Colombo, Peace and Conflict

The Rise of “Peace” Professionals in Sri Lanka: Rent-Seeking in the Peace Sector

Writing on the political economy of war, David Keen has written the following words: “[T]he study of war has been characterized by a kind of mental block.  Sometimes war appears as a kind of ‘black box’, an important phenomenon which we somehow think that we understand but avoid analyzing in any detail.”  I think this is also true of the political economy of peace.  The failure of peace attempts is commonly attributed to lack of capacity, volition and mutual trust of the main protagonists of the conflict.  Of course, those factors are crucial for the success of the peace process.  However, a little attention has been paid to an issue that is of great importence in making peace effort difficult in achieving anticipated goals.  When peace effort has become a rent-seeking operation of multiple parties involved in the process, peace efforts may be not only ineffective, but also counter-productive.  Rent seeking generally implies the extraction of uncompensated value from others without making any contribution to productivity.

With the signing of the Ceasefire Agreement (CFA) by the Government of Sri Lanka (GoSL) and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in February 2002, a new phase of peace-building has begun and one of the novel features of this phase has been the rise of a new class of professionals in the Sri Lankan peace sector.  It would be an interesting exercise to examine the role of these “peace professionals” and what new elements they have brought into the civil society peace efforts.  This new phase is significantly different from the early phase of the Sri Lankan peace movement partly because of the intervention of this new breed of “peace makers”.  If I recollect my memories about the early phase of the Sri Lankan peace movement, people who were engaged in the movement were those who had been active in other forms social movements such as the trade union movement, civil rights and democratic movement.  Many of them had sympathies with the traditional left politics in the country.  The prominent peace activists at that time like Fr Paul Casperz, Prince Rajasooriya, Bala Thampo, Dr Kumar David, Rajan Phillips, and Fr Yohan Devananda, just to name few, were either one way or the other associated or linked with those value-based social movements.  This proposition was also true to the second and third tier activists in the early phase.  In this sense, they were peace activists and not peace professionals.  However, things have dramatically changed with the advent of the new peace process in 2002.  In this article, I argue that the peace activists have been gradually replaced by a new breed of peace professionals.  I would also argue that this metamorphosis generated detrimental effects on civil society peace-building activities.  Of course, I do not posit that this has happened suddenly, some symptoms of change were visible even before 2002.  However, the dominance of peace professionals in the Sri Lankan peace sector happened definitely after 2002.  What factors contributed to this change?  Why has this change generated negative effects?  Does this change contribute to make peace activism unpopular and ineffective?  These are some of the issues that I intend to pose and discuss in this article.

At the initial phase that began in the late 1970s and ended in the late 1980s or the early 1990s, many peace activities were supported by the trade unions and the church (through the church some foreign assistance was given).  The head office of the Movement for Inter-Racial Justice and Equality (MIRJE) was set up at the space given by the Plantation Staff Union.  Satyodaya, Kandy provided most of the funds for the day to day activities.  When peace NGOs began to depend more and more on foreign donors for funds, the organizations had to change their informal and somewhat anarchist practices and to adopt formal management practices.  Even in this second phase (from the early 1990s to 2001), these formal activities were confined to the preparation of reports, accounts and finances.  The operational side continued to be under the direction of peace activists and formal activities like the preparation of accounts and finances were subordinated to operations.  Another development took place during this period due to the change in the world situation.  The influence of the left in Sri Lankan political sphere began to fade away and new democratic and liberal ideas started to dominate to radical and democratic thinking in the country.  New organizations were set up during this time funded by foreign donors, but those organizations were led by the people who subscribed specific normative liberal values.  The prominent examples are: Dr Neelan Thiruchelvam took the leadership in establishing International Center for Ethnic Studies (ICES); Dr Pakyasothy Saravanamuttu initiated the setting up of the Center for Policy Alternatives (CPA).  Although a greater degree of professionalism was introduced into the running of these organizations, all activities were directed by the liberal normative considerations.  So when I talk about a new breed of peace professionals, I do not mean these small church like organizations with their philosophies and values.  Professionalism adopted by the movement activists guided by certain principles were qualitatively different from the organizations totally directed and led by professionals who do not have a particular allegiances or affinities to such principles.

After 2002, so much money was injected to the Sri Lankan peace sector by foreign donors and new peace INGOs began operations in Colombo.  These foreign funds have become an attraction for rent-seeking professionals (foreign aid has become a “lootable” asset in Sri Lanka) whose principal aim and objectives are not making a contribution to peace or democratic rights activities, but to grab a substantial portion of foreign funds for themselves.  Two principal and defining characteristics of these new breed may be identified.  First, they were recruited not after their continuous and long participation in relevant activities (the full-timers of MIRJE worked without a payment for long time) or their attraction to normative principles (new young recruits of the ICES and CPA) but either by public advertisements or through contacts.  In this sense, they were not either tested by their activities or by their ideological commitment.  Secondly, the members of this new breed move easily from one organization to another when more attractive financial and other benefits are offered.

It is interesting to see whether these new breed have brought in with them a new kind of peace professionalism into the Sri Lankan peace sector in order to generate more effective and efficient program implementation.  The first thing that any careful analysts would observe is that these new breed of “peace professionals” are not in true sense professionals as they do not possess any specific training and experience in conflict resolution and peace-building.  Of course they are quite smart people.  They were able to get the advantage in rent-seeking operation partly because of the nature of the 2002 peace process.  One of the criticisms about the 2002- 2005 peace process is that it was a primarily an elite operation.  As a result, new peace process called for more and more English speaking people.  Hence, the near monopolistic capacity to work in English has become the primary condition of rent-seeking.  Man international NGOs entered the field and they preferred employ this new group partly because they were more controllable.  The high-cost peace programs managed by these professionals did not produce significant results.  Secondly, peace movement and peace activities have been subjected to disrepute in the last 5- 7 years as many began to see it as a rent-seeking operation.  In the first two phases, although many Sinhala extremists groups were critical of peace activities, they did not criticize the people who were engaged in peace work for lack of commitment, intention of self gain or corruption.  Even the government sponsored “sudu nelum” movement in the mid 1990s was criticized on many grounds but not on the basis of rent-seeking.  In the last five years, however, many peace organizations were criticized for corrupt and rent-seeking practices.  Thirdly, the entrance of new professionals and their dominance in peace work has had corruptive impact on the committed people who have been working for long time as they also sought similar benefits.  (I stress this third point also as a self-criticism because not only it affected me personally but also many people who have been active in the peace movement since the start of the violent ethno-political conflict.)

Email address: sumane_l [at] yahoo [dot] com