ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday February 24, 2008
Vol. 42 - No 39
Financial Times  

NGOs and accountability

Much has been said about the internal feud at Sri Lanka’s best known Non Governmental Organisation, the International Centre for Ethnic Studies (ICES), that spilled into the media and the government – which treats most NGOs with suspicion – gleefully entering the fray.

Apart from the hoopla about international interference and threats by a group of influential intellectuals to sever ties with the ICES if the former executive director Dr Rama Mani was not reinstated (that’s old hat now), the issue however has touched a raw nerve - the need for accountability, transparency and proper management amongst NGOs who themselves rap the government often on these issues.

For example how many NGOs have proper accounting standards, properly conducted annual general meetings and submit reports to the authorities and their members, or the proper election of office bearers?

There are the intellectuals who constantly appear in the media berating the government and state institutions for lack of governance and issues where public money is concerned. What about the NGOs themselves? The money they spend come from people’s pockets/taxpayers from here or overseas and they would like to know how the money was spent. A couple of years ago, the Japanese government hired an agency to do a survey in Sri Lanka to ascertain whether Sri Lankans were aware that Japan is this country’s biggest funder, or one of its biggest. The team found that not many people were aware and that the government and NGOs, who were also recipients, were not creating this awareness!

This week the government was berated over an expense of Rs 24 million for one event by a state agency. Jeyaraj Fernandopulle, the government’s ‘only’ defender in parliament (as the opposition puts it), as usual came to the rescue saying publicity and promotion costs money but how does one explain a cost of Rs 1 million for a media conference, alone?

Likewise a lot of spending by NGOs is questionable – the JVP will tell you that. This is not a slur on many not-for-profit groups which are indeed doing a lot of good work particularly in areas where even the government or its main grassroots official – the Grama Sevaka – doesn’t tread. And they are accountable too.

There are also the not-for-profit organizations that are presenting annual reports not only to their stakeholders but also the media – often suspicious of NGOs – in recent years. The Institute of Chartered Accountants of Sri Lanka (ICASL) has included a category in its best annual reports competition for non-companies but only two or three NGOs applied.

Most NGOs are not only in default of the Companies Law but also their own Articles of Association.

AGMs are controlled events – just like some publicly listed companies!

However every time some form of regulation of NGOs or not-for-profit organizations emerges from the government or allied group it is clouded by the politics around it -- just like the ongoing Parliamentary Select Committee driven by the anti-NGO JVP and the NGO Commission many years ago initiated by President Ranasinghe Premadasa as a witchhunt against Sarvodaya leader Dr A.T. Ariyaratne. In this context even a genuine attempt to ensure accountability and transparency in the NGO gets dragged into the political arena.

Among other issues are that some organizations are set up by powerful personalities who use their influence to get funding and these are run without proper structures, sometimes deliberately and sometimes for genuine reasons as the founders are too busy. The problem begins when they are not around.

Another serious accusation is ‘cosy relationships’ between funding agencies and recipients (NGOs). In many cases funding agencies are not bothered about where the money is going and don’t question the recipients on how money has been spent, as long as their agenda (donor’s) is fulfilled. With this accounting and transparency is thrown out of the window.

Foreign funding has also dried up to some extent with the government resorting to war rather than peace while Sri Lanka being a mid-income country and not poor anymore has its drawbacks in funding mobilization. So with the scramble for a share of the declining pie, accountability and governance becomes the least of priorities amongst some NGOs.


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