Sri Lanka’s Development Debate and the Role of NGOs

If we look at what happened in Sri Lanka over the last 36 years and also look at the changes that have taken place from the decades following independence to now, we see the emergence of some crucial issues of development debate. The process adopted by all governments irrespective of the party in power, which is to follow guidance given by international financial institutions (IFIs) such as the World Bank, International Monetary Fund, and the Asian Development Bank, has led to new issues.

The development processes adopted by early post-independence governments gave priority to social welfare. These were influenced by the political process in the country where the left parties educated and informed people about their rights. Food at affordable prices was a right, and food subsidies was the outcome; education was a right, so free education became a policy; health was a right, and free health system became a policy; and exchange between producers and consumers was a right, so trade through cooperatives and government intervention was a policy.

All these changed drastically after 1977 under the guidance of IFIs. Privatisation of trade, education, health and other essential services have created tremendous problems. Trade liberalisation became a policy which affected domestic production in industry and agriculture. Indebtedness has tremendously increased and further debts are taken to build massive infrastructure not because people need them but to make the country attractive to foreign investment. These naturally give rise to new policy debates and new struggles for social and political justice. The government’s response to these struggles has so far been repression and curtailment of democratic rights. However, democracy and participation of people in planning is an essential part of these struggles, and Non Governmental Organisations (NGOs) have a right and a responsibility to join in these debates and struggles though it leads to disagreement with governments and their plans.

This disagreement with the government’s approach to development has resulted in criticism of the NGOs being labeled as anti-governmental. The situation has arises where disagreement with governments become essential if they are to be pro-people. The private sector has reasons to oppose NGO’s since the latter often criticise the private sector’s destructive role. When the Eppawela Phosphate deposits were to be sold to a US and a Japanese company, NGOs were among the opponents; culminating in the prevention of the sale.  When water was to be declared a commodity and sold for profit it was opposed by NGOs. In these instances the NGOs were supporting the people’s struggles. IFIs have reasons to criticize NGOs since NGOs are seen to be undermining their agenda. The main accusation against NGOs is that they get foreign funds and play opposition to the role played by elected governments.

If we examine these accusations it is quite visible that it is the governments that get much more foreign funds and are implementing the agenda of these lenders playing a much more destructive anti-people agenda, particularly against the interests of the poor. This does not mean that NGOs have a right to be non-answerable to the poor, and that it is sufficient to be answerable to the donors. This is not so, since all these funds come in the name of the poor and the marginalized people then have a right to demand answerability at all levels. They also have a responsibility in being accountable to the donors and to the country governments.

However, there should be no obligation to obey them. Structures have to be set up to be answerable to the people, and planning must be done in consultation with them. One important task is to help people plan strategies that should be presented to the political parties when they formulate their manifestos, get promises and set up structures to make the politicians accountable. This role cannot be described as anti-governmental; it is pro-people and pro-governmental. Transparency, accountability and participation are essential.

Local / Village-based NGOs
There is another wide category of NGOs based at village level in Sri Lanka. These are formed by the local communities to meet some of the limited specific needs of the village or the community. The most common example is the maranadhara samithi, the societies to assist at funerals in villages. Members of the community join these and make a specific monthly contribution. When someone dies in the village and if she/he is a member, the family is assisted with a specific monetary sum and the society undertakes certain functions associated with the funeral ceremony. Another example is the rural development society which looks after the development activities of the village. There are also cooperative societies, praja mandalas (community councils) and sports clubs, thrift and credit societies and outfits adopted to do small scale savings where credit is made available in emergencies.

All these NGOs do not receive any external funding assistance. They run on membership contributions with rules and regulations formulated themselves. There are thrift and credit societies such as “Sanasa” and Women’s Banks that have national scale links and which collect funds on a bigger scale. These could be useful instruments of building active participation of people in the political processes of the country. A combination of national and internationally linked NGOs and the sharing of understanding and visions at global and national level could improve democracy and political participation tremendously.

Role of foreign donor agencies
Foreign donor agencies have a responsibility to ensure that funds donated by them are not abused; and to ensure that these donations are used for the purpose given, and that the receiving organisations adopt proper accountability principles. Part of this responsibility is to ensure that decisions are taken by the correct people in the correct way and there are mechanisms that exist to achieve this. Since funds for donations are raised in the name of the poor, the donors too, have a responsibility of being answerable to the poor. These funds belong to the poor of the poor countries. Since many of the problems can only be solved in collaboration with each other, the implementers of programmes have a responsibility towards collaboration, as the donors have responsibility of collaboration with each other.  If this collaboration does not exist it results in a divisive influence.

It is easy for donors to get partners to agree with their priorities, but both parties have to understand that the former have a lesser knowledge of the ground situations than some of their partners. So, it is necessary for donors to be guided by their partners. This does not mean that they do not have to think for themselves, but rather that they think of how problems could be overcome. They have to develop their own strategies that are collaborative with their partners. Most donors get a bulk of their funds from their respective governments. Governments too, have their own purposes in giving development assistance to poor countries. They sometimes prefer to channel their funds through donor NGOs, since they are often more effective and efficient. However, the purposes for which governments give development assistance are not the same as the purposes for which NGOs build partnerships. There are tendencies to influence donor NGOs to grant funds that meet the intentions of governments and Donor NGOs may have a tendency to request receivers to undertake projects for which it is easier to get government funds; these are called back donor funds. This is an issue on which one has to be cautious.
One easy and sure way of deciding whether one is heading in the right direction is to understand that the whole world is being pushed in opposite directions by two opposing forces. One force is the status quo that wants world economies to continue in the same direction. This is because they benefit and make profits from the present situation. The other force is the rest of the world trying to push the world in the opposite direction, because they know that they will not survive, unless the present direction is reversed. The easy way of judging an NGO is to see on which side it is on and in which direction it  is pushing for change.  There are very strong and worldwide NGOs such as OXFAM which are strong global networks. When they become powerful, they have a bigger responsibility to see that they are on the right side and pushing the world in the right direction. Sometimes it is not easy to get the constituency of one’s countries to understand the issues correctly. But since donor NGOs have access to information and visit the recipients regularly they have a tremendous responsibility to communicate the situation to their constituency and explain the need for their actions. All donor NGOs must realize that this is their greatest responsibility towards the people they intend to help.

“The Monday Morning Question” is intended to be a forum to communicate diverse perspectives on reimagining development.  Although this conversation began as part of the Center for Poverty Analysis’s (CEPA) annual symposium in 2012, the ideas that are presented via the column are not limited to CEPA’s ideological stand on development.Today, we invite Mr. Sarath Fernando, the Adviser to the Movement for National Land and Agricultural Reform in Sri Lanka to share his views and observations on the role of non-governmental organisations in the development of Sri Lanka. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Centre for Poverty Analysis.

The article was first published in The Island on 26.08.2013

Read 2154 times Last modified on Saturday, 11 January 2014 06:16

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