|The New Orientalists: Western Non-Governmental Organizations in Sri Lanka|
|Wednesday, 17 September 2008|
By: Marian Menaka Fernando
In his seminal work, Orientalism, Edward Said posits that Western discourse about the East galvanizes the divide between the two geo-political entities rather than objectively describing or analyzing it. As a consequence elements of the East that are discussed in Orientalist texts invariably situate the West on intellectually and morally superior ground in relation to the East, thereby providing justification for the domination of the East by Western powers.
Although the West now claims to have progressed beyond such Orientalist myopia, this paper argues otherwise, citing the case of western non-governmental organizations (NGOs) operating in Sri Lanka.
The concept of Dualism between knower and known in Orientalist discourse (Ron Inden 1986: 401-446) has never been more apparent than since the advent of western NGOs. With access to cutting edge research technology, advanced methods for disseminating information, and ample funding, West-based organizations like Human Rights Watch, the International Crisis Group, or Relief International to name a few, have managed to become the authority on Eastern regional disputes. Their affluence, coupled with the physical distance between these Western NGOs and situations of conflict in the East, automatically implies impartiality and therefore a superiority of knowledge that renders,
… [t]he knowing subject, the analyst…[as] rational, [and] the persons who are the subjects of inquiry…[as], in relation to him, irrational. The knowledges of the latter are distorted representations of their own reality. They are knowledges that must be subjugated. They are knowledges that must be introduced, annotated, catalogued, broken up and analyzed in ‘data bases’, apportioned out in monographs, reports, gazetteers, anthologies, readers, and course syllabi (Inden 1986: 421).
Local intellectuals—often with the same degrees from the same Western academic institutions—who attempt to expose misinformation and propaganda, or present arguments to the contrary risk incurring the wrath of the international society and are labeled as racists or nationalist extremists.
Ms. Marian Menaka Fernando
(Marian Fernando received her Bachelors degree (summa cum laude) in International Relations from the University of California, Davis, with a minor in Spanish. After graduation she worked for the County of Santa Cruz, California for two years before proceeding to pursue a Masters degree in International Affairs at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva, Switzerland. Fluent in Sinhalese, English, and Spanish, her areas of academic interest include terrorism, human rights, and conflict resolution.)
Though the likes of J.S. Mills and other leading Orientalist intellectuals of the Victorian era may have receded into the annals of history, their narrow-minded perspectives have been reincarnated in the form of modern-day western NGOs. Operating in desperate situations in poverty-stricken or war-ravaged countries in the East, western NGOs are eagerly courted for the publicity and funding they can bring to a cause; at the same time, they are increasingly reviled for rendering local democratically elected institutions impotent to manage internal problems.
Using Sri Lanka as a case study, this essay attempts to illustrate how western NGOs, as the present-day Orientalists, perpetuate the image of the East as a weak entity, reliant on the stronger west to solve its internal crises. The institution of the western NGO renders the East dependent—yet again—on the West for shaping its identity. Sri Lanka and the western NGOs therefore present a 21st century example of the power-player binary that is characteristic of modernity.
The unrest in Sri Lanka has created a war economy that is generating a lucrative market for western NGOs. Not only does continued instability in Sri Lanka prolong their operations thereby extending the life of the organization, but it also gives these foreign elements an invaluable opportunity to dictate terms to the administration of a sovereign nation. The question arises then, as to whether western NGOs authorized by a local government to operate on sovereign soil should work to sustain the administration that allows for their presence in the country, or should they weaken it? Should NGOs work in conjunction with the native government on matters that are, ultimately, related to state welfare? Or should they work on their own to fulfill their mandates and their objectives, without coordinating with the state? The keyword here is NGO autonomy, which is obviously a very important issue; but as a non-governmental organization subject to even lesser standards of transparency and accountability, how does one determine between the self-sustaining actions pursued by the foreign-funded organization and those actions it may take in the interest of the local people? If a mission fails, NGOs can blame the host government. If a nation fails, can NGOs be blamed?
This paper would like to present a challenge to the two-dimensional nature of modernity to propose that the western NGO may have met its match in the case of Sri Lanka in the country’s unwillingness to blindly obey the dictates of the West. The case of Sri Lanka is unique in that it is a functioning democracy with regular elections and a leadership that is held accountable to its citizens. Sri Lanka is an active member of the United Nations and maintains full diplomatic relations with all states. It is not involved in any international disputes; it is not a rogue state with oppressive military rule; and neither is it a despotic dictatorship. With an impressive total population literacy rate of 90.7% and ample natural resources, it has the potential to become a substantial economic player in the Asia-Pacific region. The on-going struggle against terrorism continues to be the major obstacle to Sri Lanka realizing its true socio-economic potential. Have Western NGOs met their match then, in the case of Sri Lanka? Are the western criticisms of the Sri Lankan government an NGO-generated backlash as a result of these frustrated western elements not being able to get their way? Is tiny Sri Lanka an example of the East fighting back? An East that is determined to reclaim its legacy, demanding that the West be respectful of Sri Lanka’s wish to be responsible for its own destiny? This essay is an attempt to answer the above questions with a resounding “affirmative.”
After briefly analyzing the history of the conflict in Sri Lanka, this paper 1) examines the role of western NGOs in shaping international opinion of the conflict in Sri Lanka; 2) explores factors that contribute to the growing resentment towards NGOs; and 3) assess the result of NGO involvement in conflict resolution (i.e. has the involvement of Western NGOs made a substantial impact on the problem of tackling terrorism in Sri Lanka? Or has the ever-growing number of foreign NGOs exacerbated an already delicate situation?)
Synopsis of a Long-winded Situation
In order to better understand the current situation in Sri Lanka, it is necessary to discuss the country’s history (albeit in a rather cursory manner) and explore the multiple factors that contribute to the ethnic conflict. This will serve to provide the necessary framework within which to analyze the current state of affairs as well as understand the impact of Western NGO activity on the country. On a more personal level however, the act of recounting this history is an attempt to reclaim a part of the nation’s identity that has been eroded by supposedly “neutral” western NGOs each time they regurgitate the course of events based on their authoritative postulations as to the origins of the ethnic conflict.
a) Cultural Dimensions
The origin of the separatist movement in Sri Lanka is an emotionally charged and politically complex topic. The conflict cannot be easily explained away as a straightforward case of minority oppression following independence—as has been neatly presented in the country/conflict profiles by a majority of Western NGOs. To begin with, the Tamil separatist movement has a significant cultural dimension that is concerned with the preservation of the elitism of the Tamil Vellalar caste:
The tradition that Ceylon Tamils wish to preserve is redolent of the ancient patterns of caste and regional discrimination favoring the powerful and conservative Vellalar caste of Jaffna, a caste that has for centuries dominated the political and economic affairs of Tamil Sri Lanka. While Tamil separatists by no means aim to renew the ancient forms of Vellalar predominance, it is nonetheless true that the cultural conservatism that helps to justify the separatist drive is insidiously tied to the legacy of Vellalar domination. (Bryan Pfaffenberger, 1981)
The push for separatism is therefore influenced by a rather deep-seated insecurity among high-caste Sri Lankan Tamils that sustained Sinhala domination after independence will result in the erosion of their culture and the inter-communal dominance of the Vellalar elites. The rise of the likes of Vellupillai Prabhakaran and the appeal of a group such as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) is attributed to class struggle as the rival People’s Liberation Organization of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE) is dominated by upper caste Tamils. This dimension of inter-communal racism is one that is conveniently downplayed by the majority of western NGOs.
It is also important to note here that there are two major Tamil communities in Sri Lanka: the first is comprised of Tamils traditionally from the north and eastern regions of the island, known as “Jaffna Tamils.” This group enjoys full Sri Lankan citizenship and is considered separate from the hundreds of thousands of Tamils brought to Sri Lanka from India to work as laborers in the tea plantations during British rule. As a result of their low caste status, these Tamils from India are subject to further discrimination from Sri Lankan Tamils themselves.
b) Geo-political Dimensions
On a more geo-political level, “Tamil separatism in Sri Lanka is intimately linked with Tamil separatist tendencies in South India which go back to the nineteenth century, a fact generally little known not only in the Western world but also in India and Sri Lanka” (Susantha Goonetilake 2006: 83). Both groups were driven by a vision of a greater Tamil State that would consist of southern India and the northern tip of Sri Lanka. Aspirations for the creation of a separate Tamil State in India came to a halt however, when India banned separatism. Nevertheless, the fight for a Tamil “homeland” continues on in Sri Lanka—with new-found support from none other than western NGOs.
The Indian government’s involvement in Sri Lanka is a topic of its own. Suffice to say that it has varied over the years, ranging from heightened concern when the Government of Sri Lanka (GoSL) passed the Sri Lanka Official Administrative Language Act in 1956 (infamously known as the “Sinhala Only Act”); insecurity at the island’s pro-western tendencies during the Cold War years, which resulted in India covertly arming Sri Lankan Tamil separatist groups; a proxy invasion of Sri Lanka in the form of a peace-keeping operation (Indian Peace Keeping Operation 1987-1990); to official condemnation of the LTTE after the assassination of Rajiv Ghandi; and at present, support for the GoSL’s efforts to eradicate the threat of terrorism.
c) Historical Dimension
In spite of its size, the island of Sri Lanka is home to a very linguistically, ethnically, and religiously diverse population. In Sri Lanka, “[e]thnic polarization of the modern sort did not exist in pre-colonial [times]…” (Goonetilake 2006: 80). The move to emphasize ethnic differences was part of Britain’s tried and true strategy of creating divisions in order to weaken any movement for collective resistance by the native population. The British thus created a situation that favored the Tamil minority over the majority Sinhalese by appointing a disproportionate number of elite, English-speaking Tamils to fill positions of civil service. And upon independence from Britain, whereas Sinhala and Muslim (Moors) groups worked to overcome ethnic differences and create pan-ethnic political parties, the Tamils opted to form parties along ethnic lines, and,
…in flagrant violation of elementary democracy, the All Ceylon Tamil Congress wanted the 65 percent Sinhalese component of the population to be given the same number of seats in parliament as the Tamils, who comprised just one-fourth of the population…. Members of the Soulbury Commission described this demand as ‘an attempt by artificial means to convert the majority to a minority...’ (Goonetilake 2006: 81).
The Sri Lankan Tamils brought charges of discrimination before a Commission headed by Lord Soulbury, appointed by the British Government in 1945 to review Constitutional Reform when Sri Lanka (then known as Ceylon) was still a colony of the British Empire. The Soulbury Commission determined that the measures taken by the Government of Sri Lanka were not deliberate efforts to discriminate against the Sri Lankan Tamils, but instead, were measures adopted to rectify past injustices perpetrated on the larger Sri Lankan nation. (Jane Russel 1982: 307-311).
After independence from the British in 1948, the Sinhalese majority, in an attempt to compensate for colonial wrongs, passed the Sri Lanka Official Administrative Language Act in 1956, thereby declaring Sinhalese as the official language of the country. However, this act was met with much controversy from both Tamils and Sinhalese as it affected the English-educated elites of the society. In an attempt to diffuse the tense situation, parts of this law was reversed in 1957 thereby recognizing Tamil as the language of a national minority, and allowing it to be used as the language of administration in the Northern and Eastern provinces. The 1978 Constitution further rectified the matter by making Tamil an official national language.
Post-colonial Sri Lanka’s attempts to redress the issue of urban and Tamil over-representation in universities (again, a direct result of Britain’s manipulations favoring the minority Tamils) by introducing affirmative action in the academic arena was also met with resistance from the Tamil minority. However, using the logic of the Soulbury Commission, policies regarding national language and university admission rates as adopted by a newly-independent Sri Lanka would have been seen as non-discriminatory. Justice for Sri Lanka as a whole (not only for the Sinhalese) would of course “adversely” affect the previously privileged ethnic minorities or the economically advantaged as they saw their preferred status erode with the departure of the colonial establishment. This was necessary in order to undo the social and economic inequalities instilled by the British.
Perceptions of discrimination steadily heightened the tensions between the Sinhalese majority in the south and the Tamil minority in the north, creating a hostile environment conducive to the emergence of militant extremists promoting separatist ideology. The LTTE (also known as the “Tigers”) was one such group. Growing animosity between the ethnic groups combined with the militancy of the Tamils led to major riots in 1978. This was followed by politically motivated, violent race riots in 1983, “…prompted by the ambushing and killing of a Sinhalese police patrol by Tamil militants, [causing] many deaths and the displacement of thousands of Tamils, both internally and to Tamil Nadu in India” (Goodhand 1999: 72). The physical and emotional scars from this unspeakable event are still vivid—for all Sri Lankans—but are frequently invoked by the LTTE in justifying its terrorist attacks against the people of Sri Lanka.
The state of affairs progressively worsened after the LTTE engaged in the ethnic cleansing of Sri Lankan Muslims (most of whom speak Tamil) living in the northeastern provinces. Reminiscent of the Nazis, the Tigers issued a chilling ultimatum for the remaining Muslims in the regions of Jaffna, Maullaittivu, Kilinochi, and Mannar to, “…leave or be killed” (Goodhand 1999: 72). All this was done in order to create the fabled Tamil only homeland envisioned by the separatists. Western NGOs rarely bother to mention this atrocity as it complicates the simplistic “Evil Government vs. Good Freedom Fighter” image that is easier to promote. In the handful of instances that it is mentioned, the Sri Lankan Muslim community is portrayed as “caught in the middle,” a euphemism that strategically diminishes the gravity of the crimes perpetrated by the LTTE against Sri Lankan Muslims. The blame is instead shifted on to the GoSL by claims that not enough has been done to include the Muslim minority in the peace process.
The Current Situation
With the events of the 9/11 terror attacks in the United States, there was a new international perception towards global terrorism. Scared into taking action against the spread of terrorism, the situation in Sri Lanka was given increased attention by the West. In February 2002, the ruling party of the Government of Sri Lanka (which was at the time headed by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe) and the LTTE signed a Ceasefire Agreement (CFA) brokered by the Norwegian government. Norway was elected as the mediator and in conjunction with several other Nordic nations they formed the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM), the official observer team of the CFA. It was a time of cautious optimism for Sri Lanka as commercial flights to Jaffna were resumed, the LTTE opened up the main highway between Kandy (in the center of the country) and Jaffna (at the northern-most tip), and renewed international confidence translated to an increase in foreign investment.
The agreement (at least nominally) withstood various instabilities stemming from government power-struggles, the LTTE’s refusal to participate in peace talks in April 2003, a major internal split between the northern and eastern factions of the LTTE, as well as the natural destruction brought on by the tsunami in December 2004. The GoSL withdrew from this agreement in January 2008 according to the terms and conditions stipulated in the CFA due to its overall ineffectiveness, directly caused by the lack of commitment on the part of the LTTE: per the SLMM 351 violations of the CFA are attributed to the GoSL, while the LTTE is responsible for breaching this agreement 3830 times.
The NGO Sector in Sri Lanka
Community or social service in Sri Lanka has an established history, “[originating] in ancient times, from the Buddhist doctrine of compassion and equality irrespective of caste, class, or creed” (Asian Development Bank Study 1999). Such activities were based on the notion of collective self-help and were not dependant on the whims of a donor. Also, these institutions employed democratic decision-making at the local levels long before exposure to European cultures.
Prior to the technical term NGO, the bodies that provided such assistance were known simply as charities or volunteer services, which, “…during the colonial period… were [mostly] tied to religion” (Asian Development Bank Study 1999). However, the context of Sri Lanka’s fight against terrorism is now the most influential factor in shaping the country’s NGO sector. The on-going conflict is the reason for the growing presence of western NGOs as, “…the very carnage the war has unleashed and the government’s inability to provide fundamental services to uplift the living conditions of its population, especially in LTTE controlled areas, has led to a large rise in NGOs” (Neil Devotta 2005: 174). Thus a large part of Sri Lanka’s post-independence NGO sector has emerged as a result of the war; and directly or indirectly, many of the organizations are involved in addressing needs that have arisen (or been overlooked) as a result of the conflict.
After the signing of the CFA in 2002, Sri Lanka saw rapid growth in the NGO sector both in the form of increased donations and the opening of new organizations in Colombo. The influx of foreign funds made Sri Lanka an attractive place for NGOs from around the world; and the increase in western involvement imparted an undeniably foreign feel to the peace process as fluency in English became increasingly necessary in order to gain employment in the sector. Far from being the traditional volunteer with a strong service ethic or an organization that promotes self-sustaining practices, the new breed of worker that was recruited can best be described as a peace mercenary of sorts and the organization as one that is almost parasitic in that it thrives in the presence of conflict.
The aftermath of the Asian tsunami in 2004 resulted in what has been labeled the second wave of growth in the number of international NGOs operating in Sri Lanka. In an attempt to establish some form of order, the GoSL commissioned the establishment of the Center for the Non-Governmental Sector. The center is an attempt to coordinate and facilitate NGO activity in Sri Lanka through registration and active tracking of the various organizations. As of April 2005 the Center only lists 247 registered NGOs/INGOs working in Sri Lanka in various sectors ranging from human rights to agriculture. (Center for Non-Governmental Sector). Of these 186 are registered as local (Sri Lankan), with one Indian NGO, 6 from Japan, and the remaining 54 from North American and European nations. The site lists 73 of the total 247 NGOs as involved specifically in the human rights sector (69 of the organizations are listed as either North American or European, along with one each from India and Bangladesh, and two from Japan). There are 78 unregistered NGOs as of February 2005.
Western NGOs and Westernization of Sri Lanka’s Conflict
The dangers inherent in the aspirations of Tamil separatist ideology are well-understood by all members of the international community. India was among the first nations to ban the LTTE. Canada, Britain and Australia followed suit, and so did the European Union. The most publicized actions however, have been taken by the United States: in 1997 the LTTE was designated as a Foreign Terrorist Organization by Executive Order and under Section 219 of the Immigration and Nationality Act in 1997 by the U.S. Secretary of State; and immediately after the events of 9/11, on November 2, 2001, the U.S. Department of State re-evaluated the status of the LTTE, labeling it a Specially Designated Global Terrorist (SDGT) under Executive Order 13224.
Despite these and other numerous internationally sanctioned bans on the organization, many western NGOs continue to publicly promote the cause of the LTTE, and consequently, the dismemberment of a sovereign nation known as Sri Lanka. By siding with the minority, is the West, through non-governmental agents, attempting to compensate for its colonial past? Whereas the “modern” West openly endorsed racism and oppression based on perceptions of inferiority, the “contemporary modern” West, in the form of NGOs, over-compensates for past transgressions by attempting to champion the cause of every self-proclaimed “oppressed minority.” Western intervention in the affairs of the East may have manifested themselves in various ways over the centuries; but it has (thus far) resulted in the West always enforcing its will on the [inferior] East.
Without endorsement from powerful western allies, minority movements and governments of least developed countries lack international credibility. The LTTE has been quick to recognize the importance of western advocacy for its cause. Countries that provide a strong base of support for LTTE activities abroad include Canada, the U.S., and the U.K. (ironically the same western countries whose governments have denounced the LTTE). These countries are incidentally home to large Tamil immigrant communities. The most influential pro-LTTE groups in Canada, according to the Anti-Defamation League, are the World Tamil Movement and the Federation of Associations of Canadian Tamils. These “charitable” or “human rights” organizations—usually fronts for the banned LTTE—directly work with and/or provide funding for a variety of western NGOs that operate in Sri Lanka.
In the U.S. Tamil separatist groups have successfully garnered the support of established institutions such as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), The Center for Constitutional Rights, and the California based Humanitarian Law Project. The Tamil separatist movement has thus amassed for itself a veritable armada of international interest groups and NGOs. Using these influential lobby groups with their political clout and financial resources to actively approach members of the U.S. Senate and Congress, Tamil separatists have attempted to pass through legislation condemning the GoSL in the U.S. as well as the European Parliament.
The main argument for a separate Tamil state is based on a concept of compensation to the Tamil people for the injustices they have borne at the hands of the Sinhalese. The most frequently cited instances of discrimination include the Citizenship Act of 1948 whereby those Tamils brought over from India to work in the plantations were denied Sri Lankan citizenship; the Sri Lanka Official Administrative Language Act of 1956 that made Sinhala the official language of the country; and the 1971 Standardization policy (commonly known as affirmative action), which attempted to correct for the disproportionate representation of urban and Tamil populations in universities. These grievances have long been addressed by the GoSL through the enactment of legislation that formally states the equality of Tamils as well as other minorities. Aside from a formal state apology for the bloodshed caused by the riots of 1983, everything possible has been done to address the perceived causes for Tamil separatism. Nevertheless, separatists continue to demand nothing less than secession.
Another major piece of misinformation parroted by western NGOs is the concept of a “traditional” Tamil homeland. This idea has been debunked by numerous authorities on the topic, most significantly by a Tamil historian named Indrapala Karthigesu. The origins of this baseless claim is attributed to two sentences written by an ignorant British Colonial Secretary, Sir Hugh Cleghorn,
… [who] stated in 1879 that from ancient times, two nations—Tamil and Sinhala—had lived in the present boundaries of Sri Lanka. This statement not only went against well-accepted historical facts, it also revealed Cleghorn’s ignorance, the measure of which was provided in his third sentence wherein he said that the Sinhalese arrived in the country from Siam… [emphasis added]! (Goonatilake, 2006: 90)
Much to the detriment of the peace process in Sri Lanka, this argument continues to be propagated as gospel truth by western NGOs including reputable organizations such as the International Commission of Jurists. The claim was given further international exposure in 1994 when it was read out in a statement at the 50th Session of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights in Geneva, Switzerland. This document was endorsed by luminaries from the international NGO sector such as the International Association for Educators for World Peace, International League for the Rights and Liberation of Peoples, the International Movement Against All Forms of Discrimination and Racism, and the International Council of Women to name a few (Goonatilake, 2006: 91). These institutions, whose information is valued for its objectivity and integrity is clearly disseminating LTTE-engineered propaganda as their own independent, unbiased research.
Sadly, in supporting the LTTE and their secessionist demands, western NGOs have deeply misunderstood the intricacies of the situation in Sri Lanka. For all their research and analysis, a majority of the West, lead by NGOs, still harbor a delusional view of the situation in Sri Lanka as a straightforward, black and white case of minority oppression by an authoritarian government—which only helps to ethnicize and fuel the conflict further. These NGOs completely ignore the maniacal and fascist tendencies of the LTTE leader, Vellupilai Prabhakaran, and the illegal means through which the war against Sri Lanka is being funded. Western NGOs are truly naïve if they believe that a benevolent Prabhakaran will peacefully step aside if and when a separate Tamil nation is realized, paving the way for transparent, democratic elections. The creation of a separate Tamil state will most definitely not be the happily-ever-after envisioned by these NGOs.
By continuing to spread propaganda that paints the GoSL as a racist, oppressive regime and actively lobbying the European Parliament and the United Nations to condemn the government, western NGOs are openly working to unravel a sovereign state. Instead of sincerely striving to relieve the plight of Sri Lankans, the NGOs that operate in Sri Lanka, their sister organizations and their donors all seek to create two unstable entities, thereby doubly ensuring the longevity of their organizations and continued western domination of the East.
Growing Resentment towards western NGOs
Western NGOs operating in Sri Lanka are increasingly viewed by politicians and the general public with mistrust. The actions of these groups are seen as undermining the overall efforts of the government in combating terrorism; and in light of such sentiment there is growing support for greater government regulation of these foreign bodies. This development however, is in no way recent, though it may have received more attention in the past two decades due to greater international exposure of the conflict in Sri Lanka.
Anti-NGO sentiment in Sri Lanka has been traced back to the 1950s when state prosperity resulted in the redundancy of many local NGOs. The handful that did rise up to national prominence did so with foreign donor assistance and were therefore, “…viewed with some suspicion by the state bureaucracy” (Ranjith Wanigaratne 1997: 221). Hardly recovered from being stifled by over 400 years of back to back colonization by the Portuguese, Dutch and British, international intervention in local affairs in the form of NGO sponsorship was viewed as a form of neo-colonialism.
As the marginalization of NGOs carried on into the 1990s, a government investigation into NGO affairs was commissioned by then President Premadasa. The investigation revealed that, “…by and large the NGO scene in Sri Lanka in the early 1990s was ‘somewhat chaotic, anarchical, and in disarray… [with] no record, official or unofficial, of the exact number of NGOs operating in Sri Lanka” (Wanigaratne 1997: 226). The controversial report documented incidents of NGO workers abusing their status for personal benefit and receiving exorbitant paychecks. However, a major weakness in the investigation is that it only reviewed a select group of local NGOs known for their open criticism of the government. Nevertheless, skepticism towards NGOs as a result of this investigation and its numerous claims of corruption and waste continues to color current sentiment.
The 2004 Asia tsunami brought with it the second spate of growth in NGOs. Despite the life saving work performed by the hundreds of international volunteers especially in the days immediately following the tsunami, these contributions were overshadowed by documented instances of wasted of resources and duplication of aid as the agencies failed to coordinate with each other. These shortcomings were highlighted by the media (local and foreign), much to the detriment of western NGOs. The actions of some organizations further contributed to the local perception of western NGOs as having money to burn as some of these newcomers, hungry for ground staff, “…often lured them with higher salaries from local NGOs, the military, and government” (Glenda Cooper, 2008).One could also argue that some western NGOs do not make enough effort to dispel this “fat cat” image: indeed the traffic choked streets of Colombo are dotted with the trademark white luxury SUVs of various foreign NGOs, replete with flags and agency acronyms emblazoned on the sides of the vehicle. Usually the tinted windows are rolled up tight, indicating that the precious air conditioner is on. Furthermore, some foreign NGOs have their offices in the more exclusive parts of the city, and their employees are spotted dining at the pricier restaurants in town. This overall disparaging view is only compounded by the persistence of the conflict, as western NGOs and their employees are seen to thrive while the people they are supposed to be assisting continue to suffer.
“Peacemakers or Parasites?”
In the immediate aftermath of the Asian tsunami, the assistance of foreign NGOs was invaluable in averting the loss of thousands more lives to disease and starvation. In this case, NGOs lived up to their image as neutral first responders and efficient aid workers. However, in prolonged situations such as the conflict between the LTTE and GoSL in Sri Lanka, NGOs adhere to their official mandate less and less with the passing of time (for example, when an NGO that is only responsible for bringing food and medical aid to a terrorist-occupied town becomes involved in the local dynamics of the conflict—often without government approval—thereby creating more complexities). Additionally, the longer an NGO remains in the afflicted area, the harder it becomes to assess their contributions as their involvement starts to be viewed as a part of the problem. And as the problem escalates, it creates the need for increased foreign intervention, resulting in the proverbial “vicious cycle” that progressively weakens the East and empowers the West.
Field research assessing the impact of NGOs and peace building in Sri Lanka has revealed that, “[at] the level of distributing resources and playing a witnessing role, NGOs are helping mitigate some of the impacts of conflict on the most vulnerable sections of the population” (Jonathan Goodhand and Nick Lewer, 1999: 69). The presence of NGOs, especially those from western countries, has a strong impact on deterring violence against the most vulnerable. However, in the case of Sri Lanka, western NGOs have progressed beyond their capacity as neutral observers, and have adopted an openly antagonistic stance precisely towards the contingent they are supposed to assist!
Instead of cooperating with the GoSL by possibly organizing trainings for soldiers on war time conduct or bringing international pressure on the LTTE terrorists to discontinue the targeting of innocent civilians, western NGOs go over the head of a sovereign nation by taking provocative actions such as making disparaging remarks against the GoSL in international venues such as the United Nations, the British Parliament, or U.S. Senate. Such confrontational action is severely detrimental to the peace process in Sri Lanka as it prolongs the conflict by forcing the GoSL to defend itself on two fronts: against a legitimate enemy and a body of western NGOs.
NGOs can also exacerbate a conflict at a more local level with peace building efforts that are not based on a thorough understanding of the local grievances, as was the case with Oxfam and a relief and rehabilitation project in the town of Mullipottanai (Goodhand, 2006: 112). Bolstered by enviable operating budgets, western NGOs tend to hit the field with over-ambitious agendas that are not always sensitive to the societal intricacies and cultural dimensions of a crisis. Furthermore, disparaging opinions of state institutions may lead Western NGOs to avoid collaborating with local governments, thereby aggravating an already tense situation.
Thus, in the case of Sri Lanka, the involvement of western NGOs has not made a significant contribution towards ending the conflict. Rather, they have prolonged the problem by directly interfering with the government’s right to ensure the welfare of the nation by taking actions that are permitted under international law. The most widely used argument used by NGOs whenever they come under such criticism however, is to call attention to their work in the aftermath of the tsunami. But the war and the tsunami are two dramatically different events on several levels and the actions taken in one cannot be substituted for the other.
Although it may be viewed by some as such, this paper is not an endorsement of Sinhalese nationalist extremism—or any form of extremism for that matter. It was intended to remove the western NGO from the gilded cage created for it by neo-Orientalist myopia to better observe the enduring influence of colonialism. This case study is a metaphor for the broader relationship of Asia to meta-Europe in the context of contemporary modernity and the ways in which the autonomy of the East is limited by the power of the modern, or in this case, Europe.
Western NGOs have become self-proclaimed experts on the history of the conflict in Sri Lanka (whether one labels it an ethnic crisis or a crisis of the state is irrelevant) as well as the future of Sri Lanka. These NGOs that lambast the GoSL to no end on human rights violations did not utter a word in protest when a suicide bomber feigning pregnancy walked into a military facility with the intention of killing an Army Chief, and incidentally injured over 25 civilians visiting relatives at the base. Not a word was spoken against the LTTE when a suicide bomber caused senseless bloodshed at a local sporting event celebrating the traditional Sinhala and Tamil New Year. How many government officials—Sinhalese and Tamil—have been ruthlessly assassinated by the LTTE while western NGOs have stood by silent? If this happened to a western minister or politician, would there be such a glaring absence of international outrage?
In the case of Sri Lanka, the attempt to develop and assert a new, post-colonial identity has been stymied by western involvement in the form of NGOs. By severely limiting the ability of the popularly elected government to take the necessary actions to safeguard the nation, NGOs have not only exacerbated the situation, but has given the West a claim over the conflict. However, the government’s refusal to blindly succumb to the wishes of western NGOs represents the East’s struggle to free itself from being a subject of the West.
|Last Updated ( Monday, 09 March 2009 )|
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