6th January 2002

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Clinically Yours - By Dr. Who

Here we go around the mulberry bush again! 

The wheels of justice are notorious for turning slowly, but these days they are buzzing at breakneck speed. Take the case of S. B. Dissanayake for instance. An investigation by the Bribery Commission which went on for years has been closed as there was no evidence of wrongdoing, we were told this week. 

So, the natural sequel would be SB returning to the coveted Samurdhi portfolio very soon. Next we are told that VIPs in the previous regime either plotted to murder Kumar Ponnambalam, the maverick All Ceylon Tamil Congress leader, or at least were aware of the plan. Startling news indeed and we await the next obvious step- the appointment of a Commission of Inquiry.

Then, we hear of armouries of politicians now in the opposition being raided. And we realize that the Peoples' Alliance which came to power on the "Dooshanaya-Beeshanaya" slogan had done its little bit to keep the Dooshanaya concept alive. And the new regime has done the right thing-as long as these weapons don't end up in the ruling party's cloak rooms. All this is well and good, but isn't there a sense of déjà vu? A new party in office, the opposition being hounded and the public being told what a dirty lot they have been. The UNP did it in post-1977 with a presidential commission against Sirima Bandaranaike, the PA did it in post-1994 against Ranil Wickremesinghe with the Batalanda Commission and here we go around the mulberry bush- again! 

Of course, if misdeeds have been committed, they have to be punished. But why is it that it is always the next government which penalizes the offenders? And why is it that the police, the courts and the entire 'system' is oblivious to these acts until a new government takes over? And why is it that we have politicians who abuse power so brazenly, when the consequences are so obvious if the colour changes? In hindsight, it may be because the 'system' is so politicized that it deals only with those it wants to deal with. The others are 'untouchables', the darlings of the party in office, the scared cows who get covered with dung and are taken to slaughter only when that party gets kicked out of office. We know it is not easy to change this well-entrenched politicization. It cannot be done overnight. But there is some expectation that if anyone can change this system, it must be the tough-talking, unsmiling, no-nonsense Ranil Wickremesinghe. After all, he himself was a victim at the Batalanda Commission which, after laborious inquiry, found nothing of substance. 

Civil society and NGOs: the good and the phonies

By Susantha Goonatilake
"Civil Samajaya" - civil society - is a slogan one comes across today often on TV talk shows, in newspaper columns and increasingly in news reports.

"Civil society" seems to intrude into many discussions often without the users many of whom half-baked and half-read members of the foreign funded agencies having an idea of what it means. The frequent usage of the word also confuses an already fragmented society. So what then is this concept called "civil society"? Where did it come from? Why has it gained so much importance?

The modern origins of the concept are associated with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Eastern bloc ten years ago. The concept of civil society (whose roots go back to the European Enlightenment of the 18th Century) was resurrected to topple the authoritarian regimes that had prevailed in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. Civil society, constituting institutions outside the government structure had been a guide for East European political activists. It was, therefore, a mobilizing factor for overthrowing the old regimes and vitalizing the new. At the final phases of the resistance to authoritarian rule, the existing government and civil society were considered antagonistic to each other.

A close relationship and unity between the trade union "Solidarity" in the case of Poland and the Catholic Church was vital in overthrowing the Polish regime. In Hungary, mass demonstrations organised partly by intellectuals helped overthrow the regime. Hungary while undergoing major transformations in the late 1980s, had also to take care of a large number of refugees streaming in from Romania. It was not the state that helped in this welfare, but civil society largely in the form of both Roman Catholic and Reformed Churches. So civil society was used against the authoritarian state and for delivering welfare.

The West has since exported the idea of civil society to the developing world. The authoritarian structures that civil society struggles were supposed to replace in many third world countries were put in there in the first place by the West itself in the form of dictatorships during the cold war.

The role of 'NGOs' in developing countries has been defined in this new Western dispensation as part of civil society or as a group involved in economic and social development. Consequently Western funds available to NGOs have risen dramatically.

This growth has occurred because development policies in OECD (Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development) countries and aid transfers have now been subjected to what is called "a New Policy Agenda". The ideological underpinning for this new Western agenda is the twin planks of liberal democratic theory and neo-liberal economics. Increasingly OECD countries have been taking democracy as one of the conditions for aid. The New Policy Agenda also assumes that market-centred approaches are central for social organizations and economic development. There is therefore a shift from state directed development to markets. NGOs are now being asked by donors to fit into areas that were earlier done by the state, with NGOs providing relief to those who cannot be reached by markets. The concept of 'good governance' has become part of this new Western prescription. An aspect of this 'good governance' rhetoric is participation and the involvement of the citizenry in managing their affairs. So, increasingly state functions are franchised to NGOs as aspects of 'good governance' with a strong dose of ideological prescriptions from donors accompanying them. Funding by donors in the developed north to NGOs in the developing south has become a means for donors, and hence their countries, to increase their control over developing countries. And it is no surprise, that in the Northern, donor countries, one sees NGOs devoting themselves to the developing world. Northern NGOs are increasing]y dependent on official funding from their governments. Thus, in the early 1970s, only 1.5 percent of the total income for northern development NGOs came from their governments, a figure that had risen to 30 percent by the mid 1990s. Today in Austria 10 percent of development NGO incomes come from the state; in Australia 34 percent; in the United States 66 percent; in Canada 70 percent; and in Sweden an astonishing 85 percent. Not only has NGOs become big business but also big government business. But if Northern NGOs are so dependent on donor handouts, the dependency figures in the case of the South are much higher. In the case of Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Kenya and Nepal the dependency on official Western funds - often cycled through intermediaries - like Northern NGOs is between 80 percent and 95 percent. The result is that this 'alms bazaar' results in Northern NGOs as well as Southern NGOs "becoming the executors of donor policies". A new form of control in the hands of the West has emerged.

How do the new foreign-funded NGOs, which promote Western policy, affect us. They all come with overtly good intentions just like western colonialists in the past. The Portuguese brought us some good in the form of new foods like the potato, tomato and sweet potato. But they brought far greater misery of the cruelest kind. The same is true of some of the new NGOs. In areas like health they bring undoubted good, but what of their other political activities?

If religious institutions and free trade unions were considered part of civil society in Eastern Europe, what then is the role of our Sangha and our trade unions?

What is the relationship between them and those foreign funded NGOs which depend on Church handouts or which claim that they speak on behalf of workers? What is the degree of transparency and accountability - goals of the new dispensation - in some of the big foreign funded NGOs, against whom the NGO Commission in its report made serious allegations backed by detailed documentation of massive fraud? How democratic are NGOs themselves? What is the role of fundamentalist Churches' funding in the new peace efforts?

All foreign funded NGOs are not foreign agents. Just as not all donor money is meant to subvert us. How do we separate the good NGOs and the bad? Real civil society from the phonies? These and other questions we must pose now, to be answered later.

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