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