Ampara, Batticaloa, Colombo, Human Security, IDPs and Refugees, Peace and Conflict, Puttalam, Trincomalee, Vavuniya

Double standards?

A post here points to a powerful new report on the dangers on humanitarian aid work in Sri Lanka and elsewhere.

Reports in Groundviews, both from Citizen Journalists as well as news snippets from JNW featured on the site, clearly indicate growing concerns about the security and safety of aid workers, increasingly assaulting, vilified and killed for being perceived to be partial to non-state actors, biased towards operations of terrorists and / or acting to undermine the “national security” of the State.

This is the first report I’ve read that comprehensively debunks the myth that local INGO / NGO / staff and humanitarian aid workers are any less vulnerable to attacks. As it notes:

Humanitarian organisations have largely failed to fully consider the ethics of transferring security risks from expatriate staff to national staff or local NGOs. One of the core assumptions of remote management approaches is that national workers are at less risk than their international counterparts. But this assumption is often unfounded, and nationals may find it exceedingly difficult to decline the work for economic and/or altruistic reasons. Viewed against the significant rise in the relative risk of violence to national staff in the most dangerous contexts, this raises serious ethical and operational questions for the international aid community.

This study contends that passing responsibility to local partners need not be an ad hoc, reactive measure. Instead, international humanitarian actors should be encouraged to engage in prior strategic planning and adopt guiding principles on how these approaches can best be undertaken.

As we have seen last year, attacks against humanitarian aid workers are increasingly bloody – and show no signs of abating. Providing Aid in Insecure Environments: Trends in Policy and Operations is a sombre & urgent reminder that we need to more to protect those who in turn attempt to secure and strengthen the rights and dignity of civilians enmeshed in conflict, aware that if agencies and other stakeholders cannot ensure the safety and security of aid workers, Sri Lanka may also face an en masse withdrawal of aid agencies as in Darfur last year.

  • If the dangers to aid workers and other NGO employees are to be avoided, the reasons for such hatred and anger towards their organisations must be addressed.

    Some of them do employ a disproportionately high number of ethnic-Tamil employees and provide most of their aid to Tamil majority areas. While many of them claim to be politically neutral, some of them ideologically support the Tamil homeland concept and the “liberation struggle”. There have been reports of even organisations like Red Cross ignoring government appeals to help the Sinhalese villages when LTTE cut off the Mavil Aru water supply, and instead passing through those starving villages to carry supplies only to Tamil villages. I don’t know how true these allegations are, but they are widely *believed* to be true and that’s one of the major causes of this deep seated bitterness.

    Instead of responding to these issues with a clear head, many of these groups either keep an insolent silence or resort to aggressive confrontations as observed at the recent peace rallies where the “peace” activists and “anti-terrorist” activists constantly engage in urban warfare. Surely these people could apply the same “peace” techniques to dealing with their detractors instead of looking for “military solutions”.

    A number of these NGOs form the main administrative backbone of the illegitimate LTTE state. Their activities violate the Sri Lankan constitution, sovereignty and rule of law, none of which they seem to have much respect for. Private organisations must cooperate with the government and complement it, not usurp its authority or help parties that do so.

    A smaller group within them are actually LTTE fronts who use humanitarianism as an excuse to raise funds, spy, transport arms and promote LTTE propaganda. This distinguishes them from the bona fide NGOs who are sometimes forced into supporting the LTTE due to LTTE sympathisers within their organisations and coersion from the LTTE to assist them in return for having access to LTTE territory.

    The NGO community in Sri Lanka refuse to acknowledge these problems. They act as if they are above the Sri Lankan law and only accountable to their foreign donors. That sort of arrogance does nothing to defuse the tension. They are in complete denial about any organisation or individual within their community having ever done any fault. Unless they take it upon themselves to convince the Sri Lankan public that the suspicions are ill founded and exaggerated, and that they are genuinely committed to helping all Sri Lankans without racial discrimination or religious bias, the situation would only get worse.

  • aiyo

    Thanks for this comment, Justmal.

    I agree with much of what you have said, though you have missed some important points. Firstly, most overseas aid to Sri lanka does not go to the North and East and has never done so. Overseas funding, usually bilateral funding, is disproportionately weighted towards the rest of the country. Before the tsunami, even Ampara, possibly the North-East District least affected by the conflict, wore a more bedraggled look than parts of the country where there is a Sinhala majority. Government budgets have continually made minimal investment in the North and East for years as well.

    As a result NGO activity has developed as a response to Government neglect. For example the Government has been able to respond speedily to people affected by the recent floods and landslides in the South and some Sinhala displacement in the Trincomalee District but finds it difficult to muster the same response to support the many more people displaced by the recent fighting in Batticaloa District.

    So international non-governmental organisations (INGOs) are drawn and encouraged to work in the neglected areas of the North and East to fulfill their international humanitarian mandate. Large parts of this part of Sri Lanka have Tamil majorities, so there is a natural tendency for INGOs to recruit mainly Tamil staff. This can be unfortunate because in the polarised society that is Sri Lanka today, those Tamil staff are going to feed their expatriate decision makers with information that accords with the Tamil point of view. Most expatriate employees are in the country for not more than two years and very often for a much shorter time. As a result, they often do not have the time or inclination to make the effort to form a more holistic view. Most Tamil staff will not be LTTE supporters, but will be even less likely to be Government supporters.

    There may have been cases of outright conscious support of the LTTE by INGOs, but it is difficult to come by much evidence to prove this. More often INGOs may have supported humanitarian issues to improve the plight of the Tamil people, while the LTTE, as the most prominent advocate for Tamils, has been advocating on the same issue. Very often INGOs may have naively been involved in speaking or acting injudiciously because of the Tamil environment in which they operate.

    I would agree that INGOs need to address this issue. Senior Sri Lankan INGO staff are not representative of the communities in which they work. Senior female Sri Lankans, Tamil or otherwise, are virtually non-existent as INGO field employees. There are some Muslim employees, but there are few INGOs who have an adequate cadre of Muslims to reflect the demographics of certain parts of the North and East. As for Sinhalese, they are even less evident in the field.

    There has been an age old myth that Sinhalese are “not allowed” (by Muslims and Tamils, presumably) to visit or work in the North and East. Probably this myth is fuelled by fears for Sinhalese safety. Hopefully it is not fuelled by guilt. While it is certainly true that now Sinhalese would be unlikely to gain permission from either the army or the LTTE to enter LTTE areas, there is no such restriction elsewhere. On any given day there are, actually, probably at least a thousand or more unarmed Sinhalese working in Batticaloa District and in other majority Tamil and Muslim areas as labourers, truck and bus drivers and sales people. They are not protected by Government arms, but move freely amongst the people, contributing to the local community. More is the pity that middle-class Sinhalese could not be encouraged to leave the comfort of the rest of the country to lend their skills to communities in the North and East as well. The few times this has been done, the effect on war battered communities, who otherwise only see Sinhalese carrying arms, has been significant in increasing the mutual understanding that will be essential to build a peaceful Sri Lanka.

    INGOs could constructively engage to mitigate the mostly scurrilous current publicity by reviewing their staffing policies both by keeping expatriates longer so they could better understand the complexities of the country and by opening up Sri Lankan positions to be more respresentative of the neglected communities in terms of gender and ethnicity.

    They can also take a lead in trying to encourage more Sinhalese to work in the North and East with Muslim and Tamil communities. This will be a more difficult task and will need co-operation generally from Sri lankan civil society. At the moment, it is hard to think of any Colombo Sri lankan NGO, with a predominantly Sinhalese management, which has full time Sinhalese employees in majority Muslim or Tamil areas of the North and East. Like the Government, they so often criticise, such NGO staff come here on short visits and return to Colombo again. At least one large project in the North and East is manged from Colombo by Sinhalese staff who have never been and have no intention of going to visit the project they manage.

    So the situation is a little more complex than JustMal states. Yes, certainly INGOs need to engage with and acknowledge the problems where they exist. In the same measure Sinhalese Government and NGO personnel need to engage too, not so much with the INGOs, but more relevantly with the people of the North and East, so INGOs can pack up their bags and go home.