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 Post subject: NGOs and Sri Lanka: Weighing the pros and cons
 Post Posted: Thu Sep 28, 2006 2:54 am 
NGOs and Sri Lanka: Weighing the pros and cons

by Prof. Saroj Jayasinghe
Faculty of Medicine
University of Colombo

@ The Island/28Sep2006

Non-Government Organisations (NGOs) perform a vital function in many regions and countries. They work tirelessly in difficult situations and some risk their lives during conflicts and natural disasters. The wave of goodwill expressed immediately after the tsunami in Sri Lanka showed us the power of altruism.

However, in the recent past, some NGOs have come under criticism for financial irregularities and attempts at religious conversions, both nationally and internationally. Governments are also expressing concern that NGOs carry out activities against the interest of host nations.

Sri Lanka is not spared of such conflicts. The government is being criticised for the unfortunate killing of NGO workers during the armed conflict and the recent attempts to investigate the role of NGOs using a Parliamentary Select Committee. The International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) has sent an open letter to our President on the 5th of September 2006 requesting for more information regarding the work of this Select Committee. An article by Shamindra Ferdinando in The Island of 20th September indicated that the International NGOs are hoping to ‘counter-attack’ the Sri Lankan government on some of these issues.

This article attempts to present information, which maybe of use to put the picture in its proper perspective. It is also meant as an open letter to the Select Committee of Parliament for the Investigation of the Operations of NGOs, and I hope the contents would stimulate a healthy debate.

Why should Sri Lanka be concerned about NGOs?

There are at several reasons to be concerned about NGOs: Firstly, there is a rapid increase in the number of NGOs working in the country as well as around the world. The numbers are mind-boggling. In the year 2000, there were an estimated 26,000 International NGOs (INGOs) (Ferris E. Faith-based and secular humanitarian organisations. International Review of the Red Cross 2005;87:312-325). In the US alone there are 2 million NGOs. More than 100,000 were established in East Europe between 1989 and 1995. Moneragala District alone has a few hundreds! A factor, which complicates the estimates are the short-lived NGOs. These are the ‘Laptop NGOs’ existing only in the hard-drive of a portable computer! They are born during the aftermath of a disaster, with little accountability and quietly fade away without completing their charitable objectives. They tend to be reborn with each fresh natural or man-made disaster.

Secondly, there are vast amount of aid channelled through NGOs. In 1998, Oxfam had an income of US$ 162 million. World Vision US collected US $ 55 million worth of goods from the American government alone (The Economist 27 January 2000). More recent figures are likely to be higher and some estimate that NGOs collectively deliver more aid than the whole UN system. Such sums of moneys attract power and corruption.

Thirdly, there are a large number of NGOs with agendas not confined to humanitarian assistance (See Gilson L et al from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. The potential of health sector non-governmental organisations: policy options, an article in the journal Health Policy and Planning 1994; 9: 14-24). A few examples are given below.

(a) There are NGOs, which are overtly or covertly sponsored by Governments to further their own policies while assisting the needy. (These are called GONGOs). Several governments overtly sponsor several organisations active in Sri Lanka and the following are strictly speaking not NGOs and should be treated as such: USAID receives overall foreign policy guidance from the Secretary of State in the US Government, and GTZ receives funds from Government of Germany. The Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs fund the Berghof Foundation in Sri Lanka, and the Japanese government funds JAICA. The problem is with NGOs, which are covertly funded by governments. Foreign governments increasingly prefer to direct aid money through friendly NGOs and the NGOs have become contractors for foreign governments (The Economist 27 January 2000). The article is also critical of the role of governments and NGOs: ‘NGOs have a great deal to do with governments. Not all of it is healthy’.

There are some NGOs working for profit. NGOs are big business in the West. We saw a few of these in Sri Lanka after the tsunami, when some of the foreign NGOs began to flaunt money and ‘buy over’ staff from local NGOs.

There are other NGOs, which use humanitarian assistance to further their own religious faith. The suspicion is that some of these faith-based NGOs are irresponsibly furthering religious agendas and exploiting the vulnerability of the poor, or those suffering from disasters. Certain Christian evangelical groups, which came to work in Nepal, India, Indonesia and Sri Lanka have been criticised in the newspapers for undermining the traditional Christian faiths and offending sensitivities of other religious groups. (See several articles to this effect written by S Berger and published in the internet editions of The Telegraph at. Go to http://www.telegraph.co.uk and type the following two words in the search: Berger conversions). As stated by Gilson ‘Despite the currently agreed definition of NGOs as nonprofit-maximising, some NGOs in developing countries pursue profit with little regulation. Even nonprofit-maximising NGOs do not always operate on strictly humanitarian principles and may consider proselytising their faith to be their first concern’.

(b) Finally, the international community and INGOs must appreciate the concerns of national security expressed by the Sri Lankan government. They need to consider the current situation in perspective of what Sri Lankans have collectively undergone over the past several decades. The country has lost an incumbent president, several ministers as a result. We have had our central bank bombed, oil tanks bombed, high-rise office towers in the city attacked, airport attacked, religious places bombed (Kandy Dalada Maligawa and Anuradhapura Sri Maha Bodhi) and thousands of civilians slaughtered. This would be equivalent to a carnage in the UK of: PM Margaret Thatcher dead from a suicide bomb, PM Blair injured by a suicide bomb, Westminster Abbey bombed, pilgrims shot while praying at the Canterbury Cathedral, Bank of England bombed by a truck driven by a suicide bombers, a high rise office complexes in Canary Wharf Business District in the heart of London almost destroyed, Heathrow airport attacked and bombed, Oil terminal in the Buncefield Oil Terminal, in Hemel Hempstead, (off London) bombed etc.

Before passing judgment on Sri Lanka, contrast how other countries managed terror on its streets. Some of the expatriates are aware of the current paranoia and security measures in the UK after a single bomb, which went off in a bus in London in July 2005 killing about 50 innocent civilians. Some may remember the security measures when the IRA was bombing England (However, there were two characteristics which are distinctly different: there were no suicide bombs and almost all bombings were preceded by telephone warnings in order to minimise civilian casualties).Therefore INGOs (and NGOs), you cannot be excluded from being checked for security credentials. Your work must be scrutinised, at least till the current crisis recedes. The International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) which sent an open letter to our President on the 5th of September 2006 regarding the work of the Select Committee on NGOs should also understand the special circumstances we face, though there is no excuse to violate human rights.

I fervently hope that it would be useful when the government replies the ICJ and to the UN.

Who governs the NGOs?

Most countries have legislation and regulations to govern NGOs and INGOs. As stated by several researchers, NGOs and INGOs lack proper accountability and self-regulation per-se does not work. In order to introduce self-regulation, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and produced a Code of Conduct. Several INGOs try to adhere to this (http://www.itfrc.org/publicat/conduct/i ... p?navid=09 08). However, the Code has failed. That is why there are several articles and research papers on the excesses of INGOs or NGOs!

The other point is that the Code does not deal with the new challenges faced by countries (e.g. national security) described in the previous section. For example, it states that "humanitarian aid will be given according to the need of individuals, families and communities" but also gives the right of NGOs to "espouse particular political or religious opinions". It does not give guidelines on how a powerful NGO ought to espouse its opinions on a poor vulnerable population. The power relationship between NGOs and distressed population is highly asymmetric and favours the NGOs. There is also an ethical issue as to whether it is morally correct to espouse "opinions" on a vulnerable population. (The topic of vulnerability is dealt in detail in many research papers published in prestigious medical journals such as Bioethics).

How could the Government work effectively with NGOs?

There is a wealth of information on how NGOs are regulated in other countries. For example, foreign NGOs intending to operate in Thailand must comply with the Ministry of Labour and Social Welfare’s Regulations.`A0Permission for foreign NGOs to operate in Thailand is granted by the Committee on Foreign NGOs, which is chaired by the Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Labour and Social Welfare. India too has a fairly stringent policy and in 1993 the Home Ministry blacklisted more than 800 NGOs in the country's north-east for alleged links with separatist groups. In the UK the Charity Commissioner regulates NGOs and charitable organisations. In the West the regulations are often aimed to detect financial irregularities and less to prevent religious beliefs. However, they often have a very vibrant public complaints process to enable individuals or groups to question organisations.

A few specific measures: I describe a few specific points which maybe useful to consider when considering a regulatory framework.

1. It is essential to have a clear statement on the obligations of the government towards civil society, NGOs and INGOs. Sri Lanka needs to strengthen its legislation and regulatory apparatus in a rational way. Legislations or regulations should not automatically mean restricting work and the Government must change its attitude from ‘restricting NGOs’ to ‘working together with NGOs’. For this purpose, legislation ought to include obligations by the Government (e.g. coordination, promotion of work in certain areas, actively promote work in areas of development) and a strict code of conduct for government officials too. Government must ensure that there is no witch-hunt or ostracising of religious NGOs. Extreme caution must be exercised when dealing with NGOs working in the northern and eastern parts of the country. The benefits of humanitarian assistance by the NGOs must be balanced with the risks to national security, and the risks to the lives of NGO workers. Some NGOs perform a vital function by highlighting human rights violations of the state and environmental issues. These are on the long-term beneficial to Sri Lanka.

2. Registration of NGOs is an obvious step, which is being done now. In order to the registered, Sri Lanka has to re-look at the criteria being used. Thailand takes into consideration the following: Thailand’s national economic and social development policies; national security; Thailand’s relations with other countries; policies and goals of foreign NGOs concerned; as well as views and suggestions of Thai agencies concerned. Furthermore, foreign NGOs intending to operate in Thailand must be non-profit and non-political organisations.`A0

3. The Register must be freely available to any citizen of the country and have information on the objectives. For example, the Charity Commissioner UK, responsible for registering charities has the following site http://www.charity-commission.gov.uk/re ... efault.asp . (You can obtain information about many of the International NGOs operating in Sri Lanka from this site). The register must contain funding sources. (Are the funds coming from foreign governments, or communities, or from a left or right wing extremist group?). What are the administrative costs compared to the funds, which reached the beneficiaries? This information should be available without having to go through complicated accounts and audits.

4. The information on objectives, funding and type of assistance must be available in the publicity material of the NGOs (e.g. leaflets). The NGO should clearly state in the leaflets its political and religious affiliations. The much talked about transparency should be practiced by the NGOs. This will enable people whom they wish to help know what to expect. NGOs, which deliberately avoid giving such information, are guilty of violating the basic human right of Sri Lankans to information.

5. Broad guiding principles on humanitarian aid in the country have to be stated by the Government. This will help to direct resources where it is needed.

a. Priorities for humanitarian assistance in the country should be listed and described (e.g. shelter for Internally Displaced)

b. Specific areas where NGOs are not welcome must be stated, such as work compromising national security or adversely affecting the harmonious co-existence of a multi-cultural society

c. Guidelines on utilisation of funds (e.g. a ceiling on the proportion which can be spent as administrative costs and on foreign consultants).

d. Specific principles on how NGOs should conduct themselves in the country have to be spelt out. As stated before, there are areas of the Code, which must be improved. For example, let us consider the process to be adopted when a NGO wishes to "espouse opinions" or conduct religious activities (i.e. non-humanitarian assistance). Under such circumstances should consent be obtained to espouse the NGO’s opinions? From whom should consent be obtained? At what time should consent be obtained? A time of disaster is when people are very vulnerable to suggestions. Therefore, should consent for non-humanitarian assistance be obtained after completing their humanitarian assistance?

The Government ought to use the Code of Conduct of the ICRC as a starting point for their discussions with the NGOs, local communities, Ministry of Social Services and other stakeholders. A Select Committee of MPs cannot do this, and the active participation of the community and a vibrant media are all needed to contribute towards removing the bad eggs from the basket. The Government should also call upon the international organisations (e.g. UN and ICRC) to develop a fresh Code of Conduct and a regulatory framework to guide INGOs.

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