Disaster Management, Human Security, IDPs and Refugees, Peace and Conflict, Post-War, Vavuniya

Sri Lanka: The best humanitarian crisis business destination

It will not be long before areas in the north and east will be declared Industrial Zones or BOI areas, opening up opportunities for development. But wait; business is already going on there at full swing! The world’s best Humanitarian niche markets are now available in Sri Lanka and people are rushing in to supply the demand. Of course business could be done both ethically and otherwise. So let us take up the current humanitarian business market.

However before I start, one must note the emails and the stories which are also rampant in the society today generalizing and criticizing humanitarian operations. While most of these stories are flights of fancy, this article is not meant to add fuel to that fire, but to present a scathing view of some of the organizations. I must acknowledge that there are few humanitarian agencies that are doing excellent work in different sectors in Sri Lanka. These are probably the organizations that work in silence and maybe break the silence to outline the actual bad practices present. They will probably be penalized for highlighting the true state of operations, although you can visit the actual field and see the good work done by them. So I reiterate that the object of this article is only to critique some of the organizations, which are mostly hot air and nothing more.

Now these organizations that are out to make a buck on the humanitarian ‘market’ have some of the best marketing apparatus around. And their purpose is to take the plight of a few, polish it up and present it to generous donors in such a way that the money flows into their coffers. Hence the need to make the headlines and have photo-shooting sessions with flags flying high. And this gets them a hefty donation, and a pat on the back from the government for the positive propaganda. Everyone except the beneficiary is happy. Possibly the victims end up worse off with all concerns lulled by this type of coverage.

Like all big organizations whose main concern is to stay in business, the United Nations and other powerful NGOs showed the hypocrisy and the bureaucratic bungling, during the conflict.

When the government demanded that all humanitarian agencies withdraw from the war zone in September 2008, the UN led the charge by packing up what they could and abandoning everything else immediately. True business logic was shown in cutting losses, abandoning 300,000 civilians and any of their own employees who could not come out. Although with all the leverage and experience under the belt of these organizations they could very well have worked out something better, it must have been more profitable to leave this way, creating a bigger market for later exploitation. Of course valid justification is found, but justification does not make a right wrong. The humanitarian agencies were not there when it mattered. Humanitarian agencies, being the only remaining witness to the war and the only strength, help and neutral voice of the civilians left the war victims when they were needed most. They failed to help the suffering civilians, which makes the entire concept of humanitarian assistance and care void, the worst being that the UN allowed it.

But this kind of negative exposure would be bad for business, so just to keep up appearances there was wide publicity given to the few bungled attempts made. With civilians trapped inside “safe-zones” for more than five months, the ‘humanitarian’ champions of the world were shedding crocodile tears, sending their aid and sending representatives to Colombo to talk. Nothing of course came about, and the UN and the International Community failed to stop or pause or slow down the political/military agendas of both sides. As a result a lot of casualties were reported, and forgotten as they were just statistics on a page. Even now these statistics remain as just that and justice which should have been dealt out according to humanitarian principles is blocked because of these organizations being silent or quoting standards and showing the status quo as acceptable.

This article is seemingly a rant at the effective models of humanitarian operations, and some of us would discard it as non-sense, but what it highlights is the roots of humanitarian work, that have got choked over the years. While lofty aims and goals and the moral principles of societies were the starting point of seeing the value of a single human-being, and compassion to help all the suffering that takes place in the world, we must think whether the current organizations follow these goals. While many organizations have become very effective in reaching the statistics and standards, they lack the most important thing. A person working in the humanitarian field must have certain skills and competencies, but most importantly a heart for the work, for the victims and compassion. The world is full of people who are kind to financially support work for fellow human beings, but this means the humanitarian field will always be a place where money flows in. Where money flows it will attract both types of people; those who will work for money, and those with the heart for the work. More and more of the former type have now flooded in and are making decisions that only attract more of the same type. The most highly paid positions, where decisions are made are now in the hands of grossly overpaid expatriates, whose humanitarian work is mostly about traveling in luxury vehicles, having luxurious lifestyles and conducting seminars about poverty and displacement in the best hotels money can buy. Hence, humanitarian work is now a very lucrative business.

So in true business fashion, all organizations are subject to external political-social forces. Working in humanitarian work requires engaging the political regimes, and to keep the business going they have to meet the expectations of the regimes. Organizations which were meant to serve the victims, and engage in reform of systems are doing the exact opposite. They are aligning themselves with those systems (turning a threat into opportunity), and using them to let the market of victims grow. For example, comparing the current IDP camps in Sri Lanka to African camps and being satisfied is NOT the answer. This goes to show that this mentality is what would have allowed the camps in Africa to go on for so long. Standards are meant to be maintained during times of crisis, and afterwards standards are discarded to bring about normalcy.

Comparing the current camp situation to some other situation and calling it satisfactory is a major farce and hypocrisy of the United Nations. This failed organization has shown its true colors over and over again, in both the international arena and the local theatre. Malnutrition of 3% is acceptable according to UN standards?! But in humanitarian terms malnutrition of even 1 person is un-acceptable. To be satisfied now, is to say that we are forgetting who sent the people into camps, who is keeping them there, who is not providing for them, and why. Is it not simple reason or logic that malnutrition is there, is an indicator that the government did not provide sufficient supplies during the war, or that the UN did not properly monitor the whole situation? Of course asking such questions is bad for business. But that is what is needed and that is what is not done.

The humanitarian mandate has been swept under the rug by deals done with those in power over casual cocktails and dinner parties. Sri Lanka being a beautiful country with many resources and facilities along with a ‘humanitarian market’ is the best destination for business. How satisfied these businessmen are, they have lined their pockets and they have barely saved 97% of a displaced population. Why antagonize a regime that allows such good business to go on.

However injustice in any form is un-acceptable, un-justifiable and these are the reasons why humanitarian work came into being, but now enslaved by money. Shameful and shocking humanitarian hypocrisy, exploitation of suffering; and aggrandizing themselves pushing their own agendas… Who will confront the victimizers? Where is Humanitarian Justice?