This suggestion doesn’t apply to everybody. Obviously the International Red Cross occupies a unique niche and it will and must avoid political or governmental allegiances like a pestilence; it must remain internationally responsible and true to its international charter. I would say the same for nearly all the large international NGOs whose mandates lie in the human rights, humanitarian, medical, child development and similar domains – Amnesty, Human Rights Watch, World Vision and Oxfam, to name a few that come immediately to mind. These are international entities and they need to function in any particular country without political allegiances or involvements and in line with their universal mandates. Therefore, even in cases such as Lanka’s cruel, ruinous and racist civil war, INGOs should limit their demands to a call for an immediate ceasefire; in addition, of course, to their core concerns such as human rights or humanitarian issues.
However, NGOs, whether wholly local or with international links, that wish to engage in broader issues such as socio-economic policy, governance and corruption concerns, state structure and the national question (federalism for example), empowering peoples organisations or rural communities, and so on, could make a more meaningful contribution if they also had a formal political presence; or at least if they were not, or purported not to be, completely insulated from party politics and programmatic manifestos.
The government has been shamed and coerced into hurried economic concessions amounting to Rs. 14 billion to save frying its butt, but the main credit has to go to the fundamental rights petitioners and the justices of the Supreme Court. Numerous collaborative fundamental rights petitions, joint campaigning on public interest issues and similar activities in the last two years have laid a basis for better integration between political and civil society organisations. Now we need to build on this.
What I mean and don’t mean
Let me first hasten to clarify what I am not saying. First and most important I am most decidedly not advocating another set of regulations and controls; my suggestion is that NGO people should voluntarily consider greater explicit political involvement – as it is, there are many NGO-walas who are members of political parties of every hue. If anything, my interest is in strengthening the ability of civil organisations to better resist the impositions and pressures of an increasingly authoritarian state that will use every ruse and opportunity to strangle criticism of its wars, waste, misdemeanours, and exposure of violations of media rights and democratic opposition.
Secondly, I am mindful of the xenophobic and narrow nationalist motives that underlie various reports of nefarious committees, shenanigans of hacks, and the ranting of political commentators endowed with a dark ages mind set. These forces are pushing forward aggressively at this time; there is an emerging alliance between chauvinist inciters and authoritarian forces. This is a potentially fascist alliance – I am not saying Lanka is near fascism, only depicting a characteristic of this block. Internationalists such as ‘yours faithfully’ despise this rabble, but the concern is how best do NGO actors with an international dimension to their thinking, or international involvement, deal with the threat. Remaining wholly of a foreign ethos, or foreign funded with no links to local political processes and parties, will not provide a platform from which to respond to the xenophobes.
Thirdly, I am not proposing any specific model to fit all cases. Sometimes NGO personalities may, as an additional responsibility, take significant positions in parties; if there is a prohibition on individual party membership included in the constitution of any NGO it should be repealed forthwith. In other cases, a civil society organisation may wish to affiliate to a party much as trade unions do. Still others may simply prefer to be entirely independent. There are many options if an NGO, on its own volition considers it sensible to accept a deeper stake in the national political processes. From my perspective, that is a political perspective, I really don’t see how anyone can make a significant impact at this very troubled time without entering the mainstream of the political struggle.
Where to start
A simpler start has to be made, with less shilly-shallying, in emphasising joint activities. Mention has been made of virtual collaboration in fundamental rights petitions and in real street level collaboration in picket lines and processions against assassinations and abductions. There have been some collaborative seminars between political and civil society entities but both sides have demurred like bashful damsels in acknowledging the corporeal presence of the other. When a political bloke, like this writer, is invited to a seminar it is more in a personal capacity than as an acknowledgment of a party political animal. Political parties too are all too ready to stick their snooty noses in the air when it comes to communing with ‘reformists’ and ‘petty-bourgeois intellectuals’.
This infantile fiddling while Rome burns must stop; it is in neither side’s interest. A more bold and unblushing range of collaborative activities where NGOs and parties take cognisance of each other’s role is, in fact, not difficult to initiate. These will be issue based to begin, with but with provincial and general elections on the cards deeper connections are meaningful, even to the point of drafting a minimum common manifesto.
The Philippines is a good example where NGOs play a prominent role in many social issues and have also intervened successfully in big political events. It is a model where civil society-political party collaboration has been successful. We can learn from this experience and from personages like Waldon Bello. India on the other hand is a counterexample. It has an array of NGOs involved in combating communalism, pursuing environmental and energy concerns, committed to dalit and tribal advancement, and women’s rights. It also has two powerful left parties and numerous, smaller but still significant, ones. For some reason a wall of suspicion separates the two sides and the occasions when anyone clambers over to make contact seem to hardly exist. India is a model we can well eschew - with apologies to the achievements of people like Arundhati Roy.
My mother taught me on her knee, a little song sung like a like a nursery rhyme.
Money is the root of all evil
Money is the root of all evil
Won’t contaminate myself with it
Take it away; Take it away; Take it away.
She was not very conversant with the market economy or the benefits of foreign investment, nor did anyone know in these long gone days about NGOs bearing foreign funds. The big obstacle to my proposal on NGO politicalisation will be money; too much of it, from too many lands. A quick disclaimer again, xenophobes object to foreign money but not local loot, I never understood why. It’s like capitalists who demand non-interference under the slogan ‘You exploit your workers; leave me to exploit mine’, or the true anthem of all sovereign national states ‘You screw your minorities; leave me screw mine’. What’s the difference between a church in the Netherlands funding buns and milk in schools, and a mudalali in Katana paying-off a shady politico? In any case, most foreign charitable sources are more honourable than those who donate millions for a buriyani feed at Temple Trees in exchange for favours.
OK, having preached my little ideological sermon let me get on with my comment on the pecuniary portfolio at hand. Some NGOs command enormous budgets and some of their CEOs get six figure stipends. The former makes it impossible for these entities to fuse closely with rough and tumble political entities, and as for the latter, it may be a little embarrassing for these personable gentlemen (or ladies) to sit on grubby benches at Politburo meetings with assorted trade union types. Still there are ways in which a great deal more collaboration than now can be put in place. Money is an impediment, but it is a surmountable obstacle.