I first heard the term ‘NGO’ in 1986 when I worked as a part-time research assistant at the Marga Institute on a study of foreign assistance to Sri Lanka. ‘NGOs’ wa s little more than a footnote in the overall data set that emerged. About 13 years ago, I was contracted to write a country report on the NGO sector in Sri Lanka.
This was a study commissioned by the Asian Development Bank covering 9 countries. The unspoken aim of the exercise was to make a case to bypass states and fund NGOs direct. Our team concluded that in Sri Lanka the vast majority of NGOs were mom-and-pop operations, lacking know-how, technical capacity and incapable of handling large sums of money. Most of them were, moreover, engaged in all manner of rackets including unethical conversion and propagating separatism.
Over the years, NGOs have positioned themselves as coterminous with ‘civil society’ and even an alternative to the state. NGO personalities have become larger than life and utterly insufferable on account of intellectual dishonesty, crass politicking and inflated egos. No one can blame them for self-advertising. Part of the blame falls on society itself; we have been greedy for the tidbits and have shown a tendency to drop our guard. Part of the blame falls on top-level personalities in the political leadership; they’have believed these jokers to be intellectuals, good-hearted and innocent.
The same goes for INGOs. There was a time when a colonial mentality persuaded people to consider things foreign as necessarily good and foreigners as uncorrupt and above corruption, even though even a cursory turning of the history books would tell even the most naïve that the kind of foreigners who holidayed in Sri Lanka masquerading as ‘benefactors’, i.e. mostly European and North American and mostly white, came from countries with long histories of plunder, genocide, rape and religious persecution.
They all had a ball alright. Well, the good times have come to an end. The party is over. This is why people like Jeremy Page of http://www.timesonline.co.uk are wetting their pants frequently; they have been rendered inconsequential; ‘incontinent’, one might add. The ENJOY empire, ladies and gentleman, has collapsed, and ENJOYISTS are either in denial or are sunk in the depths of depression.
For too long, INGO personalities have operated as though they are above the law, above the state even. They self-define themselves either as ‘civil society’ or ‘representatives of the international community’. This is interesting because those who are arrogant enough to think there are either, are typically ignorant, uncivilised and represent only the worst sections of the international community.
Take the case of one Ranveig Tveitnes, boss of ‘FORUT’, who was shown the door recently and caused Jeremy Page to suffer a mental breakdown of sorts. This woman, who has for a long time been an important ‘source’ of information for two-bit journalists such as Page, has a history of acting against the interests of the people of Sri Lanka and, of course, the Government. She was livid that some of her staffers had decided to hoist the national flag after the Government officially announced that the LTTE had been comprehensively defeated. She ran to the perennial refuge of all espionage agents masquerading as development/humanitarian advocates; neutrality. Ranveig conveniently forgot that it is the Government of Sri Lanka that issued her a visa and sanctioned her outfit. This does not, of course, translate into a need to be servile, but ‘neutrality’ here is questionable because on one side there is a democratically elected government and on the other a ruthless terrorist organisation proscribed by many countries.
That, however, is a trivial matter. She also spearheaded a slander campaign against the Government with photos from visits to Menik Farm in Vavuniya with slanted commentary which she widely distributed. I wonder if she got security clearance for all this and how on earth such anyone could think that such dissemination is crucial to the work of FORUT. Stepping outside the mandate seemed to be the lady’s pet pastime. It is said that she never trusted the Sinhalese in her staff and treated them as Government spies. True or false, Mr. Tveintes? Is that ‘neutrality’?
It is no secret that FORUT has worked very closely with the TRO and the LTTE. The British FORUT staffer that Ms. Above Board was trying to smuggle into the country disguised as a tourist, Simon Weatherbed (a close friend of the TRO’s pro-LTTE head, Arjunan Ethirveerasingham) set up training schools for LTTE cadres in Kilinochchi and Mullaitivu, under the pretext of giving them ‘vocational training’. FORUT used neutral names, of course; they were just carrying out ‘human resource development programmes’. These ‘programmes’ were coordinated with Thamilselvan and Pulidevan of the LTTE.
All kind of equipment such as satellite phones and a double cab have gone in to the hands of the LTTE. She knew all this. She knows that money was sent to the LTTE without informing the rest of the management. Our Ms. Good Samaritan has also tried to smuggle LTTE cadres camps known to her from IDP by giving them FORUT staff ID cards.
Her loyalties (and professed ‘neutrality’) became quite evident in her parting communication to her staff: “This is to inform you that I have, by the Immigration and Emigration Authorities, been ordered to leave Sri Lanka by Sunday of this week. I am sad that I have to leave without being able to say properly goodbye to all of you. I also have to say that I am particularly sad that there are so many of our staff I have not been able to see at all. This of course goes to the staff from Vanni, and in particular to Kunalan whom I have had extensive contact with, but never met.” (emphasis mine). Ms. Neutral, it is reported, was so upset that Prabhakaran had been killed that she declared a personal mourning period of 1.5 days for herself, so her love for Kunalan is understandable.
Kunalan was Ranveig’s main informant from the No-Fire Zone (NFZ) right up to the point of her departure. We know how ‘independent’ and ‘reliable’ any communication from the NFZ could be, especially given the LTTE’s history of brutality and the coercive methods it employed. Our Ms. Neutral believed this man. Not hard to imagine what happened, right? Pulidevan holds a gun at Kunalan’s head (assuming of course Kunalan is as ‘neutral’ as Ranveig), Kunalan phones Ranveig, Ranveig hammers out an email and all of a sudden we get a bloodbath in Puthukuduarippu! Kunalan, the man she had never seen, was on the FORUT payroll, it is now known.
It is well known that INGOs and even people attached to UN agencies have surreptitiously helped the LTTE. It was reported in yesterday’s papers that the bomb designed to assassinate the Defence Secretary was transported to Colombo in a CARE International vehicle. This is just one more piece of evidence that goes to show that INGOs are not blameless in the matter of terrorism. They have been and are complicity in that they have not screened their employees (assuming of course they wanted to!). For the record, it is indeed revealing that there’s no ‘development’ to be seen in the Wanni. All relief, all ‘development assistant’ went to the LTTE and only the complicit or the most dumb would have thought this was not inevitable. Such people should be chased out simply on the matter of sheer ignorance and incompetence.
If INGOS personnel working in Sri Lanka are anxious, they have to thank the Ranveigs who operated as though all Tamils were LTTE supporters and therefore the LTTE was legit. Before they blame anyone for being anti-INGO, they should reflect on the long and considerable history of their brethren in contributing to terrorism. In short, they have to make sure that they get their act together.
There have been and probably are more Ranveigs around in Sri Lanka. On the other hand for every 10 Ranveigs I am sure there is one decent man or woman whose help we sorely need at this point.
For there are NGOs and NGOs. INGOs and INGOs. There are organisations that operate not for the love of the country or the people they are supposed to benefit but to further their own agendas, not all of which are necessarily in the interest of the country or the communities they ‘serve’. And there are NGO workers, local and foreign, I don’t doubt, who are genuine in intent, have the humility to understand that their Utopias may not be seen as such by their intended beneficiaries, are willing to admit and learn from error. They do contribute.
Yes, one should not throw the baby with the bathwater. This however, means that there should be a system in place to distinguish I/NGO babies and I/NGO bathwater. This is what was absent for a long time and we had to pay a heavy price. We still don’t have a system as such, but there is a heightened consciousness among the relevant officials, political leadership and the general public regarding INGOs. This is good. This is necessary. It is not sufficient, however. There should be rules and regulations, a streamlining of screening, because two things are important: a) the crooks have to be weeded out, b) weeding out should not turn into a witch-hunt. Yes, we should get our act together too. We need to get the rules and regulations sorted out. We should get the institutional structure in place that makes for efficiency and decency. We are not a xenophobic people and we should not go there.