NGOs: A question of legitimacy?

The most recent diatribe against NGOs I read in the newspapers calls to attention the role of these organizations in Sri Lanka and especially their role in the on-going peace process.

The proliferation of NGOs especially after the Boxing Day tsunami in 2004, coupled with the growing strength and participation of well-established NGOs prompt many questions about the nature of their funding, their agendas, the nature of the reform they seek to promote etc. Most importantly, we need to address the central concerns of many who are opposed to NGOs – concerns of accountability, transparency and public legitimacy of the NGO sector.

It is not enough to derisively scoff at those who question the role of the NGO sector, since the issues they raise are real, important and need to be answered. On the other hand, hurling abuse against NGOs and those who head them can’t really be taken seriously. Articles in can only grapple with the issues in an abusive manner have great entertainment potential, but don’t add anything of real use to the debates. Many who malign all NGOs in broad brushstrokes also show a marked inability to explore ways through which NGOs can address their shortcomings.

Especially in light of their role in Sri Lanka’s peace process, but also recognizing their role in many other sectors of governance and democracy, NGOs need to be examined as entities that are serious political actors alongside political parties, politicians and the institutional organs of the State. By and large, NGOs in Sri Lanka seek to heal the fragmentation of the social and political fabric and establish more equitable structures of governance and democracy to support peace, justice and reconciliation.

Democracy needs public engagement. The Sri Lankan state, through ethno-centric legislation, majoritarian governments and the general myopia of political leaders, has created serious gaps between what the people want in a democracy and the State is able to deliver. We call this the democratic deficit. For instance, as the Official Languages Commission report in June 2005 highlights, many official transactions in Sri Lanka can only conducted in Sinhala. The disenfranchisement of peoples in the North-East under the curse of terrorism, the continued extra-judicial killings, corruption and erosion of the law in all tiers of polity and society patently highlight a general decay in our democracy.

The Sri Lankan State is unable and at times unwilling to fully address this democratic deficit. This is where the non-governmental sector comes in – to help prod government to strengthen democracy by providing it with the research and tools necessary for such initiatives and also by conducting initiatives of their own to support peace, reconciliation and social justice. NGOs seriously contest larger political forces who may wish to conveniently ignore certain issues for their own benefit. Seen this way, NGOs are vital in creating the civic engagement that is the bedrock of a vibrant democracy. They are also pivotal in safeguarding the interests, basic freedoms and social needs of communities to various degrees alienated by the State.

So let’s assume that NGOs generally do good things and they passionately believe they do good things. Is this enough? How do we ensure that NGOs are held accountable for their actions? Do we need to insist on the same levels of transparency in NGO operations that NGOs seek to instill on government actions?

Yes.

And herein lies the problem. While NGOs need to be held accountable, the question is, accountable to whom? Donors? Their beneficiaries? The Sri Lankan Government?

The question of accountability is especially problematic with the democracy deficit in Sri Lanka, where measures that call for greater accountability in the NGO sector are often perceived to be devious ways to exercise State control. The backlash against accountability is also a global phenomenon – noted personalities such as Naomi Klein and Ralph Nader have been vehement in their opposition to any imposition of accountability to NGO activism.

Such opposition, in my view, only feeds into the hands of the critics who say that NGOs are only accountable to God – and even that’s suspect. NGOs are inherently political. All NGO initiatives are exercises in politics – the critical issue is that they should not be partisan or biased. As political agents, involved in deeply politicized issues such as the construction of peace, NGOs occupy the same public space as do political parties and elected representatives.

Seen this way, there is a necessary and urgent need imperative for all NGOs to fully adhere to democratic values they themselves promote in Sri Lanka. This does not call for a defensiveness on the part of NGOs. Their avowed goals of strengthening democracy and peace are those which no sane person can be against. However, what’s oftentimes contested are their ulterior motives – whether, for instance, the donors dictate agendas that ultimately harm Sri Lanka’s sustainable development or whether NGOs based in Colombo can really truly understand the needs of those affected by conflict.

These are real, hard questions with no easy answers.

NGOs in Sri Lanka often mimic the very parochialism they seek to transform in government. Clamouring for donor aid, scarce human resources, a paucity of genuine innovation and ideas, inflated egos and personal vendettas, Sri Lanka’s NGO sector is rife with problems that none can deny and is not generally one big happy family.

However, to answer the questions posed above and to fully embrace the profound social responsibility of their existence, NGOs need to mature into institutions that are better able to work together and share resources. This maturity is vital in light of the vital role NGOs play in the peace process in Sri Lanka – as hubs of information, research, advocacy and civic engagements in support of justice, reconciliation and peace. At the same time, and with equal emphasis, a peace process demands NGOs to respond to voices opposed to the peace process, claim a large degree of public support and state that NGOs, as entities not democratically elected into power, lack the legitimacy to represent the views of various peoples.

One answer would be to question the legitimacy of political parties themselves – who once in power only alienate the shared aspirations of many who voted for them. Some academics term a crisis of representation – where the ageing political institutions of Sri Lanka are no longer able to represent the aspirations of the people. But this isn’t too constructive or helpful – a better answer would be to explore a larger definition of public legitimacy as separate from the participation in elections.

NGOs can, over time, achieve public legitimacy by helping transform an ageing government bureaucracy into responsive democratic institutions; providing mechanisms for public participation and feedback on governance; linking various political parties towards certain common purposes by tethering their leadership to the real needs of communities; transforming a political culture that rests on the charisma of individuals into one that strengthens institutions and founded upon meritocracy. These actions by progressive NGOs can help reduce the severe democratic deficit in Sri Lanka. As such, while NGOs may not be elected by the people, they are held accountable by them. In promoting the voice of peoples, they are bound by a moral obligation to protect the best interests of those they work with and represent. NGOs can’t possibly expect to claim public support for their initiatives over the long-term with a sincere and concerted effort to work collaboratively to support the basic human needs of those alienated by the Sri Lankan state.

However, at a time when some question their role and relevance in the peace process, it is imperative that NGOs respond to constructive criticism and calls for reform. The imperatives of democracy and peace demand such reform. Silencing the critics is only possible if NGOs are better able to prove to a skeptical population that millions of dollars of aid benefits not only those who are in Colombo and are articulate in English, but also the lives of those ravaged by violence and living in the grassroots.

To be sure, this is not a small challenge.

But the future of NGOs and their public legitimacy in Sri Lanka rests upon it. It’s a challenge that if met ensures that the valuable work championed by NGOs is seen as contributing to that of the Sri Lankan State to strengthen democracy, while at the same time ensuring that the corruption and moral decay in the NGO sector itself is weeded out.

What say you critics?

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