Protests from the whole caboodle of INGOs and NGOs against the Vanni offensive and the government's order that they shift to Vavuniya stemmed more from a fear of being exposed for their sordid operations than from a genuine concern for civilians. Now that more and more areas where many INGOs had been operating for about two decades are being cleared, damning evidence is surfacing that they had done precious little for people. They poured billions of rupees and moved hundreds of vehicles into those areas claiming to improve the people's lot. But, where has all the money gone? Dirt tracks and tumbled down buildings bear testimony to the fact that INGO and NGO funds did reach anywhere but the grassroots. The billion rupees question is: What were the worthy members of the victim industry doing in that terrain for so long busting so much of money?
Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa has asked the captains of the victim industry to explain what they had been doing in the Vanni before their recent exit. He has suggested that those outfits, save the UN agencies and the ICRC, be thrown out of the country. One may agree with him but let no attempt be made to throw the baby out with the bathwater.
The need is felt more than ever for an effective regulatory mechanism to deal with the humanitarian organisations and ensure the transparency of their operations.
INGOs and NGOs, as their godfather in Sri Lanka Kumar Rupasinghe once admitted in a television interview, are not voluntary organisations. They have all the trappings of private companies the only difference being that they are non profit ventures, whose financiers do not expect returns for their 'investment' in monetary terms. However, they are not devoid of hidden agendas, political or otherwise. Most of them have become proxies of foreign governments or some organisations.
As much as transnational companies exploit the global poor, the humanitarian industry exploits the human tragedy. How lucrative a business it has become could be seen from the remuneration and perquisite packages of the INGO/NGO workers. In this country, a peace NGO boss has confessed he draws more than one million rupees per month besides perks. With the money spent on that man, it may be argued, an entire village in the conflict zone could be fed for one month! But who cares? What has been his contribution to peace building? Nothing! The same goes for other INGOs and NGOs whose bosses and functionaries shower on themselves huge sums of money by way of salaries for doing just nothing to promote the causes they publicly espouse. All that they have to do to prove their existence to their donors is to hire a few people, hold an occasional protest in the refuge of the city with the help of some media hirelings and submit paper cuttings and video clippings. It looks as if the INGO involvement in Sri Lanka's conflict has given rise to a city based nouveau riche.
INGOs and their local lackeys dependent on crumbs from the table prefer to operate in the LTTE held terrain, as behind the so-called iron curtain they don't have to worry about accountability etc. Donors have no way of monitoring progress of the projects they fund in the uncleared areas and therefore have to settle for the doctored reports that INGO/NGO bosses file. The LTTE tolerate INGOs/NGOs in areas under its jackboot so long as they toe its line and part with its share of the funds and materials. That was how all the building materials-cement, roofing sheets and steel-ended up in the hands of the LTTTE, as could be seen from a large number of reinforced bunkers detected by the advancing troops in the Vanni. Large stocks of relief items such as food and even life jackets have also been found in LTTE camps.
We don't want to hear from INGO/NGO bosses that they expended their funds on food, education and health care in the LTTE-held areas. For, successive governments, whatever their other faults may be, have always looked after those needs of civilians in the uncleared areas. The State is even paying the salaries of public servants the LTTE has forcibly recruited to fight the army! There may be a handful of genuine INGOs/NGOs which did not swindle funds but they, too, have sullied their image due to their association with the Coffee Club types who have brought the civil society organisations into disrepute.
On the eve of the last SAARC summit in Colombo in August, when the global media attention was on Sri Lanka, the World Food Programme issued a communiqué claiming that about 30 per cent of Sri Lankan families went without food for several days. The world would have fallen for that story hook, line and sinker but for a timely rebuttal from the Sri Lankan government prompted by a news item in this newspaper on the WFP statement. That is how INGOs make humanitarian situations fit their marketing agenda through media hypes. At least ten INGOs from the EU countries disappeared from Sri Lanka having pledged to build tsunami houses and raised funds for that purpose. Some INGOs are working overtime to prepare the ground for R2P by likening the situation in the Vanni to that in Darfur! TRO was raising funds for the LTTE's war on the pretext of rehabilitation and resettlement.
Some local NGO chiefs are committing a grave crime against Mahatma Gandhi posthumously. They are worse than Godse, who snuffed out the great leader's invaluable life. They are trying to project themselves as Mahatma Gandhis of Sri Lanka! We are being treated to various gimmicks including expensive advertising campaigns aimed at elevating them to the same pedestal as Gandhiji. We urge those cardboard Gandhi's to read Gandhi's autobiography-at least the few paragraphs thereof devoted to the handling of public funds-before making a spectacle of themselves. Gandhiji was a volunteer devoted to a noble cause and he desisted from handling funds because of their corrupting influence. But, our duplicate Gandhis are lining their pockets with funds under their care. They move about in luxury vehicles sporting thick gold chains hugging their affluent navels! Whom are they trying to fool? How can asses aspire to be thoroughbred horses?
Besides the misappropriation of funds and the espousal of questionable causes, some INGOs have been trying their hand at forming parallel governments in the Global South. Sri Lanka is one of the few countries where any outfit can land and hang out shingle with no questions asked. While the terrorists are beating a hasty retreat in the Vanni, INGOs and their local allies are laying siege to the State. Some of them are all out to confer pariah status on Sri Lanka and deprive it of the GSP Plus concession. It is not only from terrorist groups that sovereign states have come under threats; INGOs have also proved they are capable of gnawing away at national sovereignty.
It is high time Sri Lanka devised ways and means of controlling INGOs and NGOs overstepping their limits-short of a witch-hunt, of course. A Parliamentary Select Committee was set up amidst fanfare to probe INGOs/NGOs sometime ago. When will it finish its probe and make recommendations? Time is running out!