Kroner cronies and DPL flag-wavers
At last. Last Sunday this newspaper said on its front page "Fresh moves to check NGOs." Whether there were earlier attempts to do so, particularly following the Wanasundera Commission report of the late 1980s, I do not know.

If not it was a "grievous fault" as Mark Antony might have said. More than six months ago this column took up the issue of the proliferation of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in Sri Lanka that seemed to be multiplying faster than rabbits.

At that time I was in Colombo and there was a great public unease, to be euphemistic, at the presence of so many foreign-funded organisations that had set up shop and were functioning in the country as though it was still some colonial outpost.

Colombo society seemed to accept their presence with equanimity as it does with anything foreign. After all it gives the more prominent among them the opportunity to rub shoulders with these latter-day Colonel Blimps and even rent out their houses for dollars and kroners.

Yet the more thinking people in Sri Lankan society are increasingly worried at the stranglehold these NGOs seem to have on sections of our political establishment and bureaucracy who fatten themselves on NGO largesse.

In a column headlined "Beware of the new Greeks bearing gifts" we wrote: "Vultures gather when carrion is seen. In an increasingly conflict and poverty-ridden world where literally thousands die each day, do-gooders backed by international donors gather to proffer friendly advice and help. Peace and conflict-prevention and resolution-this has been the growth industry for many years as AIDS has become today, with NGOs scrambling to get into the act."

It is a pity that the Chandrika Kumaratunga government did not see what was happening right before its eyes. The previous Wickremesinghe administration was so wrapped up in its own visions of peace in the country that it not only obsequiously gave everything the LTTE demanded (remember the surreptitious tripartite deal among the Norwegians, government bureaucrats and the Tigers on the communications equipment and unchecked baggage?) but allowed dubious NGOs with even more dubious 'chieftains' and funded by not transparent sources, to operate in the country. One would have thought that when the new government assumed office it would be more cautious and vigilant. But no. This government did not seem particularly averse to hordes of do-gooders particularly from the rich west remitting their kroners to cronies in Sri Lanka, purportedly for the benefit of the country where very soon all could live happily.

Now it has taken a devastating tsunami and more than 30,000 deaths for a purblind administration to open its eyes and try to focus on what knowledgeable people from around the world have seen over the years-the threat from dubious NGOs allowed to operate freely in sovereign territory.

Let's make one thing absolutely clear. This is not an attempt to paint every NGO with the same brush. Over the years there have been, and still are, NGOs that have made a significant contribution to improving the human rights records of authoritarian governments by bringing international pressure on them, have brought important training skills, helped in creating the conditions for good governance and have played a vital role in mobilising civil society against economic and social injustice, as they did in Seattle in 1999 when protesting against the WTO.

But that is a far cry from saying that all NGOs have acted with responsibility or been guided by the salutary objectives on which they were founded. The vast majority of NGOs are funded by rich western nations or foundations and institutions that in turn receive money from their governments or public. This is so because poor or developing nations cannot always afford to finance such organisations.

There are, no doubt, NGOs engaged in activities that are basically non-controversial. That could be anything from an educational project, upgrading of skills or much-needed technical training. The problem is when some NGOs begin operating in countries that have domestic armed conflicts or other sharp political and social cleavages in society with the potential for serious conflict.

There is sufficient empirical evidence to show that there have been foreign-funded NGOs that have either on their own volition or to serve the political-economic agenda of their donors, interfered in domestic politics and conflicts in the countries in which they have operated.

It is known that foreign funds have often been siphoned off to support dissident groups and subvert governments and sovereign states. Multinational NGOs operating on funds from rich western governments or powerful corporations have meddled in essentially internal affairs of sovereign states.

One of the problems is that not only have NGOs with a multiplicity of agendas emerged but they are increasingly assuming the character of giant corporations without any accountability. One reason for this is the so-called globalisation.

A little over two years ago a UN report stated that there were 37,000 NGOs in the world. Even if that figure has not increased considerably today, that is a huge number of NGOs, with perhaps little accountability.

We know from past experience how some NGOs operating in Sri Lanka wooed and won into its fold important politicians and bureaucrats. The Norwegian- funded Worldview Foundation was one such and the Norwegian Foreign ministry was finally forced to withdraw funding after an investigation disclosed its activities.

But surely there are other NGOs whose activities might prove even more dangerous to the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Sri Lanka. On the back of the tsunami so many foreign agencies and groups came into the country. Some with bibles in their hands - as an article in the prestigious Christian Science Monitor pointed out - and others with knocked-down helicopters, body armour and what not, exacerbating already existing tensions in the country.What else was brought into the country in the guise of relief aid and assistance will probably never be known. There is a definite need for NGOs operating in Sri Lanka to be made to account for the sources of their funding, for what purpose, how it will be and is in fact utilised and other relevant details.

It is not only Sri Lanka that is concerned about the activities of NGOs. In mid-2003 UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan appointed a panel headed by former Brazilian president Henrique Cardoso to examine relations with civil society. I don't know whether the panel has handed over its recommendations.

But one question that was before the panel was the need for a set of basic legal guidelines to which all NGOs will have to be accountable. Perhaps we need them even more and soon.

That is not all. Today some Colombo-based diplomats seem to think they own the country and have not only the freedom but the right to travel wherever they want and meet who ever they want.The Vienna Convention lays down the ground rules for diplomatic conduct. But that does not mean that the Foreign Ministry cannot formulate guidelines for diplomats on our territory.

I wonder whether the British Government would allow our diplomats in London to meet and talk with leaders of the IRA, if such meetings could be set up. Maybe some reciprocity is in order. But guidelines should apply universally and any movements beyond a certain limit should be after informing the foreign ministry. Otherwise everybody will begin to act in the undiplomatic and ham-handed way in which the Italians behaved the other day giving aid directly to the LTTE.

One does not expect the descendants of Mussolini to be particularly versed in diplomatic niceties. But there is nothing wrong in trying to learn- not from the Norwegians, of course, who contributed the word Quisling to our vocabulary while supporting another fascist-the Fuhrer.

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