure the continuity of such engagements. Donors must also encourage and fund processes through which NGOs are required to undertake self-assessment on a regular basis and that the reflections and findings of such self-assessments are mainstreamed into on-going and planned interventions. Many NGOs, even those based in Colombo, don’t have the capacity to conduct such vigorous self-assessments without donor support – despite perceptions to the contrary. It is imperative that support mechanisms that proactively engage with key concerns raised on the role and nature of NGO activism are helped about by donor commitments to such processes.

6. Principled approach to interventions

To counter allegations of partisan bias and the perceptions of duplicity, NGOs need to re-examine the matrix of engagements with socio-political actors in Sri Lanka and the timbre with which they are conducted. Nation building requires that all of us are reminded of the responsibilities of creating and sustaining democracy. NGOs, by virtue of their activism to instill democracy in the fabric of society, must themselves be seen as partial to its core tenets.

The disconnect between selective approbation and disapproval of certain political actors alone whilst maintaining a problematic silence in the face of the indubitable violation of human rights by others is incompatible with the inviolable constructs of democracy that NGOs are founded upon. A Janus faced NGOs rightly deserves to be identified as being problematic, while at the same time acknowledging that the fullest engagement with non-state actors may require a level of confidentiality that prevents such interactions from being publicized. Those who accuse NGOs of duplicity should also note the complex intricacies of peacebuilding and strategic engagement with non-state actors, in our case, the LTTE and the Karuna faction. At the same time, NGOs must be fuelled by acting in the public interest, consonant with the unique space within which they interact with other State processes in a democracy.

In sum, a principled approach to activism may serve to address much of the perceptions of bias that dog attempts of NGOs to create mass support for their interventions in support of sustainable peace in Sri Lanka.

These strategies must simultaneously co-exist within a vigorous debate on NGO activism that is founded on a shared appreciation of the roles that both NGOs and their detractors play in a democratic society. The argument here is not to suppress debate on NGOs, but to couch such commentary in a manner that helps those who locate themselves within NGOs reform it from within. However, as I have written earlier, personal diatribes that parade as impartial critique erase “the agency of an individual to locate himself / herself within NGOs and yet be critically constructive of its modus operandi”. (On polemics and the art of NGO bashing, http://www.theacademic.org/feature/117012221042402/index.shtml). What is required are dialogues that support progressive reformist tendencies in NGOs, while at the same time exploring ways in which such reform can take place in the eyes of those who are outside of NGOs frameworks.

While it is a tragedy that maligning NGOs in Sri Lanka seems to be a pursuit in itself, it is possible that NGOs which creatively address such criticism can change the timbre of the present debate into one that is more conducive for the exchange of ideas that at the end of day, help all Sri Lankans enjoy the benefits of a just, peaceful and democratic society.

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