Beware of the new Greeks bearing gifts
A couple of weeks ago fellow columnist Rajpal Abeynayake took to task "NGO wallahs" for their pretentious claims to supreme wisdom and moral legitimacy.

Quite rightly he did not put all the NGO eggs in one basket. His barbs were directed at the bad eggs and surely there are some whose outer shell hides more than a yolk.

When colonialism was paraded before the western world as civilising missions, traders and proselytisers followed in the steps of the foot soldiers. In this neo-colonialist world the new proselytisers do not come with bible in hand to turn the heathens into heavenly souls. They come in the guise of benign foreign-funded organisations scattering dollars and kroners all in the name of international goodwill and to lend a helpful hand to solve our many problems.

Today there are no petty traders following colonial armies. Instead multinationals and corporate businesses rush in to sell their wares and exploit an increasingly consumerist society.

Vultures gather when carrion is seen. In an increasingly conflict and poverty-ridden world where literally thousands die each day, do-gooders backed by international donors gather to proffer friendly advice and help.

Peace and conflict-prevention and resolution: this has been the growth industry for many years as AIDS has become today with NGOs scrambling to get into the act. Some of these NGOs are headed by individuals who think they are Zeus descended from Olympus. It is a pity that responsible sections of civil society, not to mention the government itself, do not examine closely the role and operational techniques of some of these NGOs that have proliferated like mushrooms in Sri Lanka in recent years, particularly those that parade as promoters of reconciliation and makers of peace.

Having spent a month or so in Sri Lanka recently one could quite understand Abeynayake's anger at the attempts of some NGOs and their leading figures to vigorously whitewash the actions of the high and mighty in our society or wipe away with the gloss of innocence the terrorism and violence returning to haunt the country after what was hoped would be a continuing period of quiet.

People are becoming apprehensive about the number of foreign-funded NGOs operating in the country. There are some who are truly sceptical of the intentions of some of these organisations that have sprung up, especially those who appear to have inveigled themselves into the upper crust of our society and into officialdom on the back of the peace process.

Admittedly there are both government and non-government organisations that deal with issues that have no obvious political implications. If organisations wish to hone the professional skills or the educational levels of one group or another, I doubt whether one could seriously object to that, unless an insidious intention is hidden behind a benign public face.

The danger comes largely from those foreign-funded organisations that appear in the lily-white garb of peacemakers and the harbingers of international goodwill and aid.

We know that well-known multilateral institutions that are in fact in the hands of big and powerful nations, have been publicly indicted for interfering in the internal affairs of nations, sowing the seeds of dissension and conflict, of corruption and abuse, all in the name 'development'.

Those who have not read former "Economist" journalist Graham Hancock's book "Lords of Poverty: The Power, Prestige and Corruption of the International Aid Business" should do so if they could lay their hands on this classic critique of what he calls the international aid business - and business it truly is.

Hancock's data might be dated - the book was released some 12 years ago - but he does make us question the true nature of aid and charity. He makes one wonder at the disempowering effect this so-called charity and aid have on those who are the recipients of such international largesse.

Two years ago Michael Maren who spent many years in Africa wrote the "Road to Hell: The Ravaging Effects of Foreign Aid & International Charity", citing specific cases and highlighting the hypocrisy, corruption and sheer ineptitude behind aid and charitable work in the developing world.

More recently David Rieff, who spent many years with several humanitarian organisations, wrote a damning book titled "A Bed for the Night: Humanitarianism in Crisis," that also held up to public scrutiny much of what goes on in the humanitarian care industry.

Collectively these exposes lift the mask off much of the hoopla and spin that surround international aid and 'humanitarian' help. But it is not just the corruption, the misguided and inept use of aid by multilateral institutions and NGOs that trouble writers and those who have personal knowledge of them.

It is also the involvement of foreign-funded organisations in internal political disputes and conflicts in the name of peace making and conflict resolution that has, in several instances, exacerbated the problems.

Readers might recall the involvement of a London-based but Scandinavian funded organisation "International Alert" that was first headed by Martin Ennals, a one time Secretary-General of Amnesty International.

Weeks before the May 1997 military coup that ousted President Tejan Kabbah of Sierra Leone, a poor African country but still very rich in mineral resources such as diamonds, gold and radio-active substances, he wrote to UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, accusing International Alert of meddling in the country's internal affairs and actually supporting the rebel RUF. During the peace negotiations, President Kabbah accused International Alert of advocacy on behalf of the rebels instead of the facilitator it claimed to be.

The president named in particular two individuals, who he said, "embarked upon sabotaging all efforts at implementing the peace." This same organisation closed its Colombo office after firing its Colombo programme manager for writing articles critical of the LTTE, though it seems to have accepted without demur articles critical of the Sri Lanka Government and its military.

Where one closes down others step into the breach. At times the same individuals keep emerging under new organisations and generally funded by Scandinavians, notably the Norwegians.

Those who know of the activities of Redd Barna, a Norwegian NGO operating in northern Sri Lanka some 25 or 30 years ago, might wonder why we still let such organisations set up base in the country without a proper scrutiny of their antecedents, their funding, their objectives and the individuals who run them and monitoring their activities.

Nobody would object to genuine humanitarian organisations that keep their fingers out of explosive and highly sensitive domestic issues, particularly ethnic and religious conflicts. But now in the name of peace, even Trojan horses appear to be welcome, especially when the White man is astride the horse and the native walks faithfully by its side.

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