Bell Pottinger and Sri Lanka: Millions spent for what?

Bell Pottinger hired Qorvis Communications as a subcontractor for its work with the government of Sri Lanka, starting December 1, according to a filing with the US Department of Justice. Qorvis is providing media relations and monitoring, crisis communications planning, and stakeholder representation in the US. The budget is approximately $483,000.

Though freely available on the web since January this year, this information to the best of our knowledge has not been prominently featured or robustly questioned in mainstream media to date.

Bell Pottinger is one of the UK’s largest public relations firms, spin doctors par excellence for those who can afford them, including amongst many others, the Government of Iran, members of the government of Saudi Arabia and in the past, General Augusto Pinochet. The British oil company Trafigura was also a key client, yet despite this was named and shamed in the media for uncontrolled dumping of hundreds of tonnes of highly toxic oil waste around Abidjan, the capital of Ivory Coast, in August 2006. Though contested, there are media reports that suggest Bell Pottinger is also involved in lobbying the EU on behalf of the Sri Lankan government, perhaps primarily on the issue of the GSP+ extension.

As the news report above indicates, they do not come cheap. The sum of $483,000 noted in this report is for a sub-contract, and comes to around 55 million rupees today. Details of the original contract awarded by our government to Bell Pottinger remain undisclosed, and involve expenses probably much higher than this figure.

Can Sri Lanka spare this money? How was the process of selecting and awarding the tender to Bell Pottinger arrived at? Who was involved? Given that these are public expenses, have they been tabled in Parliament to date? If not, why not?

This is not the first President or government Bell Pottinger has served. In 2001, the media reported very serious differences of opinion between the late Lakshman Kadirgamar, then serving as Sri Lanka’s Foreign Minister, and President Chandrika Kumaratunge over Bell Pottinger’s involvement in planning an official, three day visit to England. As the Sunday Times reports in December 2001, the contract at the time made individuals working at or associated with Bell Pottinger quite rich. The exact sum of money involved is not clear. In November 2001, the Sunday Leader reported that the contract awarded to Bell Pottinger totalled 97 million rupees. A month later, the Sunday Times reported a figure of 290,581.73 Sterling Pounds or Rs. 39,228,533.35 at the time.

Whereas on the books of Bell Pottinger these may be relatively small sums of money, these are huge sums of public finances spent under successive governments, with little or no accountability and transparency. Though individuals, both in Sri Lanka and in England, have clearly benefitted from these outrageous contracts, the country today is subject to a global scrutiny influenced by factors that as Foreign Policy noted recently, cannot be swept under the rug.

As the Sunday Times noted in February 2010 noting that Sri Lanka’s foreign policy was not outsourced to public relations companies,

The conduct of Sri Lanka’s foreign policy nowadays is more expensive. Not only are the diplomats posted abroad for this purpose having to be paid for. There are other newcomers too. That is in the form of public relations companies.

One such company, Patton Boggs, made its debut in the United States. Some of its staff not only sat through conferences at the Sri Lanka Embassy in the US, but did most of the public relations, lobbying and legal work. Of course, the company collected a neat packet in dollars.

There is now an addition in Britain. They have hired Bell Pottinger. It went to work this week marketing President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s address to the nation at Thursday’s Independence Day ceremonies in Kandy. The company will now collect a packet in Pounds Sterling.

The question is, do voters care enough to hold government accountable?

  • Jit

    The benefits of using foreign professional PR companies to boost Sri Lanka’s image have not been evaluated. Judging by the adverse news reports that have been appearing regularly at least over the past two years, one wonders whether it has had any effect at all, except perhaps enrich the PR companies and their local agents.

    Sri Lanka has enough talent with the requisite knowledge to undertake such assignments. The preference though has been to entrust such assignments to foreign entities.

    It would be interesting to see whether there would be a change after the April 8 General Election and whether it would be better or worse.

  • Dilkusha

    What an expose! Truly truth is stranger than fiction. Do hope the local newspapers sinhala, tamil and english unite together with broadcast media to keep the Sri Lankan public informed. Successive governments defrauding the public without batting an eyelid ! Appreciate very much this new revelation of how public funds are being spent….people need to be aware.

  • http://magerata.wordpress.com magerata

    What do you expect? to give all the work coming from abroad to your NGO lackeys? Some work require talent and capability, you know.
    In either case If people like Sarath Fonseka , David Miliband, did not tarnish the name of Sri Lanka with lies, there is no need for lobbying to clear our name.
    Even though you do not need, the whole country benefits from GSP+.
    Since you are calculating, why don’t you add up the value of GSP+ for, say a year. Running a country is much bigger than handling and running your puny little organization. Have another puff of what ever you are smoking and go to sleep, you will wake up to a brighter Sri Lanka.

  • Observer

    As a voter I am happy that SL is taking this initiative!

    Sri Lanka was named no 1 destination by Time.
    No 2. island by NatGeo – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-uFsPS2gPhE

    The bad press we’re getting thanks to LTTE propaganda, this is all worth it.

  • davidson panabokke

    Asking for justice is LTTE propoganda !!!!

  • davidson panabokke

    Can you please list David Miliband’s lies so that I can send them to the British High Commissioner?

  • davidson panabokke

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pzGj2hYoymo&feature=youtube_gdata

    The President does not know that IDPs are detained in Vavuniya camps !!!!

    David Miliband weves stories of camps? Let’s have a demonstration in front of British High Commission.

  • Vino Gamage

    http://edition.cnn.com/2010/WORLD/asiapcf/03/12/sri.lanka.war.survivor/index.html?section=cnn_latest

    I am longing for the day when Sri Lanka will be different from another Theravada Buddhist country, Myanmar.

  • Sony

    If true, then this is a very good move by the SL government. Lobbyists rule the Western parliaments. They should hire a reputed lobbyist for USA as well.

  • Groundtruth

    Good wine needs no advertisement. But very soured wine does! Are these contracts and accounts checked by the Auditor General at all. it is after all taxpayer’s money, not any government’s hidden private finance.

  • 2nd Southerner

    If you don’t want the country to succeed, retain jobs, apparel industry to save
    $ 100 mil a year…simply stop paying your taxes if you feel your are
    being ripped off.

    I mean do we really know who is funding the lobbying? Are you sure its
    the tax payers money? Are you sure its not the industry/apparel makers
    like MAS/Victoria Secret paying the SL gov to lobby for the GSP+?

    I do hope the writer knows that LTTE is spending millions of $$
    lobbying the EU not to continue the GSP+.

  • Heshan

    “I do hope the writer knows that LTTE is spending millions of $$
    lobbying the EU not to continue the GSP+.”

    And your proof for the above assertion is? Daily News (Noise)?

  • 2nd Southerner

    Heshan here…http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bLg1986AL_Y

    you can always google :) …simple as that.

  • 2nd Southerner
  • niranjan

    margerata,

    The name of Sri Lanka has been tarnished by all governments that ran this country. This one is the worst with all its lies. So before you blame the NGO’s and the west have a look at what the Government is doing. We must first put our house in order.

  • balloon

    Interesting that Rajapaksa and his govt need Bell Pottinger, one of the few PR companies which are prepared to work for the worst dictators in the world; Omar Bongo, Robert Mugabe, General Sani Abacha, Augusto Pinochet…… watch out Sri Lanka or Rajapaksa will join this illustrious gang in more ways than one

  • http://www.groundviews.org Groundviews

    Does this picture make you think of Rwanda? by the Guardian also underscores a number of the concerns flagged in this article. See http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/2010/aug/03/london-pr-rwanda-saudi-arabia

  • Observer

    oh that’s right.. only western political parties are allowed to acquire services of PR firms right? i guess during the US/UK elections, none of the political parties engaged services of PR firms. hmmm…

    when sri lanka is bashed by secessionists, we all hurt, our businesses, tourism, exports, etc. i say hold that retainer!

  • Against Fraud

    Apart from unseemly language, Groundviews’ moderator should edit out the idiocies uttered by the xenophobic Rajapakistanis so the rest of us don’t have the excruciating pain of having to read them. PLEASE?!

    • Nithyananthan

      It’s a sensible appeal. Hope that GV will consider and evaluate in favour of the suggestion to formulate some sort of mechanism to relieve the readers from such chronic pain, please! Thanks Nithy!