Colombo, Human Rights, Jaffna, Peace and Conflict, Politics and Governance, Vavuniya

Ape Lankawe: The Great NGO Pantomime!

For anyone concerned with the plight of innocent civilians, the reports from the North are depressing. The latest ‘avalanche (!?) is yet to be fully screened, searched, scrubbed and bleached for any LTTE connections and corralled into what the Government calls ‘welfare centers’. As to what awaits these men, women and children, thereafter and for how long is not clear at this point in time. But every one agrees that it is going to be a tough and miserable time for them.

As usual, despite knowing that there is going to be a large number of people displaced, in fact demanding such a displacement for a long time, the Government is woefully and recklessly underprepared to receive and take care of its most vulnerable citizens. And as usual, a bulk of the emergency responsibility by default will fall on the assortment of humanitarian agencies including the UN, ICRC and the NGOs – who are only slightly better prepared than the Government to respond. The Government has no compunction in shamelessly soliciting their support while also carrying out a vitriolic anti-NGO campaign simultaneously. The NGOs in turn are ever eager to be coaxed, coerced or co opted in to this by the Government under the infinitely malleable pretext of ‘humanitarian imperative’.

The humanitarian agencies, then, will muddle through as the ‘avalanche’ gets registered and tagged and becomes ‘IDP case loads’ and moves through the schools, emergency camps, transit camps, welfare villages and eventually gets resettled in their original places or relocated when and where the Government wants them. They will work themselves up into ‘clusters’ and deal with WASH (water, sanitation and hygiene that is), shelter, food etc. They will make occasional noises about protection and international norms. The bold ones would even talk a bit about the ‘rights’ of the IDPs. But all of them by and large would meekly stick to what the Government wants them to say and do about their respective IDP case loads and begin to settle down to their roles.
Of course some would suspect even this to be some kind of a grand design and write about it as ‘The Great NGO Game’. To me it seems more like a ‘Great NGO pantomime’ that is played out during every crisis season. Why do I say that? Take for instance the way the Humanitarian actors including the NGOs have been responding to the plight of the civilians who had come out in the last couple of months. Let us consider the shelter response in particular.

ACT 1. Everyone knows that the displaced families are going to be kept quarantined around Vavuniya for a long period, certainly longer than three months. But the agencies have specifically agreed among themselves to build temporary shelters that would NOT last that long and will only be good for less than three months. Reports indicate that each shelter is an unlivable structure measuring roughly 10 feet by 10 feet in floor area with the height ranging from 6-7 feet, made up of wooden framework, tarpaulin/plastic sheets and flimsy cladding on the sides.  They don’t meet up even to the minimum standard that agencies have set for themselves. Some of these are constructed in Government identified sites that are not suitable for such settlements.

Given the bad weather conditions experienced recently even the local workers are embarrassed at constructing these ‘design’ shelters. They were apparently ‘designed’ and approved by the shelter ‘cluster’ filled with expat experts, who obviously will not last even a few hours inside these structures. During day time the interior of the shelter heats up and the families are seen seeking ‘shelter’ outside these structures. They are told to be grateful for getting something better than what some of the displaced in Africa get!

But why are the NGOs doing this? Their central defense runs some thing along the following lines: They are ‘holding out’ to influence the Government to change its principles in treating the displaced – To make these as proper welfare centers and not remain detention centers, to ensure neutral international presence in places where the fleeing civilians are screened, to ensure that there is freedom of movement for IDPs, to obtain unhindered access to the displaced families by humanitarian agencies, to get the camps to be arms free zone under civilian control, to get government commitment and a road map about speedy and dignified resettlement. Some arguments have even stretched it to include the ‘no fire zone’ claiming that the holding out in Vavuniya is saving lives in the ‘safe zone’ by exerting pressure and sending a message to the Government!

ACT 2: But their grandstanding not withstanding the events obviously don’t progress according to their plans. Two months since the work began, the camps still remain as detention centers restraining movement of civilians, the main screening centers are still out of site, humanitarian access is restricted at different levels and places; there is still an armed presence in camps with stories of harassment seeping out and no further commitments by the Government regarding resettlement plans. What comes next is the harlequinade. It is messy. The NGOs get very busy competing among each other to churn out these ‘design’ shelters. The operations and daily output targets take a life of their own while the stated principles of operations fade into the back ground. You can count on UNHCR at this point to ensure that there is a blurry space between accepted international standards and the leeway that one needs to give a Government fighting a war and keep every one guessing as to what the applicable minimum standards are. The NGOs are on an irreversible course and are neck deep in it with hardly any leverage over anything. The Government at every level knows it and has them just where it wants them to be. It is aware that even without making any further concessions they will still get the support of the NGOs and as a result have hardly any incentive to reform.

The situation considering a logical progression of events is a no-win situation as far as the ‘stated principles’ are concerned (but of course is an avenue to keep the projects and perks in these NGOs going). If at all the Government was going to change it has to be due to some other reasons and certainly not because of the ‘holding out’ threat by the NGOs which every one knows will not be carried out. The ‘principal boys’ and the ‘pantomime dames’ of course are still seen gloating about their bold (and heroic?) stance.

ACT 3: The NGOs realize that they may have to publicly revise their original stance and continue to provide support beyond the three month ultimatum. But what they don’t realize is that they have no other alternative.  They have cornered themselves into the position, hoisted by one’s own petard – as usual by gross miscalculation of the political/military dynamics, lack of strategic thinking as well as by continuing to remain fragmented. For every NGO willing to uphold the principles, there are two more that are willing to look for an easy excuse to make the compromise and break ranks. To wriggle out there will be a contortion interlude. With a bit of willing help from UNHCR there will be an effort at creating benchmarks and score cards which will selectively interpret the international standards and guidelines on IDPs so that the Government can show some ‘progress’ and ‘improvement’. This then is used to justify the continuation as well as to pat each others on advocacy work well done.

With that done, they can start the next project – to upgrade the ‘temporary transit’ structures into more durable transit structures at high cost much higher than what would have cost them to have done it right in the first place, but without getting any movement from the government on adhering to ‘international standards’.

Surely it need not have panned out this way. The Government’s scant regard for the plight of Tamil civilians in Vanni is legendary and their stubbornness in pursuing the military objective at the expense of every thing else is a given. But the NGOs could have been more realistic in their estimations and scenario planning and not have under-estimated the sophistication of the government to out maneuver them yet again. Most importantly they should have defined the applicable minimum conditions in line with the international standards and taken a unified public stand and continued with it persistently. While it may not have necessarily changed Government behavior, it would have put a greater onus on the Government to explain and improve.

With the massive influx of about 100,000 civilians over the last week the humanitarian community gets another chance. Given the diminishing weight of the military imperative and the dependence of the Government on external assistance (as usual) to respond to the crisis it gives an opportunity to ensure that every man, women and children who are displaced are able to realize their rights enshrined in the Sri Lankan constitution and International covenants. Will the NGOs clean up their act and rise up to the challenge? Unlike the pantomime it would be a tragedy if they don’t.

Pantomime is a musical-comedy theatrical production usually performed during the Christmas and New Year season in some of the western countries from which some of the NGOs of the world come from.

Harlequinade, is a free-standing entertainment of slapstick. It is a part of the Pantomime and is incorporated in the main body or at the end of the show.