For them to reach the people and make an impact, the NGOs of Sri Lanka must move beyond cocktail circuits and conference halls
The problem with NGOs, particularly in countries like ours, has always been their inability to go beyond their cloistered quarters. Many of them seem to believe that forums, discussions, and exhibitions in air-conditioned rooms somehow compensate for their lack of presence in the world outside Colombo, or other major cities.
If this had the effect of discrediting them in the eyes of the people who should matter to these agencies, there wouldn’t be an issue. But it has also had the effect of turning the people who matter away from the very values that the agencies espouse. One can’t blame them, because the majority almost always tends to lack familiarity with the language employed by such organisations.
If you want to market these values, you have to market them to the people. While I’ve always believed that modern liberalism, the ideological stage from which these values are promoted today, is largely a construct of 18th and 19th century European, bourgeois, and white civilisation, this does not and should not discount the universality of values such as human rights, transparency, and accountability. That these have been hijacked today and put in the service of a neoliberal agenda is another question altogether; that is a legacy of the Cold War, the end of history and the clash of civilisations, and the Orientalist project still ongoing nearly three decades after Edward Said first wrote about it.
We should not, of course, fall under the illusion that because these are being touted in the long term interests of Western ideological hegemony, they should be discarded. To do so would be to mistake the messenger for the message, indeed to assume that such values are, by default, Western and alien to our civilisation. That is not so.
For the truth is that human rights, transparency, accountability, and reproductive rights are not, nor have they ever been, West-only. It would be more correct to think of freedom, individuality, responsibility, and fundamental rights as universal values refracted through particular ideological systems. For instance, Rupa Saparamadu in her book Sinhala Gehaniya argues that, prior to Western colonialism, Sinhala women were treated quite well and certain inalienable rights were accorded to them.
I myself take issue with such a claim. But the point that such an argument could be made, and historical evidence be marshalled for it, obviously points to a narrative of rights, duties, and justice falling outside the matrix of Western civilisation.
The vexing question, then, is whether we must accept these values for what they intrinsically are or whether, given how they have been modified to suit Western ideological interests and preferred political outcomes, we should try to relate them to a worldview that fundamentally differs from a Eurocentric perspective.
The struggle to “universalise” these values must be taken from another angle also. For far too long, the human rights agenda has been criticised, not unjustifiably, for being not only Eurocentric and white, but also middle class and elitist.
In other words, they are seen as the preserve of English speaking upper class society, a point that has more often than not been borne out by the reality; a glance at some of the big names in NGO society will make it clear that agencies tend to operate through cocktail circuits rather than tangible encounters with people. Naturally this should not be the case, though it is: from the choice of officials for agencies to the language they employ in their press releases, they project distance from rather than proximity to the people.
I realise the dilemma these NGOs are caught in. Agencies rely on donors and donors can only give once certain criteria are met. Forgetting for the moment the issue of whether donors set agendas that are detrimental to national interests – a moot point which I think deserves further analysis – the truth is that agencies operate, not a little ironically, as bureaucratised government departments, if in a less discernible way.
As such policies tend to be ironed out by top officials, then interpreted and reinterpreted by the rank and file of the organisation, policy is filtered through many layers, making consistency and uniformity impossible. Ohanyan (2009) argues that owing to this, donors “capture” NGOs and deny them both ideological and organisational autonomy, an issue exacerbated by the erosion of the State in developing countries and the entrenchment of the NGO sector against the backdrop of weak, authoritarian regimes.
In fact when the public sector is on the verge of collapse and the State veers towards authoritarianism, donors focus their attention on NGOs. This trend is hardly specific to Sri Lanka, yet it is a phenomenon prevalent in countries like ours that fluctuate between long periods of authoritarianism and brief periods of neoliberal reform. That, incidentally, is not the case all the time: NGOs may flourish at times of authoritarianism and censorship since it can “market” the need for large funds, but it can also erode in such periods.
On the other hand, while donors may be willing to fund agencies when a country is transitioning from rightwing authoritarianism to neoliberal reform, once the transition is made, or is assumed to have been made, they may exit the industry since, frankly, there’s no further need for them. A random visit to one or two offices of even the most prominent agencies here will make clear how lack of funds has left the sector impoverished, particularly in the wake of the post-2015 wave of neoliberal reforms that swept through the country and penetrated the State.
The fluctuating fortunes of NGOs deserve closer scrutiny. It’s certainly a paradoxical world out there, one which a seasoned academic must undertake to study. On the other hand, the universality of values that these agencies espouse must not and indeed cannot be denied.
To fit these values in the larger cultural mould which we come out of, to relate them to people whose conception of individuality is different from that of the West, is to embark on an endeavour far removed from the cocktail circuits and conference halls of many NGOs we have here now.
Unless we do so, all we will get out of such NGOs will be lavishly laminated coffee table books on reconciliation and democracy that mean nothing to people who should matter in the more relevant scheme of things. Reform within NGOs, by NGOs and not the government, is hence an imperative need of the hour.