COLOMBO, Mar 15, 2011 (IPS) – Lack of donor funding, state phobia against western NGOs, and restrictive work permits for foreign aid workers have together hit the operations of several dozen Sri Lankan NGOs and their foreign counterparts.
British-government funded agencies and AusAid, an Australian government agency, have reportedly reduced their funding of local NGOs. U.S.-based Care International is also cutting its local staff in Colombo. Officials at these agencies could not be reached for comment.
“The government wants a hands-off policy from donors, and thus prefers countries like China which provides assistance without being too concerned [about other issues],” said Harim Peiris, a Colombo-based political analyst and a one-time spokesperson for former President Chandrika Kumaratunga. China is second to Japan as Sri Lanka’s largest lender of development assistance.
“There is a lot of downsizing [of staff],” a veteran aid worker here who declined to be identified told IPS. “I don’t have numbers but I can tell you that any NGO involved in governance, post-conflict peace or post-war trauma related work will have a problem with the authorities,” who “not only track the work of such NGOs but also often visit their offices.”
The most affected agencies are involved in governance, peace building, conflict-resolution and post-war trauma counselling.
“Anything that is considered political or empowering people to establish their rights is anathema to the establishment,” the aid worker said, adding that he is afraid to get exposed, as any NGO worker critical of the establishment will be “in trouble.”
Nearly two years after the ruling United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) ended the bloody insurgency by Tamil rebels demanding regional autonomy for their community, the government is still cagey about western-funded NGOs – particularly following criticism by human rights groups and civil society organisations regarding conduct of government forces during the last stages of the conflict.
Dozens of civilians were reported to have died in crossfire during the last stages of the conflict in May 2009, and rights groups say better government planning could have averted this. President Mahinda Rajapaksa and his ministers have repeatedly rejected claims of large-scale civilian casualties.
A meeting conducted in secret on Feb. 23 between a government team and a U.N. Panel advising Secretary General Ban Ki-moon on the Sri Lankan human rights situation illustrates Rajapaksa’s worry over alleged human rights violations. The meeting, which was held in New York and revealed by the influential Colombo-based Sunday Times newspaper, so far hasn’t been denied by the government.
J. Weliamuna, a well-known human rights lawyer and former director of Transparency International’s Colombo office, told IPS that the situation concerning NGOs is worsening. “The government sees everybody as a challenge and has a phobia against NGOs,” he said, adding that the government views civil society as its only challenge since the opposition is weak.
“More and more, space is limited for civil society,” Weliamuna said. “People are dead scared of challenging the government and the war-time fear psychosis still prevails.”
On Monday, New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) urged more than 50 countries to boycott a Sri Lankan conference in May, which aims to share the country’s war experiences.
The government has invited specialists from several countries to a conference titled ‘Defeating Terrorism – The Sri Lankan Experience’ on May 31 to Jun. 2 in Colombo, which HRW says should be skipped.
“We are telling countries that they should not attend a meeting to celebrate a military policy that involves killing so many civilians,” HRW Executive Director Brad Adams was quoted as telling the BBC’s Sinhala service, Sandeshaya.
Statements like this and a constant barrage of criticism from human rights groups is what the government is up against in the international arena and at U.N. meetings, and this is its main reason for being suspicious of NGOs.
The human rights question came up once again in Geneva during the U.N.’s annual human rights discourse, but the Sri Lanka issue was overshadowed by the earthquake and tsunami crisis in Japan.
“The Japan crisis was a bigger issue at the meetings,” Pakiasothy Saravanamuttu, a respected human rights campaigner, who attended the Geneva meetings, told IPS.
Saravanamuttu, head of the Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA) here, and one of the few campaigners to be openly critical of government policies, has faced threats in the past.
“This is particularly the case of agencies that are involved in capacity building, post-war trauma counselling, governance and democracy,” Saravanamuttu said, adding that infrastructure and other work not perceived as political are not affected.
“In the case of foreign NGOs the government uses the visa as a weapon and restricts access to the island,” he said.
Aid workers say that foreign workers are normally allowed only a 3-month visa, which is then extended.
“The hassle and documentation to get the visa is so difficult that often foreign workers have to [immediately] start the process for the next three months after getting the first three-month visa,” one worker said, adding that in his organisation there was one local officer recruited just for visa-related work.
Lakshman Hullugalle, a government official who heads the state-run NGO Secretariat, denied these claims. “We give visas sometimes for one year at a time. It’s not correct to say we issue only short-term visas. The process is very streamlined,” he said.
Peiris says the issue facing NGOs is a combination of the drying up of funds and government policy.
“There is no humanitarian crisis anyone, except for humanitarian need which is long-term. Furthermore Sri Lanka has moved to the middle-income bracket of countries while development assistance is mostly for low-income countries,” Peiris explained.
But he stressed that the government has been inhospitable and worried about western agencies that seek to influence local development policy.
Peiris said that if there had been a period of reconciliation after the war and the rights of the minorities were secured, world focus on war crimes would have subsided.
“However this issue keeps cropping up again and again because there hasn’t been any proper peace and reconciliation [with the Tamil community] after the war ended.” (END)