Colombo, Corruption, Economy, Politics and Governance

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?