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Rajpal's Column

12th July 1998

Match over: NGO take- over

By Rajpal Abeynayake

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Gunadasa Amarasekera refers to the NGO tribe of intellectuals as "those who de pend on the Imperialist powers'' and further, as alien impotent intellectuals. (That's the closest translation I can manage in a hurry for "ädirajayavadhingen yepena eeniya ponna ugathun.")

Foreign NGOs have more or less dragged themselves into the focus again, after International Alert tripped up on the affair involving one of its employees. Now, it is obvious that past UNP government and the present PA government have found common cause (with Gunadasa Amarasekera added) in being wary about Non Governmental Organisations. The Foreign Minister recently issued a statement in this newspaper saying that he was not prepared to tolerate any NGOs which exceed their brief.

Finally, also there is some vindication of the NGO commission which was appointed by a previous government to investigate the activities of foreign NGOs in Sri Lanka, a commission which was mercilessly pelted at that time by members of the current government who were then in the Opposition. A common allegation then was that the commission was established with the ulterior motive of targeting certain individuals who were prominent members of various then prominent NGOs.

At least the current controversy has rung alarm bells for certain individuals, such as perhaps the Foreign Minister, who may have earlier been happy to use the "good offices'' of an NGO such as International Alert if IA volunteered to have a crack at mediating a solution to the ethnic crisis. Now of course IA has surely burnt its boats as far as this country is concerned.

But is the issue only about IA? Not if you believe people such as Susantha Gunatilleke who says in his last article on IA last week, that IA is only the tip of the iceberg and that "the implicit foreign policy of the country has been privatised by foreign funded NGOs.''

The problem may be that there is no NGO to oversee the activities of NGOs. Though that may sound flippant at first, it wouldn't be, if one were to look at the NGOs (collectively) as an industry which employs hundreds perhaps thousands of local scholars. What if the country's 'intelligentsia' has been bought over by NGOs who are pursuing their own agendas, and who are perhaps pursuing the agendas of donor countries? That would leave very few people who would have the gumption to look objectively at these organisations.

If you have your bread buttered by an NGO, then you would surely not want to see these NGOs exposed as rogue organisations, and that's as simple as that…

So, if anybody wants to find out whether the "tip of the iceberg" story about rogue NGOs is true, a first step would be to expose or at least understand the incestuous relationship that the so called intellectual fraternity has with non governmental organizations. Simply said, there wouldn't be many people writing research papers who would expose rogue NGOs, because most of the people who are writing papers are already employed in these NGOs in the first place.

One reason that most NGOs are not exposed for their rank duplicity is of course the fact that writing diatribes against them is not entirely convincing to the readers. That is to say that a thorough exposure of the methods and the motives of NGOs needs rigorous research which has to be carried out by scholars who do not belong to the incestuous community of the NGO intelligentsia wallahs. Such scholars, especially those who function in English, are hard to find.

Now, does that mean that this article is a diatribe as well? To be self effacing, no, because the attempt here is to identify , as a preliminarily, the nature of the NGO sub culture in this country so that the NGOs could be exposed, to boot, without people asking why most scholars would not agree with such exposures. To explain why most scholars would not agree with an exposé of the NGOs, the scholars need to be exposed first as scholar mercenaries, who have tied their careers to the emoluments, perks and opportunities of recognition that are sponsored by the NGO network and sub culture. This is where a hat needs to be raised in favour of Gunadasa Amarasekera, who identifies the fact that intellectuals in society cannot be looked at in isolation, and that perhaps a large group of them may belong to a collective which acts on a certain alien agenda. This agenda is controlled through the professional dependency syndrome of these individuals. Its not as if these NGO men and women depend on a NGO salary for their sustenance. Its only in some instances that the control is as direct and tangible as that. But, the NGOs definitely sustain an entire industry of scholars who depend, variously for foreign trips, junkets, research stipends, academic placements, foreign jobs, publication space etc. on the NGO network. For these intellectuals de-coupling from the NGO network will be nothing short of professional suicide.

If that's too abstract, its worth considering that International Alert is not the only organisation which has sought to influence events to the detriment of the interests of host countries. Its just that IA seems to have quite stupidly showed its hand. But, subtle NGOs usually operate by giving sponsorship to a cause–such as media freedom for instance – and then ensuring that their own agenda is crept into the discourse.

The sponsored individuals of course would be generally obliged to the NGOs due to the funding. Latterly sometimes, the trend has been that the draft declarations at the end of symposia are made in consultation with the sponsor.

Those who attempt to de-couple themselves from this incestuous and sometimes disgraceful intellectual sellout that goes on in the NGO circuit, have also to suffer the consequences.

Such scholars will get less publication space, less opportunities to voice results of their research work, less or no junkets. Added to this, mavericks who steer clear of the NGO bog, could run the risk of being ostracised or ridiculed by the scholarly circuit. Never mind that the scholarly circuit may be comprised largely of impotent alienated dependents of powerful systems. SOME individuals would not have the strength to go against the majority of the peers who have ganged up as a band of robber intellectual barons. So, inevitably the merry go round will go on. NGO scholars hijack the good causes. Thereby, they ring a halo around themselves, and demonise the other scholars who would not be party to this prostituted holier-than-thou ism. But perhaps the message will sink in. No scholar or writer is credible unless he or she has never hitched their wagon to the NGO circuit. All scholars who have had anything to do with NGOs need to be seen as dubious intellectuals who are doing the bidding of their agents–unless they can substantially prove otherwise.


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