25 February, 2024


‘Civil Society’ Needs To Be Nationalized!

By Malinda Seneviratne

Malinda Seneviratne

‘Civil Society’ is old and as is usually the case predates the term. Scholars argue that it is drawn from the Aristotelian phrase ‘koinōnía politikḗ (κοινωνία πολιτική)’ which refers to a community of citizens subject to the rule of law. Apparently it entered the Western political discourse only after Aristotle’s work was translated into Latin by late medieval and early Medieval writers such as William of Moerbeke and Leonardo Bruni. Its more recent meaning derives from the usage of dissidents such as Václav Havel who used it in contradistinction to intrusive holistic state-dominated regimes in the Soviet Bloc of nations.

Another term that is often used as coterminous with ‘civil society’ is NGO, i.e. Non-Governmental Organizations. Like civil society, the term came late although the notion dates back to the late eighteenth century. The term came into popular use only after 1945 when the UN discussed a consultative role for outfits that are not member states or governments.

Technically even corporations are NGOs since they are not nations or governments. Technically, they can claim to be part of civil society too. If we delve into things and processes deep enough we can of course make the argument that even NGOs, like corporates are embedded in ‘government’. And, if we keep digging, we would have to ask whether NGOs are really part of civil society.

On the surface, however, the distinction is clear enough. There’s always been a fair amount of distrust between the NGO community and successive government, even though prominent NGOs in Sri Lanka (in particular those whose ‘civil society’ credentials are suspect) tend to be pally with UNP governments or leaders who have antipathies towards Sinhalese and Buddhists. Outwardly NGOs and governments have shown suspicion about each other’s motives and see each other as spoilers.

NGOs badmouth governments and governments return the favor. We’ve seen a lot of that. They both claim representative edge. Governments say ‘we were elected, therefore we have a right to represent’. NGOs say, as mentioned, that they are a part of civil society. They can and do point out that being elected is one thing but that does not necessarily mean the elected represent the electors. This we know.

There’s a question that’s not been asked enough: ‘What right in terms of numbers, reach and acceptance do NGOs have to toss around the representational rights implied in the term ‘civil society’ which they use as though they own it?’

I wrote an article seven years ago titled ‘And civil society (real) floors civil society (imagined)’. Fake would work better than ‘imagined’ I now feel. Anyway, the article contained the following observation:

“NGOs are made of workshops, seminars, project proposals, reports, double-billing and overheads that make up more than two thirds of annual budgets. They are also made of claims, chief among which is that of representational lie. ‘We are civil society,’ NGO personnel like to think and state. They are an incestuous bunch, these NGOs. They form consortia and forums which are made of the same groups and led by the same people. They appoint each other to each others boards. They applaud one another and occasionally give each other awards for this and that. They quote one another. They scratch each other’s backs.”

As for their use of the ‘civil society’ tag, this is what I wrote:

“They say they represent ‘civil society’, but don’t say ‘well, no one elected us, and to be honest, our views are marginal or less and more seriously are based on assumptions that reality rebel against’. Ask them to organize a demonstration or announce a public seminar and less than a hundred turn up. Indeed, most of their operations are of the behind-closed-doors kind. And yet, they bat on. Courtesy of friends in big-name diplomatic missions and big-name countries whose political agendas vis-à-vis Sri Lanka coincide with theirs.”

The article contrasted this patten of operation with a resolution passed at the Annual General Meeting of a bank that was built by the thrift and credit cooperative movement of this country, better known by its Sinhala acronym SANASA. The shareholders, many representing SANASA primary societies, unanimously resolved to reject the infamous ‘Darusman Report’. To those who may have forgotten, this report was the one produced by a ‘panel of experts’ appointed by the UN Secretary General to investigate accountability issues related to Sri Lanka’s war on terrorism. The name refers to the Chairman of the panel, Indonesian politician Marzuki Darusman.

The key issue here is representation. The SANASA movement counts over 8000 primary societies whose work covers thrift and credit primarily, but also embraces social, cultural and moral development. At the time, over 3800 such societies owned shares in the SANASA Development Bank. Each society has between 100 and 2000 members with the average being over 400. Even if we took the average as 200, this meant that over 740,000 people were represented at the AGM.

From a movement which counts over 8000 primary societies or groups devoted to the subject of thrift and credit, with social, cultural and moral upliftment embedded into agenda, SANASA counts more than 5000 entities that are active and hundreds with assets and business that easily best branches of well-established commercial banks. A total exceeding 3800 own shares in the SANASA Development Bank.

Now that is ‘representation’ and that’s what is important, not whether they approved or rejected some flawed report put together by the ignorant or misled.

Now these people don’t use the term ‘civil society’. The question is, do those who actually use the term have anything like the representational cloud that the SANASA movement has?

A highly celebrated NGO personality (decorated by fellow travelers and given to decorating fellow travelers) was once asked how many people he could get to a demonstration if his funding dried up. His answer says a lot: ‘to be honest, none’.

So where’s the accountability? To whom are they answerable? To ‘the people’ implied in the usage of the term ‘civil society’ or to donor agencies (International NGOs and foreign countries)? When the Right to Information Act was being drafted, I know for a fact that ‘NGO representatives’ involved in the process did their best to limit the legislation to state agencies. It was no small victory that the Act included provisions for binding NGOs to respond to queries, even though we have heard noises about NGOs refusing to cooperate.

The problem is that the term ‘civil society’ is loosely used and in practice has little to do with ‘all of society’. Rather, the work is mostly about furthering the ideological projects of the minuscule numbers that make up these outfits. Just to illustrate the point, during the conflict, a demonstration was organized at Lipton’s Circus by a group calling itself ‘100 Peace Organizations’. There were less than 100 people attending that protest.

This is why it is argued by some that ‘civil society’ is just another name for name-board outfits made of people who are members of multiple NGOs whose ‘work’ can be described as agitation and whose innovation and creativity is framed by narrow political agenda at best and by monetary needs in the main.

Sometime in the early years of this decade, Indika Jayaratne, an announcer at the Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation, made a pertinent comment on NGOs and civil society. He said, in Sinhala, ‘sivil samaajaya janasathu kala yuthui’ (civil society should be nationalized). The word ‘nationalization’ was turned into cuss-word by the UNP and the political right. That’s another discussion of course. The reversal, interestingly, was called ‘janathaakaranaya’ (‘peoplization’) in the Premadasa years. It was in essence, at best, a ‘some peoplization’ in that it allowed the wealthy to take over state-owned enterprises.

The word however has some uses. If you want to call it janathaakaranaya then a ‘peoplization’ of NGOs would give more credibility to the ‘civil society’ label. ‘Nationalization’ or ‘janasathukaranaya’ would be even better for multiple reasons. First it implies ownership by the people and not a few individuals who rake in the bucks under cover of a rubber-stamping set of overseers on a ‘Board’. Secondly, it would necessitate a solid and comprehensive understanding of the entire nation and not just some constituent part, typically a Colombo-based, insular community who uses as alibi some collective that suffered some injustice, perceived or real. It all boils down to bucks, social standing and the furthering of narrow political projects, as mentioned.

The issue is, we don’t know if NGOs are really interested in being honorable about using tags such as ‘civil society’. Typically, those who have the edge do not concede it without a fight. Lump all NGOs who use that term and ask them to come up with numbers and representational spread and the response would be silence or contentious. The problem is that they’ve given civil society a bad name and thereby robbed the empowering potential of the idea, just like how this government has made it next to impossible to use the term ‘yahapalanaya’ (good governance).

The reality check arrives unexpectedly, though. It happened when the entire federalist tribe was stumped despite the bucks, access to resources and close connections with the dominant political leadership of the time. They, then, typically talk about masses being asses. The fact of the matter is that the ass-masses, so-called, are not stupid. They know who represents them and who cannot. They know how to pick the lesser evil of the moment.

It is better for NGOs to explore ‘civil society (real)’ and find out the degree of mismatch between aspirations and indeed overall understanding of social, economic, cultural and political realities. They can back off from the practice of prescription and lip-servicing notions such as ‘participation’ (typically purchased by ‘attendance fees’). They can discover ‘nation’ in its entirety including its history and heritage in all its rich detail including of course error and horror.

Nationalization of Civil Society (fake). Now that’s a project, but one which they might not get any funds to implement, but that’s the only way to get a hang of Civil Society (real) and win the usage-rights. This side of nationalization (in the most comprehensive meaning of that term) one can only expect error, abuse, further corruption of the term and eventually the subversion of civil society (in the broadest and most accurate meaning of the term).

Malinda Seneviratne is a freelance writer. malindasenevi@gmail.com. www.malindawords.blogspot.com

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Latest comments

  • 3

    Does the author really want readers to believe that SANASA membership was involved in evaluating the ‘Darusman’ report and making any determination? Being a beneficiary of the movement make him promote a fallacy here?

  • 2

    Civil Soociety aka Open Society is every where in the world and is funded by the USA secret services. So, nationalize means take over the movement and you yourself fund it treat them as govt employees we have the benefit og that. who asks you to weite this article. Who wants it funded by the govt itself. Are you looking for funds to contest the election ?

  • 1

    In Sri lanka, True INGOS are within the govt buildings and politicians know it There is a DUTCH INGO who is doing everythign about Sri lankan economy. Probably, they provide statistics to the world.

  • 1

    This can’t be Aristotle Onasis for sure.. Anyway wonder what happened to those genes which gave us Democracy & Civilization even before Lord Buddha..
    These NGOs are a funny bunch Aren’t they?.
    I knew a few Middle age NGOs from the West who set up little businesses with our potential NGOs prowling the beaches after the Tsunami hit Lankawe.
    Don’t know what happened to them.

    Another occasion I ran into a another NGO lady in a Lift at a Colombo 4* Digs.
    She was sort of surprised that I spoke to her in English , although her English wasn’t the best coming from Netherland.
    Anyway she said she is a Boss Lady of a NGO .And she was there to do an Inspection Tour and have a few Meetings with fellow NOGs .
    And she was there for a Week.
    .Even my little room was just under USD 100 although not many Tourists were there because of our mate Mr Pira.

    The biggest and the most important issue of Lankawe now is Dr Ranils new Constitution although it is buried to some extent, with not so important Mahendran’s Bond Rigging.
    Unlike Dr Ranil , his uncle JR was a true Sinhala Buddhist who had the foresight to put in a President and a new Constitution mainly to safe guard the Sinhala Buddhist influence in their own Land which they had in their possession even during Aristotle’s time.
    The Old Political Fox knew how underpivileged the great majority were and the only influence they had was their Vote Base to Elect someone who can safeguard their Nation.
    The Old man’s Vision was proven beyond doubt with Mahinda Rajapaksa liberating Lankawe from the Pirahaparn Tigers whom the NGOs and the West insisted that can not be defeated…
    Dr Ranil now wants to take it away from them for good. with his New Constitution.
    And the main forces behind Dr Ranil are the NGOS, Abraham,Sambandan,Western Consulates , US and the JVP..

    • 5

      KASmaalam K A Sumanasekera

      I suspect wannihami, Malinda Seneviratne, yourself, ………….. are looking for a lucrative job with INGO’s.

      “I knew a few Middle age NGOs from the West who set up little businesses with our potential NGOs prowling the beaches after the Tsunami hit Lankawe.”

      You mean the one Mahinda looted just after the Tsunami attack?
      By the way Civil Societies were the invention of the west and introduced by bible wielding proselytising Christians in this island followed by Helena, Blavatsky and Henry S. Olcott establishing various societies. Your grand parents and their siblings would have benefited from them.


    • 5


      KASmaalam K A Sumanasekera

      “The Old Political Fox knew how underpivileged the great majority were and the only influence they had was their Vote Base to Elect someone who can safeguard their Nation.”

      And he used caste based politics among Sinhalese to benefit his elections by approving candidate who has support among his castes. He would have written a book on this matter if he had lived longer.

      He chose two bigoted racists who caused extreme damaged to this island and people to manage his racist policies though he was a descendant of South India. Cyril Mathew who professed to safeguard Sinhala/Buddhism and Sinhala/Buddhists by destroying a magnificent library and caused immense destruction in 1983 never bothered to change his Christian name. The other one, Nayake with Indian ancestry wowed to kill all Tamils particularly the upcountry people in 45 minutes if ever India attempted to invade this island. India did and later transpired Nayake was very closed to Delhi Sultanate.

      The old fox immunized all those who caused destruction from justice and punishment. Members of Jathika Sevaka Sangamaya (JSS) (the vanguard ?) were rewarded with top jobs in the state owned institutions and later lucrative commissions from government suppliers.

      Are you saying The Old Political Fox didn’t know anything about his men undermining his authority and siphoning large sums from various contracts and were behind all those atrocities including stoning a judge’s house, beating up trade unionists?

      During JR’s time you must be away studying in Hong Kong and didn’t have internet hence not well informed.

      • 0

        iDear Native,
        Thanks to the Colonel and his Russian dame, I am here taking on Dr Ranil suckers, who are hell bent on degrading Sinhala Buddhism and trying to castrate the Sinhala Buddhist Influence in their own Mahavamsa Land where Sinhala Buddhsts led civilized lives, long before Jesus Christ

        I am sure there are thousands of others too ,who have learned to read and write and even obtained real deal PhDs in many fields, although some of whom may have become Dr Ranil suckers.

        So don’t insult those two exceptional Human beings who were more Buddhist than the Yahapalana Buddhists , including the Yahaplana Monk Damil Amila.-

        If you keep denigrating them for no reason, I will have to really think whether I should still consider you as a mate….

        • 5

          KASmaalam K A Sumanasekera

          I am told there is no cure for paranoia.
          Tell us exactly how we can help you.

          “Sinhala Buddhsts led civilized lives”

          There was no Sinhala/Buddhism before the advent of the public racist Aryan Anagarika Homeless Dharmapala. Therefore please don’t kid yourself imagined people. As I understand it Buddhism is being slowly strangled to death by Sinhala/Buddhism and Sinhala/Buddhists are like parasites living off the hosts Sinhalese and Buddhists.

          ” If you keep denigrating them for no reason, I will have to really think whether I should still consider you as a mate….”

          The Truth Will Set You Free, But First It Will Piss You Off – Unknown.

          Therefore I am here to p**s off.

          • 4

            KASmaalam K A Sumanasekera

            I am sorry the last sentence should read
            “Therefore I am here to p**s you off.

  • 7

    Nobody denies there are shortcomings in the way civil society/NGO organizations function – just like every social institution in developing democracies. There are no clear demarcations, boundaries based on the principle of separation of powers in our political system. Remnants of feudal mentality still interfere with the proper functioning of what is supposed to be a democratic state. One can understand, a fully-fledged secularism is not feasible due to the political contingencies that continue to shape the evolution of the Sri Lankan state. Yet the encroachment and domination of the state by Sinhala-Buddhism is way beyond any democratic state can sustain. This is the root cause of the political crisis in which we are caught at the moment. As per Malinda’s own logic, the Buddhist Sangha is also constituted by civil society, non-governmental organizations. They are also corporations in some aspects of their role and function. So are the church organizations, but they don’t have much political clout for obvious reasons. The Buddhist organizations are demanding even more power to dictate policy to the popularly elected governments. It is the civil society/NGO sector that can act as a counterbalance to such threats to democracy and human rights. What Malinda, the perpetual whinger, is carping about is the very existence of civil society/NGOs. They are an essential part of any modern democracy worthy of its name, just like trade unions, political parties, and the media. So learn to live with it – unless your intention is to destroy democracy and set up a Sinhala-Buddhist fascist state. Malinda, what do you mean by nationalization? What ‘nation’ are you implying? You’re talking about the accountability of NGOs. Are the Buddhist clergy accountable to the Buddha? If not, why are they carrying on in his name? Just to elevate themselves and intimidate the rest of the society into submission? Malinda, what you’re talking about is not nationalization, but statization. I’m beginning to think you’re a statist – a shameless Sinhala-Buddhist statist.

    • 1

      AJAY: Wha tkind of Monkey or Donkey are you. YOu think Asians and Sri lankans were monkies before you people were coming ?

  • 5

    The Colombo liberals aka the boot lickers of the western neo-liberals pay homage to the Fake Civil Society, which pays it self, align itself to a neo-liberal political agendas, and hire each other’s friends and relatives. It does nothing for the common man. The true civil society which has operated at local and mainly rural levels, such as farmer’s cooperatives, water management cooperatives, women’s societies, Temple donation and trustee societies, death benefit societies has operated for 100s of years and had helped many. It is time to expose the urban based Fake Civil Society for what it is. Thanks Malinda for this article.

    • 7

      Is the Hami from the Wanni the “Thimbirigasyaya Man” cross dressing? Giving comrade Malinda a pat on his back? Check him out. His cliches are a dead give-away. Did he also dance on the streets with “the common man” at the “jana balaya kolomabata”?

      • 0

        Leon you got me mate, how did you know that I could be many people to many people?

        • 3

          Because, like I said, you are a dead give-away. Did you also do the yakka dance on the streets with “the common man” at the “jana balaya kolomabata”? Why don’t you cut the name dropping crap and answer Native Vedda? Its like you have an OCD about Neoliberalism. And that’s not listed yet in DSM-5.

          • 2

            Leon Anthony

            wannihami or others who drop names such as western neo-liberals, neo-liberal political agendas, Washington Consensus, integration, one nation, one people, sovereignty ………………. actually do not know what these phrases mean, ……… they just pick them from their friends or racists like Dayan, Malinda, ………….. and drop them here there everywhere in order to impress their mates or their wife.

    • 6


      You are going on about lots of things that requires clarification for example could it be possible for you to actually stop dropping names and explain the following:

      boot lickers
      western neo-liberals
      pay homage
      Fake Civil Society (with examples)
      neo-liberal political agendas

      By the way most civil societies were established by Christian missioneries for example:
      The Ceylon Bible Society (1812)
      The Christian Literature Society of Ceylon (1858)
      The Young Men’s Christian Association 1882.-

      As a result/reaction Hindu, Buddhists, Muslim … societies sprung to counter Christian societies, following/copying their same structure.

      Then came Helena, Blavatsky and Henry S. Olcott who helped to establish Protestant Buddhism followed by the establishment of
      Buddhist Theosophical Society
      Women’s Education Society (1889)
      Mahabodhi Society (1891)
      Young Men’s Buddhist Association (1898)
      Ceylon Women’s Union (1904)
      Ceylon Social Reform Society (1905)
      Lanka Mahila Samiti (1931)
      Thrift and Credit Co-operative Societies (1906)

      Human rights activism commenced Following the 1971 massacres of innocent youth by the weeping widow and her merry men.


      If you trace back your family history long enough you would find the earliest boot lickers among your ancestors and you among the current ones.
      Remember community based producer cooperatives were destroyed by the weeping widow and her merry men in the 1970s.

  • 0

    AJAY like Donkies shoul not be met in blogs like ibstead they should be met indront of a TV camara/programs.

  • 8

    Malinda Seneviratne

    The pressing question is how do we socialize the costs of your idiosyncrasies while you enjoy privatised profits from your typing? Shouldn’t the state nationalise you to keep you immobile? That would be a cost worth paying.

  • 6

    Colombo Telegraph keeps failing to publish some very important news stories and record other crucial events for the benefit of its readership but oddly enough it devotes a lot of valuable space to the prejudiced rantings of ‘useless fellows’ like Malinda Seneviratne. It seems CT has got its priorities all screwed up.

    I would draw a sharp distinction between Civil Society and NGOs. The raison d’etre for civil society is to act as a watchdog on government, to agitate for the rule of law and good governance, promote an orderly and peaceful life for the citizens and foster democracy and freedom. It does not provide aid or assistance or give donations to the poor.

    The function of NGO’s is different. They are basically charitable organizations. Their objective is to help people in need, especially those who are in dire straits. They do this by providing funding for education of children, training people in skills needed to establish livelihoods, assisting people who have been affected by natural or man-made disasters etc. They also donate building materials, agricultural equipment, and fishing craft etc. to those who need such help.

    I think the author of this article should go back to school.

  • 3

    In a sense Malinda, the UN is a giant NGO. ’Nationalise’ UN…?? Mind boggles…..
    NGOs are set up by concerned people following approval of a mission statement.
    Malinda points out the local SANASA commenting on what is known locally as the Darusman report (the name chosen by the Wimal ilk). Agree SANASA strayed.
    By the way Darusman is Indonesian but not a politician.
    Some NGOs ‘disappear’ once the real mission is achieved – example Namal Rajapaksa and his brother Yoshitha started Tharunyata Hetak (A Tomorrow for Youth). Then…………..??
    To cut a long story short Malinda: NGOs have become part of ‘concerned’ Society. The members must keep tab. ‘Nationalisation’ will not help at all.

  • 2

    Malinda has no idea about what civil society is. Indeed, the top civil society is located at the British Centre in Gampaha. This centre is headed by a top human rights activist who is also a confidante of the leader of the Office of Missing Persons. I swear by God that Keira Knightley works at the British Centre in Gampaha… just Google their website and visit their panel of teachers webpage!

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