Colombo, Peace and Conflict

Who is afraid of NGOs?

‘The normal types of NGOs—advocacy organizations, service delivery groups, cultural organizations and others—generally contribute to democracy, not threaten it. They do so by pushing for greater accountability and increasing citizen participation. Governments that feel threatened by NGOs are usually non-democratic governments’
Thomas Carothers

When governments have wanted to make peace with the LTTE, they have not been shy to mobilize the support of NGOs dealing with issues of peace and human rights. During the last two peace processes with the LTTE (1994-1995 and 2002 -2003) advocacy and policy related NGOs worked closely with the regimes in power to provide intellectual support to these processes. During the 1994 – 1995 talks, NGO personnel were directly involved in peace talks at the track one and track two level and were also asked to contribute to the drafting of a set of constitutional reforms. Following the Ceasefire Agreement signed in 2002, there was broad agreement between NGOs and the GOSL at the time on the need for a negotiated political solution as well as international intervention. The GOSL was able to use the expertise developed by NGOs in preparing for talks with the LTTE, and representatives from NGOs were also appointed to some of the Subcommittees established during the talks. In fact, four of the five GOSL representatives on the Subcommittee on Gender Issues (SGI) were from NGOs or associated with NGOs. The Secretariat for Coordinating the Peace Process (SCOPP), also met with NGO personnel from time to time to seek their views. Engagement with civil society, including academics, community leaders, business community and NGO representatives, was later institutionalised through the National Advisory Council for Peace and Reconciliation (NACPR) which was appointed by the President in 2004. NACPR was envisaged as a forum ‘for consultation on the peace process between the GOSL and the citizenry, mainly through their elected representatives and also through their religious leaders, as well as leaders of civil society’. For a while, it served as an important invited space for consultations and sharing of information on the peace process with NGOs.

But under this regime which is intent on pursuing a military solution to the conflict, NGOs have become villains for their advocacy of a negotiated political solution to the conflict, for challenging conventional notions of sovereignty, territorial integrity and security and for demanding accountability, the protection of human rights and an end to impunity. They are denounced as ‘traitors’, ‘unpatriotic tiger lovers’, ‘separatists’, ‘neo imperialist agents of the west’, dollar karkkas, etc, etc. This vilification is also sought to be legitimised through official ‘investigation’ of NGOs. The Parliamentary Select Committee initially appointed to investigate irregularities of tsunami funding has since November 2005 expanded its mandate to investigate peace and human rights NGOs for activities ‘that adversely affect national security’ and that ‘are inimical to the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Sri Lanka’, among other things. The recent investigation of the International Centre for Ethnic Studies gives a hint as to what will be considered a threat to national security by this committee.

Principles of democracy and good governance require the proper regulation and monitoring of NGOs. There are also legitimate questions about the accountability of NGOs. As trustee organisations whose leaders have taken it upon themselves to define and represent the interests of people who do not speak for themselves, NGOs most often don’t have a constituency and are only accountable to their donors. However, in a country where there is no political commitment to take any action on very serious and specific charges of corruption and financial mismanagement within the bureaucracy, the moral outrage over alleged wrongdoings of NGOs somehow seems slightly out of keel.

The backlash against NGOs is not a phenomenon unique to Sri Lanka. Recently, from China to Zimbabwe governments have been cracking down on NGOs for raising issues that are considered ‘sensitive’, and outside their purview. Carothers and others analyzing these trends take the view that the backlash has come from authoritarian or pseudo democratic regimes intent on holding on to power and resistant to implement substantive democratic reforms. The fact is however that since the 1990s, whether one likes it or not, for better or for worse, the ‘sovereign state’ is no longer considered to hold the monopoly on governance. Civil society and NGOs in particular have emerged as significant actors in this regard and as legitimate recipients of donor funds. This focus on NGOs has happened in the context of a widespread debate about democratic deficits both in the North and the South and threats to the legitimacy of democracy even as institutional forms and procedures of democracy appear to be spreading in the aftermath of the cold war. Those questioning the quality and substance of democracy around the world see many democracies in crisis – citizens unable to hold governments accountable for their use/abuse of power, stifling of dissent, declining patterns of political participation, huge gaps between wishes of the people and decisions made by those in power, unequal enjoyment of rights and entitlements, gross violations of basic human rights, patronage politics and corruption, continuing poverty, deprivation and intractable civil conflict.

One response by donors to this perceived crisis of democracy has been to strengthen NGOs as a link between citizens and the state for mobilising claims, for advocacy of special interests, and as a countervailing power against the state. Some analysts view the backlash against NGOs as a compliment or a sign of the coming of age of NGOs in the role as a watchdog and a force that can hold government’s accountable. For if NGOs were minor players, they would not be attracting this kind of attention or criticism nor this much of newsprint and web space in the first place. Looking at the current crisis in Sri Lanka, certainly NGOs have been almost the lone voice speaking against the abuse of power by this regime. Certain NGO interventions have made an impact on the rights and lives of ordinary people. When hundreds of Tamil people were evicted from Colombo in June 2007, it was a fundamental rights application to the Supreme Court filed by a NGO that put a stop to it.

Yet given the level of authoritarianism and intransigence of this particular regime there has been only so much that NGOs have been able to do. Marina Ottaway writing about the experience of democracy assistance to NGOs in Africa found that they played a useful role when governments were open to reform, but when their commitment to democracy was weak, what is necessary is a broad based social movement which can make the government feel sufficiently threatened from below. This is not inconsistent with the predicament of human rights and peace advocacy NGOs in Sri Lanka. Popular mobilisation that results in mass based movements happen when there is a growing feeling among ordinary people that inaction produces costs that they cannot bear and new circumstances open political space to express those emotions of frustration and outrage. But what possibility of such a movement in Sri Lanka?

Carothers, T (2007) The Democracy Dialogues: The Backlash Against NGOs

Carothers, T (2006) The Backlash Against Democracy Promotion, Foreign Affairs, March/ April 2006.

Carothers, T (1999) ‘From the Bottom Up: Civil Society’ ( Chapter 8 ) in T. Carothers, Aiding Democracy Abroad: The Learning Curve, The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Washington D.C

Ottaway, Marina and Carothers Thomas (Eds) (2000) Funding Virtue: Civil Society, Aid and Democracy Promotion, Carnegie Endowment, Washington DC

  • Mario

    Very inspiring and lucid Chulani. One of the failures of peace and human rights NGOs in SL has been their failure to engage with broader constituencies, including the media and the private sector in a sustained and effective way. This has only recently begun and NGOs will need to refine their strategies of engagement with these broader constituencies if they are to be more effective. Sadly a social movement around the conflict and human rights is unlikely to emerge in the near future. Perhaps we need to look for some other entry point like the cost of living, corruption or mismanagement of the economy, as an entry point for larger social mobilization (which should also include issues of power sharing and human rights)

  • It is true that the ground realities are not very feasible for a social movement at the present, and as Mario states a more realistic entry point maybe the economical issues that are equally responsible towards the disintegration of Sri Lanka and its society. Nevertheless, it is important to begin processes that will eventually give birth to a strong social movement. For this to take off, there needs to be a strong consensus amongst civil society organisations, which unfortunately might prove to be an obstacle, given the divide that is prevalent amongst these organisations. We need to find means of bridging this divide and working towards stimulating a proactive social movement. It is also imperative that the donor community makes this an essential aspect of their operational plans which might help towards bridging this divide.

  • Malinda Seneviratne

    Ok, the argument is, ‘NGOs may be bad, but Government is bad too, so Government has no moral authority to take NGOs to task’. This is debatable. It implies that since there is corruption and financial mismanagement, all manner of criminality is ok. Forget Government, don’t ordinary people have the right to question NGOs? Would the author name those NGOs that collectively constitute the ‘lone voice against abuse of power’? Name them and perhaps someone will prove why they are called villains, or naïve to the max. And by the way, Chulani, could you tell me where North ends and South begins, metaphorically or literally and jot down justification(s) for the demarcation?

  • Economist

    There is a world of difference between democracy and liberty. In our traditional history we had some of the trappings of democratic decision-making in the Buddhist Sangha. But we never had liberty. It was so in the West as well. Democracy followed liberty in the West. In both Britain and America there was considerable liberty in the 18th 19th century. But there was no democracy. Democracy followed liberty. It was liberty that made democracy possible. In 56 SWRD was able to usher in democracy in the sense of participation of the masses in deciding the government of the day because there was liberty for SWRD to proclaim his political creed of populism and Sinhala Buddhist nationalism. It was so from the dawn of democracy in Periclean Athens. Democracy gives rise to populism and demagogues arise who hoodwink the masses with their rhetoric of hatred on class, creed or other division in society. We have no hope unless we can maintain liberty which has been undermined in the name of patriotism. Just as love of a person cannot exclude love of humanity so patriotism cannot exclude humanity or promote hatred against others branding them as the enemy.

  • Malinda Seneviratne

    Chulani is correct. It is only natural for Governments that believe it’s possible to make peace with the LTTE to mobilize the support of NGOs who also believe the same thing. Like-minded people club together. By the same token, a Government that does not believe that such a ‘partnership’ with the LTTE is possible or realistic in the matter of obtaining a lasting peace would naturally view with suspicion these very same NGOs. The Chandrika regime and the Wickremesinghe regime may have loved the NGOs, glossed over their many flaws or been absolutely ignorant of them; this does not mean that this government or any other should follow suit. Let us not forget that some of the charges leveled at NGOs are valid.

    As for a ‘negotiated’ political settlement, the LTTE is simply not interested. They quit peace talks during those happy CFA days when the NGOs were ‘in’ and not ‘out’.

  • Malinda Seneviratne

    Are there any ‘normal type of NGOs’ a la Carothers in Sri Lanka? If so, can someone name them?

  • sham

    if the NGo are so pure, why dont they produce audited accounts , why not disclose where they get the funds from, what the expenditure are like, how much expact salaries.
    cos transparancy begins at home. monitor the monitors.

  • Oh for another dose of NGO bashing!

    The biggest shortcoming as a society is our ability to go overboard in our criticisms while usually failing to provide constructive suggestions on whatever that we are criticising. Needless to say civil society organisations a.k.a NGOs do have a lot of shortcomings, but most of these shortcomings are based on donor driven agendas. Unfortunately for an NGO to function, its overheads and project expenses must be taken care of. Furthermore, in terms of operational obstacles, one of the major issues NGOs face is the brain drain from local NGOs to INGOs. INGOs like the UN organisations attract human resources through monetary coercion. So the struggle to retain staffing for local organisations is immense. Nevertheless, all NGOs must have their accounts audited yearly and any NGO that doesn’t comply cannot be considered an NGO and necessary steps must be taken to pull them up. Also, there are some politically biased NGO’s like Foundation of Co-existence who really do not know what the hell they are doing, and a look into their salary structures will send you reeling.

    We should stop conveniently grouping everyone together when we criticise. We need to acknowledge the fact that there are many NGOs who are doing their utmost to make a difference despite shortcomings, both internally as well as externally. Furthermore, the people who openly criticise will not compromise in terms of their careers and are responsible for making a business out of this.

    One of the major shortcomings of civil society activism is the lack of new blood and the over dependence on a few key actors, thereby creating a stagnation in terms of new thought and progressiveness. The fault here lies not only in the lack of initiative in the part of these ‘established key actors’ but also in our current generation of youth. Today everything is about making money and there is a sad lack of passion and drive.

    We as citizens need to UTILISE civil society organisations to take up our causes in a proactive manner, instead of uttering empty and bland accusations which really result in nothing progressive.