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 Post subject: Call for transparency of NGO accounts
 Post Posted: Sun Mar 05, 2006 2:32 am 
Call for transparency of NGO accounts

By Namini Wijedasa
@ The Island / 05Mar2006

With resentment mounting over the questionable performance of some international and local non-governmental organizations, one group of humanitarian agencies is requesting all NGOs to reveal details of income and spending for 2005 as well as planned expenditure for 2006.

The move is aimed at encouraging openness and accountability—and at saving the reputation of those genuine, high-performing NGOs that have done creditable post-tsunami and conflict-related work, explained Jeevan Thiagarajah, director of the 94-member Consortium of Humanitarian Agencies (CHA). "We want to retain our credibility," he stressed.

Thiagarajah stressed that it was vital to act because tensions were rising. The Kalmunai sit-in is a classic example of how frustrations were growing at ground level. Around 400 families living in transit shelters for the past one year swarmed the Kalmunai divisional secretariat last month and camped there, protesting against a failure to provide them with permanent housing. They only returned to their shelters after President Mahinda Rajapakse, via a video-conference, assured them speedy respite.

"Frustration is growing," Thiagarajah admitted. "We have seen it, we are hearing it and it’s in the public domain."

Meanwhile, during recent field visits to tsunami projects the CHA has found "appalling issues" that needed to be addressed. The consortium has met Treasury Secretary P B Jayasundera and proposed that a body be set up with a mandate to inquire into vital aspects of NGO activity. This includes income, spending and planned expenditure.

"We are already writing to members and non-members with this request," Thiagarajah said. "In the meantime, we firmly recommended to Dr Jayasundera that a three-person group be formed, comprising a representative from the finance ministry or central bank, an agency with oversight over humanitarian agencies and a representative of the humanitarian agencies."

Thiagarajah explained that the Central Bank currently monitors all receipts and payments through banking channels. Those statistics, though not publicized, are already available at the Central Bank. "Our suggestion was that the agencies be requested to furnish the necessary details so that expenditure and commitment may be verified against inward remittances," Thiagarajah said, adding that there should be a defaulters’ list—with names of those who gave information and who didn’t.

The CHA has also proposed that all agencies be made duty-bound to provide their annual reports. "We are going a step further by suggesting that project reports be furnished, too, and that the media be informed that these documents are available for perusal with the consent of the agency concerned."

The consortium has initiated a third, more sweeping procedure to ensure accountability. "We are engaging in regular field issues and have found totally appalling issues," Thiagarajah said.

The CHA has evidence that, while movement from temporary to permanent shelters is happening, not everybody was getting houses—nor were all locations wholly appropriate. "Some families don’t know whether they are on the beneficiary list or not," Thiagarajah related. "In some locations, families told us that, apart from one or two agencies, nobody visits them."

At another post-tsunami housing site in the south, the CHA team found that the toilet stench inside the housing was so bad that people slept outside. There were houses without kitchens, forcing people to cook in the hallway. In some places, "twinning" was observed, whereby two families were allocated single houses. In one location, two permanent houses had been built side-by-side. One was at a higher level, another was ten feet below. Whenever it rained, the family in the lower house went into the upper house for fear of erosion.

There were also issues of livelihood. The CHA team had met one woman who only wanted an umbrella and two fruit baskets. "It’s a thirty-second solution," Thiagarajah said. "What we have done to the conflict-affected, we are now doing to the tsunami-affected. There is neglect, carelessness, lingering problems and long delays."

Speaking with more candour than most NGO representatives have shown in recent times, Thiagarajah revealed that there were gross inequities in the assistance afforded to tsunami-affected persons and those affected by conflict. For instance, the conflict-affected get nine rupees a day by way of assistance while the tsunami-affected get 50 rupees. "This needs to be comprehensively and sensitively addressed," Thiagarajah cautioned.

"Down the line, there has been neglect," he reiterated. "All this calls to question the accountability of humanitarian action. We will continue to attend to these issues till the problem is addressed."

Asked why the CHA (as a representative of the NGO sector) was taking such action, Thiagarajah replied: "As far as people are concerned, we are all looked upon as NGOs.

The general perception is negative. As we told Dr Jayasundera, the government thinks we are crooks and we want to dispel those rumours. If anybody’s bad among us, let us discuss this. We need to keep addressing the problems and to make people aware that we are doing so."

Thiagarajah emphasized that the government and CHA had to work together. "The subject of coordination has to be seriously addressed," he said. "We work together as a community and we can’t do this alone. We need partnership with government and we are waiting for the government to turn up."

Asked about the reaction of NGOs, Thiagarajah said it remained to be seen. "Most are ready to cooperate but some are concerned about what will be done with the details," he revealed. NGOs were also worried that the parliamentary select committee to investigate NGOs will turn into a witch hunt.

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