By Rajiva Wijesinha –
The last few weeks have seen much agitation about Non-Governmental Organizations, with threats to introduce new legislation to control them more effectively. The whole exercise seemed to me absurd, since existing legislation is quite enough to prevent abuse. If it is not working, it is because the personnel involved are incompetent, and even much stronger legislation or regulation will serve no purpose unless more capable people are deployed.
Unfortunately the President has been pushed into a position where he can only employ the second rate for this purpose, as he has realized was the case with Lakshman Hulugalle. The only qualification for the job seems to be total subservience to the powers that be, what Dayan Jayatilleka described as the Mafia lawyer syndrome when he first identified the breed, six years ago. He actually demonstrated the posture, hands held crossed behind the back, head nodding in acquiescence, claiming that the model derived from ‘The Godfather’.
How sad the situation of the present incumbent of the position is became clear when I attended the launch of the Roadmap prepared by the Association of Women Affected by War. I sat behind so did not recognize the attractive young lady who was in the centre of the front row along with a couple of envoys. It was only at the end that I realized she was Sanam Naraghi-Anderlini, whom I had met a few weeks earlier at the Oslo Forum where I had been invited to debate against Mr Sumanthiran on the propriety of talking to extremists.
By then I knew that she had been instrumental in developing Security Council Resolution 1325 about the need to involve women in peace initiatives – and also that, though invited for the launch, she had been forbidden to speak. The press had also been barred from attending the event.
The ban was graphically and emotively referred to by President Chandrika Kumaratunge, who was the Chief Guest. She apologized on behalf of not just those present, but the nation, which was a much harsher critique than anything the lady herself could have delivered. Indeed I have no doubt that the latter would not have said anything negative, but would have concentrated on the very laudable objectives of the Roadmap.
The ban had not been in writing, but delivered verbally, and no reason had been given. The rationale it seemed was that the Director General of the NGO Secretariat feared what the Secretary of Defence would have said had there been newspaper reports about the event.
This seemed preposterous because, while the Secretary does tend to explode on occasion, he is not entirely unreasonable, and a speech by a foreigner would not necessarily have drawn his wrath. By preventing the lady from speaking, the NGO Secretariat had simply confirmed the impression that we are heading towards anarchy, with no clarity about what is permissible. In sharp contrast to this excessive caution was the reaction when I suggested that the Bodhu Bala Sena should be banned. I was told that I would accuse the government of being a dictatorship if that occurred. Evidently rhetoric that provokes violence is acceptable, whereas a figure of international repute has to be prevented from addressing a gathering designed to promote the Rights of Women.
All this neurosis is self destructive. But I fear such absurdities have now been going on for years. And the most absurd fact is that the very few NGOs that are opposed to the government have continued to function effectively, and obtain all the funds they need, whereas the blocks that are arbitrarily put in place serve only to stymie the vast majority who are simply anxious to help our people.
When I was Secretary to the Ministry of Disaster Management and Human Rights, which had a mandate during the conflict period to coordinate humanitarian assistance, I tried to put in place some principles of management, and succeeded to a limited extent. But that mechanism was dispensed with when Basil Rajapaksa decided to become the arbiter of all such activity, and unfortunately he had no idea about how to assess the inputs of any agency. Those who wanted to get round him found it quite easy, and then proceeded to do what they wanted, as occurred with IOM – until a problem occurred, and then what had been flavor of the month was put in the doghouse.
The main instrument of restricting activity was the Presidential Task Force, which blocked many positive initiatives. I hasten to add that its chief executive, Mr Divaratne, was not generally negative, and achieved much, in line with his efficient and effective performance previously as Commissioner General of Essential Services. But the rest of his executive staff seemed to think blocking was their main role, and it was often only through Mr Divaratne’s personal intervention that things moved forward. But getting through to him was not easy for many of those keen to work, and so many positive initiatives fell by the wayside.
The PTF also was not able to monitor the work it had permitted. Twice I was asked to assess reports, and I sent detailed analyses to Mr Divaratne, which indicated who was working coherently and effectively (Save the Children, for instance, for whom my respect increased in going through their detailed accounts of work) and who was, as it were, fudging. But I refused to go through a third lot, since I thought a system needed to be put in place. But that did not happen, perhaps because those nervous of excessive competence did not want me to be part of such a system.
The President however, who does not suffer from such insecurities, included monitoring such activities in my list of duties as Adviser on Reconciliation, and I received full cooperation from General Chandrasiri, who first drew my attention to the incoherent manner in which projects were recorded, in giving me the schedule prepared by OCHA, the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Assistance. But when I contacted them, I found that they had simply put together the data, and were waiting for instructions as to how this should be ordered and employed.
Given that I did not want to tread on any toes, I then contacted Lakshman Hulugalle, who headed the NGO Secretariat. He proved extremely helpful, and in fact admitted that he did not really know how to do the job, and even suggested that I have a room in his office. But just as we were putting a system in place, I failed to vote for the impeachment of the Chief Justice, and he panicked. He stopped taking my calls, and was simple enough, when I did meet him somewhere, to say that I must have thought he was avoiding me because of that episode. That was obvious, I said, and inevitably, despite reassurances, I never heard from him again.
So that initiative too fell by the wayside. Ironically, some years previously, at the request of a bright member of our diplomatic service, I had written a paper on ‘Post Conflict Reconstruction in Sri Lanka and the International Community’ in which I had suggested guidelines for working productively with NGOs. This was for a book which he hoped to have published to suggest policy initiatives after the conflict. But, needless to say, the Minister managed to kill that initiative dead, and the papers have lain dormant, sent I believe to the distinguished academics who run the Lakshman Kadirgamar Institute for International Relations and Security Studies to assess (though having dug out the paper in writing on this subject, I will now put it up on my blog, www.rajivawijesinha.wordpress.com).
That the Ministry, which should take the lead, given that our Ministry was abolished, in developing relations with the international community, will do nothing is however obvious from the manner in which it has signally ignored the recommendation of the LLRC that we should develop better relations with the diaspora. Instead it had allowed the term diaspora to become a dirty word. How thorough now is the perception that the diaspora is dangerous – even though our security agencies confirm that only about 7% of the diaspora still hankers after separatism – became clear to me when I was told that Diaspora Sri Lanka needed to change its name.
This is an agency based in Australia which has been doing excellent work in Mannar, in cooperation with the authorities, the GA and the Security Forces as well as the Urban Council. They have excellent ideas, including coherent town planning, for which they worked together with the Urban Development Authority and the National Physical Planning Department. But despite all this they were told that the name made them sound suspicious, and they should change it.
I would not have been surprised if, given such pernickety behavior, the organization upped and left. Fortunately its principal agent is made of sterner stuff, and will do his best to continue, not least because of the appreciation of the people and officials in Mannar. But given the present state of panic, I suspect things will become harder, and government will succeed in driving everyone away – except for those whose agendas will o benefit from such crassness.