28th September 1997


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NGOs - is it time for change?

Point of View

By Vilma Wimaladasa

"The charities that soothe and bless lie scattered at the feet of men like flowers" -Wordsworth.

Charity fundraising has its many and varied forms. Approved charities generally have their own pattern of raising funds for their causes through flag days, pin cards and so on.

There’s ready response and even the most hardened hearts melt when the causes are the sick and disabled children, the aged, the various homes and orphanages for the poor and marginalised.

Schools that need chairs and desks or broken roofs, temples or churches, for one reason or another, that need financial help or maybe thatched houses required for the poorest of the poor - and this has been going on down the corridors of time.

Not forgetting, of course the unemployed, the crooks and the drug addicts who cash in on this business and make a nuisance of themselves banging on your gate for a ‘something’ to bury their mother or other relatives they had forgotten who died several moons earlier.

There are so many ways of raising money-concerts, dances, musical shows, film shows, fashion shows and coffee-mornings. Sometimes part of the ‘takings’ are given to various worthy charitable causes. All countries have their fund raising events and Sri Lanka is no exception. Anyway in a developing country such as ours this type of funding is necessary when welfare measures are so inadequate. Whether all funds are used for the purpose they are meant is another matter when corruption has reached such gigantic proportions in Sri Lanka.

But what is most irksome are those so-called do-gooders who either wish to make a name for themselves or who wish to endear themselves to politicians or VIPs by starting some fundraising project for a good cause. They get the VIP’s to come with fanfare and trumpet to opening ceremonies, cut ribbons, be surrounded by henchmen and flash their smiles to be captured by television crews or media men for posterity.

Will such people ever learn that "the charity that hastens to proclaim its good deeds, ceases to be charity, and is only pride and ostentation"?

What made me want to write on this topic of fundraising was, some colourful posters I saw in Colombo of the NGO World Vision Lanka (WVL) publicising its Planned Famine 97 programme.

The aim of this year’s programme was to collect money for the welfare of street children. Nothing wrong in helping street children but I believe World Vision Lanka has a very short memory.

Incidentally this new fangled fund-raising programme was initiated in the United States, Australia and some other European countries whose populations are mostly Christian. Funds are collected from people who starve for 20 hours to sponsor a child. This year an air-conditioned large hall was made available for those who took part in this programme. Only liquids were permitted and time was spent in prayer, games and songs and music to keep spirits up. At the end of 20 hours a substantial meal was given and a musical show to round it off. However I learnt that there were only a few ‘takers’ and the staff of WVL made up most of the participants.

Sri Lankans are not quite geared to these gimmicks. However way back in 1995 when this programme was projected WVL promised in a five-year-long-term programme that it would collect funds in this manner to help mentally handicapped children all over the island. Rehabilitation centres were to be set up, personnel were to be trained :for an islandwide programme for caring, and it was promised that the problem would be enumerated again, islandwide.

All this was done in a blaze of publicity in the print and electronic media in all three languages and WVL staff spent several weeks going to the remotest parts of the island on dangerous terrain, where even the wild buffalo and the elephants and snakes roamed, in search of these unfortunate people.. Most of the families, often with a whole brood of disabled children lived a hand-to-mouth existence and it was these people who were promised help, if not immediately, within the next five years at least. Of course they had heard these stories by other do-gooders before, but then hope springs eternal.

It took many months for the programme to make even a beginning. Came Famine 96, about Rs 2 lakhs was collected but the funds were to be utilised only for some mentally ill children in the Lunugamwehera and Anuradhapura areas in WVL projects, for less than a 100 children altogether. The bell was already tolling for those who entertained even a glimmer of hope of help within the next 5 years. Planned Famine ’97 came along with nary a word of the promise made to hundreds of poor people in ’95 that there would soon come that ray of hope for their mentally sick children. Lilan de Silva, leader of the ten-member field leadership team at the National WVC head office in Borella says they are going ahead with the programme at the Area Development Level as it has been found that it is not possible to work strictly according to the original plan as it was decided upon in Planned Famine ‘95.

WVL is one of the most affluent NGOs in this country. It receives its funds from caring people in the United States, Canada, Australia , New Zealand, Germany, Britain and Hong Kong. Apart from these countries there are smaller developing support offices in countries such as Austria, Finland, Ireland, Netherlands, Singapore, Japan, Taiwan, Korea and Switzerland.WVL says that assistance is provided to the poorest of the poor, irrespective of religion, race and caste. It takes many forms, but the focus is mainly on areas such as Child Centred Community Development and Relief and Rehabilitation, And yet it wants local funding. Almost all its projects have been foreign funded with the street children’s programme flagged off with funds from Australia.

Now, however as Mr. Silva, told me, they are going ahead with the programme at the Area Development Level as it has been found that it is not possible to work strictly according to the original plan-Planned Famine ’95. Which all goes to prove that WVL is an affluent NGO indeed. And yet, it uses publicity gimmicks such as Planned Famines to collect local funds from the public, who for the most part are stretched to the maximum spendingwise. Many of the field staff said that most of the money for this programme was obtained at the Area Development level where villagers and others who work with this organisation feel obliged to contribute towards fundraising by WVL.

It was only last week that a five-day workshop on gender was held at a new hotel in Marawila where 11 WVL countries sent their representatives here, who together with WVL staff discussed this issue as it should apply to all countries in this organisation.

But the irony is that on the eve of this workshop some of the staff at the Zonal office 1 at Narahenpita were informed that they would have to decide whether they would accept transfers to ADP offices in distant outstations of leave with compensation. This bombshell has cast a gloom of discontent over all employed there.

Sorry, they were told, there are no vacancies in any ADP offices close to Colombo. ‘’Do we have a choice,’’ they asked us, ‘’we have our families to think about. WVL is not going to find us accommodation in the new areas and we would not get any travelling allowances to come to Colombo to visit our families. We cannot uproot our children from the schools they are in at present, neither can the other partner give up a Colombo job to take up residence in the new place. And there are innumerable other obstacles, some of us have worked in this organisation for at least five years or more’’.

One of those affected is a Sinhalese typist, pregnant with another small child at home. She has been told that there is no place for Sinhalese typists or Secretaries as the whole organisation has been computerised and lap top computers are available in all ADP offices now.

Mr. Silva explained that WVLhas been restructuring itself since 1996 with Area Development offices being established in all WVL projects. This organisation is following global trends in administration. Staff joining were informed that they would have to work in projects and when the need arises. Also that with this reorganisation process the Zonal office will be closed within the next few years. Not only that, even staff at the National office in Borella with the exception of the Field Leadership team are likely to be sent elsewhere.

Incidentally this entire process of establishing ADP offices and computerising the whole network, and other matters connected with this process was funded by the affiliated MV offices abroad.

But for employees in Colombo their death-knell has already been sounded, it seems.

NGOs have their own ideas of how they should organise their offices. They are in an envious position of acting on their own in certain matters. No doubt there are NGO’s really concerned about this island’s poor and marginalised.

However it will be recalled that there was so much criticism of NGO’s in general that a Commission was appointed in 1990 under emergency regulations headed by a retired Supreme Court Judge, Justice R.S. Wanasundera.

This was in response to widespread complaints from the public that certain NGOs were misusing or misappropriating funds and indulging in malpractices and other irregular matters.

This raised a storm of protest among some NGOs but the commission made its recommendations after hearing evidence from public officials and others. Generally the tenor of the evidence was that NGOs should be monitored. The recommendations complied with some of the requests.

But this is 1997 and the Commission’s final report is gathering dust somewhere.

Up to the report of the Commission, NGOs-incidentally there are over 3,000 NGO’s in Sri Lanka- functioned in a more-or-less laissez faire atmosphere within which they operated autonomously with hardly any government or internal control. Now however they are called upon to submit statements of accounts and liabilities, receipts of goods, their sources and particularly disbursements, and also adhere to some other requirements. The report has not been made public and this fact has been the main reason for criticism of the government’s achievements.

The question is often asked what is the government afraid of, or may be,.it does not want to kill the goose of foreign exchange which lays a good part of the golden egg, or maybe the NGO lobby is too strong for the government to take up cudgels against it! But it is time for change and the sooner the better.

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