By Malinda Seneviratne –
The revelations by the website Colombo Telegraph pointing to fraud and deceit by the Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA) in an article titled ‘Exposé: Center for Policy Alternatives defrauded and hoodwinked donors,’ are serious and damaging to say the least. Obtaining funds from multiple donors for a single project, submitting invoices for workshops never held, double-billing and entering non-project related expenses in ‘safe columns’ and wholesale cover up of fraud make a sordid story.
It’s a story that doesn’t sit well with the image that the CPA and its all-powerful Executive Director Dr Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu (the Board of Directors and all employees of the CPA will not utter a word that is not sanctioned by him; indeed they refer all inquiries on all matters to him) have been projecting to the world. Transparency and accountability are their bread and butter. Good governance is their after-breakfast cup of tea. Democracy is their dessert. As for dinner and drinks, there’s a lot of indulgence on the part of the CPA and myopia on the part of donors, according to the Colombo Telegraph. The Colombo Telegraph ‘Exposé’ not only wrecks this portfolio but calls to questions journalists, rights advocacy groups, operatives in certain UN agencies, diplomats and all manner of ‘experts’ who have for years built cases against Sri Lanka based solely on the word of this individual who is now right in the middle of this controversy.
Not too long ago, Sunanda Deshapriya, another individual who has made quite a name for himself in these very same circles and who was let off light by the CPA courtesy Dr Saravanamuttu calling what as clearly a swindle ‘lack of clarity in financial dealings,’ quite unabashedly said ‘this is what happens 90% of the time in all NGOs’. What right, then, do these individuals and organizations have to talk about accountability and other kinds of wrongdoing, one wonders.
None of this is new as far as the CPA is concerned. The outfit received a staggering Rs 58 million to monitor the Presidential and Parliamentary Elections in 2010, obtaining money from the Netherlands, the USA, Germany and the UK. We do not know if this was part of the Rs 272.31 million the CPA is reported to have received from various donors between 2007 and 2010 (see also ‘CPA, NPC and TISL are about bucks [big bucks]’). We do know that the CPA regularly solicits donations from the general public to carry out their activities (go figure!). For an analysis of all this (to which the CPA never responded with any clarity), see ‘Is an election a ‘village tank’ for monitors and donors?’
So it’s not new. So let’s leave it at that. Let’s talk instead of what this particular ‘Exposé’ elicited by way of response on the website.
Some have cheered. Others have cursed the website for broadly two reasons, a) taking time off from investigating and exposing similar stuff on the part of the regime, the Rajapaksas, ministers, officials and their supporters, and b) for hurting those who are championing causes such as human rights and good governance. ‘This is not the time,’ some argue. ‘This is not the way,’ others offer.
The ‘b’ above is interesting, ‘interesting’ because almost all the objectors are vociferous critics of the Mahinda Rajapaksa and his Government. They object to much the same things that the CPA has been accused of. Indeed, most of them don’t offer any critique of the article itself. So what do we have – honest objection to mismanagement, theft, deceit and so on or regime-hatred, plain and simple? Is it something like, ‘it’s ok if our guys do wrong, but not this Government!’? Or are they placing a greater burden on those in power to do the right thing? That’s not evident in the comments. In any case, if the watchdogs and gurus of human rights and good governance are themselves corrupt, if they are even touted as the ‘true opposition,’ are these objectors just a bunch of losers who have nothing better to do than rant and rave just because their outcome preferences didn’t materialize?
The first set of objections, i.e. ‘a’ above, are more interesting. Now Colombo Telegraphs has hardly been using kids’ gloves on the regime. If that were the case the website wouldn’t have been blocked so many times. Indeed, the very same objectors have saluted the website time and again for taking on the Government, from the President downwards. The point is valid, however, for those who have adopted a ‘hands-off completely’ policy on all things associated with this Government, from policy to implementation to not too flattering personal eccentricities. Such people are clearly salivating seeing Dr Saravanamuttu at the receiving end of charges much like those he himself utters at every turn (the ‘salivators’ must include NGO heads competing for the same funds for similar projects) and at the prospect of his international backers getting uncomfortable. After all, it is Colombo Telegraph and not the state-owned media that’s saying all this, and many who have backed the CPA and Dr Saravanamuttu are big fans of that website.
The issue at hand is hypocrisy. The bigger issue is that what’s wrong is wrongdoing and not ‘CPA-wrongdoing’. There can be no ‘ok levels’ to it for these are bound to be subjective and conveniently set margins.
Perhaps it is because NGOs set themselves up as paragons of virtue who can do no wrong that people are upset. The truth is that there’s error and deceit in all sectors. NGOs often think of themselves as a ‘parallel state’, but what we see is a society whose sectors mirror one another. The state sector is corrupt (and this is not new or newsworthy any more), the corporate sector is as corrupt (but they are not touched by some – but why?) and the so-called ‘civil society’ (read, some self-styled NGO saints) is corrupt.
There’s a question that needs to be answered: ‘Where and how do we begin to correct all this?’ Self-reflection could be a possible answer – both for individuals and groups.
*Malinda Seneviratne is the Chief Editor of ‘The Nation’ and his articles can be found at www.malindawords.blogspot.com