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 Post subject: NGO fat cats: True, false or exaggerated?
 Post Posted: Sun Feb 12, 2006 2:00 am 
NGO fat cats: True, false or exaggerated?

by Namini Wijedasa
@ The Island / 12Feb2006

The saffron-robed monk was livid. Mistaking a team of foreign journalists for NGO workers, he let forth: "We know what you people are doing here. You take eighty per cent of the money donated to us and leave the real victims with just twenty."

"NGOs are having a good time in our country while we continue to suffer," he added, gesturing wildly.

Rightly or wrongly, this outspoken cleric in Galle — speaking just a few days before the first year anniversary of the tsunami — struck a chord. The debate is expanding. Are NGOs only about fancy vehicles, high-end restaurants and chichi lifestyles?

Growing resentment

The tsunami disaster had the world diving into its pockets, donating piles of money to victims who had been left with nothing but salty tears and recurring nightmares. Much of the funds were to be administered through non governmental organisations. As a result, the number of NGOs in all tsunami-affected nations hit the ceiling.

"The difference about Sri Lanka is that, because of the global outpouring of sympathy, many people gave directly to NGOs," observes Paul Steele, associate research fellow at the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS). "The NGOs actually collected a huge amount of money, much more than the Asian Development Bank, the World Bank or other organisations."

"Where you typically had five or six donors to manage, therefore, you now had 50 or so NGOs to coordinate," he said. "And regardless of their motives, there were far too many players involved."

The visible benefit of this overwhelming NGO presence, however, has been limited — particularly in terms of housing reconstruction. The timelines for various projects have stretched and, increasingly, questions are being raised about the administrative costs and performance of the larger NGOs, the multilateral and bilateral agencies. Earlier this month, even the LTTE asked NGOs in the Batticaloa district to expedite tsunami rehabilitation and reconstruction as many families were living temporary shelters.

Adding to the general feeling of resentment is the perception that staff of implementing agencies, particularly foreigners, were "living the high life" with money that should legitimately go to tsunami victims. Their salary scales were higher. They drove around in ostentatious vehicles. They dined at good restaurants. They rented nice housing and lived comfortably while large numbers of tsunami-affected people continue to peer bitterly out of their temporary shelters.

"To get down to brass tacks, do we know how much money came in for relief and rehabilitation?" asks Krishantha Prasad Cooray, the head of a private media group. "Do we know what happened to it? Do we know how many houses were built? Do we know how much money foreign volunteers get per month by way of stipend and have we bothered to calculate how many local volunteers and grassroots workers could have been employed to better effect with such sums?

"Isn’t it time that a full audit of all accounts pertaining to tsunami-related work of all organisations, state, private and NGO, is done?"

Monitoring mechanism

The government evidently feels some accountability is needed. There is currently a procedure by which non governmental bodies are registered but more comprehensive legislation is being drafted to monitor and certify NGOs. The law may be in parliament before the end of February.

"This whole thing started because lots of groups of people received funds and, while many of them meant well, a few have migrated more into a lifestyle support system with these funds," asserted a source from the government’s Reconstruction and Development Agency (RADA).

"We don’t wish to duplicate the existing registration process but we will take ownership of the information gathered about these organisations and utilise it in a monitoring manner," he said. "We will require their organisational structure, their contact details, their locations in Sri Lanka, their scope of work, their funding arrangement and so on."

The information will go into the Development Assistance Database. The DAD already exists but is going through a change in interface to enable all stakeholders to recover information more easily.

"The objective of the DAD is not just to track the progress of development but also of the implementers," the official specified. "We do like to monitor what NGOs are doing because these people have made a promise to communities in Sri Lanka and they have also made a pledge to the donors of their money who expect something to be done with it."

"They (donors) do not expect the bulk of it to be spent on administrative costs, for any length of time, of the implementing agencies."

Administration and overheads

It is administration and overhead costs that the government would like to bring to the surface, the official continued. "We don’t mean to be judgemental in any way or to point fingers," he specified. "We plan to simply have an indicator of an implementing agency’s operational efficiency by giving people an idea of the value of what they have delivered. How many schools have been built, how many houses have been built, what other work has been done?"

"The database will provide an opportunity for the discerning public to compare the resources that an NGO has deployed to achieve a particular objective against the funding it received," he continued. "We will let people draw their own conclusions. It is our intention to let peer pressure take its toll."

Another government official involved in reconstruction asserted that many NGOs are "doing a wonderful job", particularly the medium and smaller ones. The problem was more with the larger ones. These tended to be "top heavy and somewhat directionless". In some instances, they were constrained by government administrative issues. In others, he said, they were tied by lack or resources or by simple lack of proper management.

"Either way, they are burning up a lot of cash," he noted. "If they’re not doing anything, they should slim down and adjust their own resources accordingly. We don’t encourage people to stay here at a staff of 400 to 500 people, waiting for a government decision. We expect them to be mobile and for them to move quickly with the situation."

"The underperformance of the larger implementing agencies is a problem," he reiterated. "Eighty per cent of organisations are doing a good job. But the top 20 per cent, who have the largest volume of resources, are very slow."

NGO issues

Some of these implementing agencies have reported "great achievements" to their own donors during the last 12 months but not all their claims can be substantiated.

Jeevan Thiagarajah, executive director of the Consortium for Humanitarian Agencies (CHA), feels that the reports of implementing agencies must be examined. "What goes into reports needs to be seen," he admitted. "I also think these reports must be available for perusal."

Formed in 1997, the CHA has a membership of 94 humanitarian organisations. These include NGOs involved in post-tsunami work. Thiagarajah acknowledged that non governmental bodies must take part of the blame for sluggish reconstruction and rehabilitation. He pointed out, however, that NGOs also had difficulties.

For instance, the buffer zones had caused widespread uncertainty. Would they be permanent or was the regulation a mere moratorium that would later be lifted? Meanwhile, the registration process of NGOs took time. Beneficiary lists are still not fully available. Planning approvals had to be obtained at all levels. Land allocation took time. Prices of building materials and services have risen madly. Skills were in shortage. In areas like the north, contractors were in short supply. Security was also in question.

Patrick Fuller, spokesman for the International Federation of the Red Cross (IFRC), said there was a "whole host of issues" related to tsunami reconstruction and rehabilitation. The federation is among the top five donors for housing reconstruction, having pledged 15,000 units. So far, some 1,147 houses are under construction and only 175 units have been completed. RADA says just 100 have been handed over.

Fuller said it wouldn’t have been possible to achieve their targets within the first twelve months. "We are facing a major, major challenge here," he stressed.

There had been speculation about the buffer zone; the government completed land allocation only in July; some of the sites needed cleared for housing; there was a shortage of skilled labour; construction costs rose steeply; and planning typically takes six to eight months. "Tendering for consultants and contractors has to be done in the most transparent way," he explained.

The issue of incomplete beneficiary lists was also raised by Fuller. "It is very difficult to start building without knowing the optimum number of people," he said. "We can’t just build houses and not have people living there."

"Accusations are being levelled at NGOs working on this scale simply because people haven’t understood quite how complex the issue is," he lamented.

Surmountable problems

Despite these reasons, NGOs continue to be widely criticised. Thiagarajah noted: "We expected that. I think we should accept part of the blame. We knew the factors that stood in our way but failed to communicate them effectively enough. I also think we should have changed our approaches to building."

He felt that beneficiaries should have been more involved in housing reconstruction. "Beneficiaries want to get the job done as fast as possible," he pointed out, explaining that this would have added momentum to the process.

Thiagarajah indicated that many organisations were resentful about a handful of NGOs spoiling the reputation of the entire community. For instance, some had signed memoranda of understanding with the government and pulled out after failing to deliver. "This affects us badly," he reflected.

The last 12 months haven’t been perfect and problems persist. But Thiagarajah feels there can be a reversal. "We have problems, but they are not insurmountable," he stressed. "We should get it right, now."

"I firmly recommend that government agencies and NGOs synchronise their activities," he said, suggesting close collaboration between RADA and his own CHA. "There must also be some monitoring and oversight mechanism. It is good for all of us in terms of transparency, accountability and professionalism."

Thiagarajah stressed, too, that all NGOs owed accountability to the beneficiaries in whose name they have received money. This was a point also emphasised by Paul Steele. "One of the problems of foreign NGOs is that they are more accountable to donors than to the Sri Lankan people. They must be accountable, also, by the Sri Lankan public and the tsunami-affected people."

In the meantime, the government is thrusting ahead with the proposed legislation. "We have no other motive than to ensure that a maximum percentage of dollar value is getting to the field," said the RADA official earlier quoted.

"Our purpose is to ensure that NGOs don’t face any bureaucratic hurdles, unnecessary governmental decisional delays or whatever," he averred. "On their side, it is their obligation and duty to comply with our standards of good governance."

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