Who needs political NGOs? What have they achieved?
H. L. D. Mahindapala
Our political pundits, black-coated coconut-crackos at Hulftsdorp, NGOs, academics, media commentators and frustrated politicos hanging around in the opposition benches for decades, waiting to overthrow elected governments, have been announcing the death of Lady Democracy in Sri Lanka so many times and written so many obituary notices that the living can be excused for wondering why she has not been given a decent burial once and for all. One of the earliest instances of her death was announced by my colleague in The Observer, Gamini Windsor, who ran an ad in the Daily News in the seventies announcing “the death of D. E. M. O’cracy” for which he was sacked by Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike’s government which had taken over Lake House. Dr. N. M. Perera, a constitutional authority, moaned the death of democracy when J. R. Jayewardene replaced the Westminster model with the De Gaulllist presidential system. Various anti-establishment groups have on numerous occasions held post-mortems each time a bit of new legislation, or changes to old institutions, or abolition of existing ones, or appointments to strategic positions etcetera, etcetera occurred and delivered death certificates to confirm that Lady Democracy died under tragic circumstances.
But as far as I know she has stubbornly refused to die. She keeps bouncing back teaching Lazarus a thing or two about rising from the dead. The latest undertakers of Lady Democracy are the worthies in the Friday Forum (FF). They are moaning publicly that rigor mortis has set in the body of Lady Democracy after the Ministry of Defence stabbed her with a paper circular limiting the questionable conduct of NGOs pursuing foreign-funded agendas. They argue that curtailing the activities of the NGOs would kill democracy forever and a day..
There are 1421 NGOs registered with the NGO Secretariat. But this is merely the tip of the iceberg. Nira Wickremasinghe, the historian, wrote: “The actual number of NGOs cannot be determined with certainty because of the lack of available documentation and the difficulty in assessing small grassroots organisations. A recent article suggested the figure of 20,000 while a 1993 government report estimated that about 25-30,000 grassroots organizations were operating in Sri Lanka. USAID’s even higher estimate of 50,000 NGOs and CBOs (community based organizations) in Sri Lanka seems a little exaggerated.” (p.326 – Sri Lanka in the Modern Age, 2006, Vijitha Yapa.)
Of these only the “soft power agents” of foreign governments are politically active. The irony is that they refer to themselves as non-governmental organizations (NGOs) when they are, for all intents and purposes, working for foreign governments. They are also classified as non-profit organisations. But those running these foreign-funded NGOs thrive on huge profits which they channel into their private bank accounts – accounts which maintain a luxury life style not available to their counterparts in civil society who have done more meritorious work for the victims of oppressive regimes, wars. famines, droughts etc. They are focused on themes of democracy, rule of law, transparency, pluralism, accountability, justice, equality, minority rights, majoritarianism, good governance, conflict resolution, and other politically sensitive issues which come under the broad cover of human rights that never fail to bring them a fast buck or two.
They can be classified as chrematastic parasites living on the misery of the people of the developing world. They are in reality extensions of the foreign offices of the Western governments who use them as cheap labour to do their dirty work, particularly in destabilizing nations that tend to pursue their own independent programmes. The hired agents in NGO disguise the neo-colonial agenda assigned to them under contracts as “research”, “advocacy”, “public discourses” and other fancy names – most of which are used by the Western paymasters to pursue their political objectives. The funding they receive from foreign paymasters obliges them to produce “research” that would satisfy their paymasters and not to fulfill the dire needs of the people who are targeted as subjects of their research. The NGOs are accountable only to their paymasters and not to the people
When they are asked to explain their achievements or contributions to society they cry foul arguing that they should not be touched as they serve the higher causes of humanity unlike the lesser mortals. Their exclusiveness was defined by FF when it stated: “We must remember that NGOs are voluntary associations of people for purposes that they define for themselves.” First, the phrase “voluntary association of people” is used to imply that NGOs consist of some highly moral representatives of humanity acting as benevolent guardians/servants of the people. But NGOs are not the Good Samaritans who are sacrificing their lives and time to do voluntary work, without any payment, for the welfare of the people when they are trapped in man-made disaster like, for instance, the longest war in Asia. The reality is that they are self-appointed businessmen who are running registered business enterprises, aimed primarily at exploiting the misery of the Sri Lankans with no substantial gains to the victims of the various circumstances in which they find themselves. NGOs constitute the biggest growth industry where there are ample opportunities to rake in millions (dollars) for those who know how to play the lucrative human rights trade.
Second, the phrase that NGOs have set themselves up “for purposes that they define for themselves” is such an open-ended statement that it can even mean the freedom of the wild ass. On this basis even a group of mudalalis can form a registered company to rake in money from abroad “for purposes that they define for themselves”. For instance, isn’t Kudu” Naufer and his gang also a voluntary association of peoples established for purposes that they had defined for themselves?
The difference is that NGOs define themselves in lofty language to cover up their hidden political agendas. When these unelected, unrepresentative agents move decisively to intervene politically in the domestic affairs of the nation, mainly in the service of their Western paymasters, they would hide their politics in high-sounding phrases which claim, inter alia, that they are “committed to programmes of research and advocacy through which public policy is critiqued, alternatives identified and disseminated.” (the mission statement of Centre for Policy Alternative (CPA) outlined in a foreign-funded publication (Friedrich Naumann Stiftung), titled The Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution – Substance and Process).
Based on this pronouncements it is fair to ask: What research did they conduct on Prabhakaran’s regime in the Vanni? What were their findings? What public policy of Prabhakaran was critiqued? And what results were achieved? What advocacy programmes did they conduct to provide alternatives to Prabhakaran? What is the alternative to Prabhakaran that they identified? To begin with did the CPA propose an alternative to Prabhakaran?
Another way of testing their contribution is to press them to reveal how their “research” helped the peace process. But this probably would rouse the wrath of FF. They would probably rush to their defence and declare that the NGOs are there “for purposes that they define themselves” arbitrarily and accountability is not one of them. Holding them responsible for their actions is not an infringement of their freedoms. If consequences flow form their actions which harm the society in which they operate then they too are liable. Like all other organisations they too should be regulated to prevent the harmful e consequences of their actions. Besides, accountability and transparency are fundamental factors that should guide the actions of all those who hold public office and there is no reason why those who claim to be the moral guardians of the nation should be above the rest. After all, NGOs demand that all public institutions – and NGOs too are public institutions – should be transparent and held accountable for their acts of omission and commission. In any case, what have they got to hide? Why are they scared to come clean?
Talking of accountability, can these do-gooders / public intellectuals point to one significant achievement that has come out of NGOs to change the lives of our people, or bring some measure of relief in the violence unleashed by the mono-ethnic extremists of the north? Which one of them has won the confidence of the public, arising from their contributions to the well-being of society? What are their roots? What branches have grown out of their self-serving soil? If the free advertisement space is withdrawn by the local media what voice do they have? Above all, when the nation was going through the worst crisis in the post-independent era, what has been their role? Since they came forward as problem-solvers can they cite one single contribution that paved the path to peace? Doesn’t their role confirm that they became a part of the problem instead of being the solution? Apart from being in an incestuous cabal of you-scratch-my-back-I’ll- scratch-yours – and that too only when they are not competing for the dwindling dollars in the human rights markets looking for hired agents -- how can they justify their role as constructive agents for peace, reconciliation and progress?
The conclusions drawn by Nira Wickremesinghe, are most apt in assessing the role of NGOs. She wrote: “Most NGiOs have limited goals and subscribe to, rather than challenge, the prevalent regime (example: Prabhakaran’s) and orthodoxies (like Tamil separatism, or external interventions). (Parenthesis are mine. ) Their role in development is marginal …. Collective, mass organizations such as political parties and trade unions, in spite of their loss appeal, are yet to be eclipsed by interest groups and NGOs.” (p.169-170 – Nira Wickremeasinghe, Civil Society in Sri Lanka, Sage.).
Prof. Rajan Hoole, the head of the University Teachers’ for Human Rights (Jaffna), who was hounded out of Jaffna by the “genius” of Prabhakaran, put it succinctly when he said that NGOs have been “pussyfooting” around the issue of LTTE violence..
The political ambivalence of NGOs towards Tamil violence was revealed, perhaps unwittingly, in the latest lecture delivered by Radhika Coomaraswamy to businessmen in Colombo. It may be a Freudian slip, but she sneakily revealed her secret admiration for Prabhakaran’s pathological proclivity for killing his own kith and kin as that of a “deadly genius”. What kind of “genius” is required to kill anybody? Does mass killing make you a “genius”? Can any mass murderer of his fellow Tamils be considered a genius, “deadly” or otherwise? Is her vocabulary at such a rudimentary level that she could not pick a better adjective than “genius” to describe the despicable barbarism of a Tamil Pol Pot? If, for instance, President Mahinda Rajapakse spoke of the “deadly genius” of the Sri Lankan forces wouldn’t he have been hauled over the coals as a “ Sinhala-Buddhist chauvinist / triumphalist” glorifying the human rights violations of the Tamils.
So who needs these “deadly geniuses” in NGOs? What have they achieved for the people of Sri Lanka? To take the example of a leading NGO, what has Radhika Coomaraswamy’s ICES achieved for the war-weary people of Sri Lanka when its founder, Neelan Tiruchelvam, was having one foot in the TNA – a proxy agency for Prabhakaran – and one foot in the NGO manufacturing “research” to promote the politics of TNA? She and Jehan (Pacha ) Perera held seminars and other politicized events to say “NEVER AGAIN” TO 1983 which is indeed commendable. But why didn’t NGOs hold similar commemorative events saying “NEVER AGAIN” to Kathankudi or the Arantalawa massacres of Sinhala babies and pregnant mothers?
The partisan role of our public intellectuals who distorted the historical and political realities exacerbated the north-south relations. They were adding fuel to the fires of the mono-ethnic extremism of the north justifying their misguided and destructive political moves every step of the way. NGOs were leading the mono-causal theory blaming the south for all the sins and crimes committed by the northern extremists. In the end they blamed the south for producing Prabhakaran in the north. If the Sinhala-Buddhist policies were responsible for the creation of Prabhakaran why did this Tamil Pol Pot massacre the entire Tamil leadership? And also the Muslims praying in the Kathankudi Mosque? What did they do to him to go berserk on a killing spree?
What fair and just solution to the north-south conflict could come from NGOs when the head of the ICES, Neelan Tiruchelvam, wore two hats simultaneously – one for Prabhakaran’s TNA and one for the putative International Centre for Ethnic Studies? He was typical of the NGO politics that worsened the north-south relations and glorified the “deadly genius” of the Tamil extremists who had no compunction in killing the Tamil fathers of the Vadukoddai Resolution – the unscrupulous political fathers who were devoured by the violent Tamil children they produced in Vadukoddai to destroy the Sinhalese. With their perverse ideologies and collective action they created their own political karma and paid for it with their lives.
No prizes are offered for guessing whom they blame for creating their own misery.