Editorial – Ceylon Today
The government is mooting new laws to monitor funds received by local Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs). At his regular breakfast meeting with newspaper editors on Thursday, responding to a question by a newspaper editor, the President revealed plans to formulate the new law. He said under the laws that existed before 1977, NGOs were obliged to reveal the origins of their funds and how they were spent. The pre-1977 era, however, does not deserve glorification. It was a period that the once promising economy of this country lost its mettle under the grip of the misguided Statist policies of the United Front Government.
The NGOs are not as evil as many developing world rulers tend to project. Incumbent President Mahinda Rajapaksa himself should know that. He worked shoulder-to-shoulder with human rights and press freedom activists during the gory days of State terrorism in the 80s. He went to Geneva and petitioned the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) against disappearances and extra-judicial killings taking place in his home country.
The world where there are genuine NGOs is a better place. They keep the powers that be under check; they make dictators fear the wrath of international intervention; they expose corruption and exert pressure on donor countries to exercise their good offices to make positive policy changes in recipient States.
The Third World countries, in general, suffer from the absence of independent institutions and checks and balances mechanisms. That is where the role of the NGOs comes in handy. They serve as a supplement to those non-existing checks and balances mechanisms.
It is for that reason that Third World rulers, ranging from nominally elected Presidents in flawed democracies to outright dictators and hereditary rulers in Africa and the Gulf loath the scrutiny of the NGOs.
Earlier, Russian President Vladimir Putin, fearing a coloured revolution in his country, introduced draconian rules against NGO activities.
However, NGOs are not necessarily good Samaritans, as the people in the Western democracies tend to think. Some of the NGOs active in this part of the world are notorious for misuse of donor funds and the lavish lifestyles of NGO captains. Norway, which gives away the highest percentage in GDP per capita in foreign aid, learnt it the hard way when one Sri Lankan charlatan who fooled both the Vikings and the locals for decades, finally took the Norwegians to Court, after Oslo cut off funding to his NGO.
However, lately as their numbers increased manifold, thanks to generous international funding, many of the local NGOs lost their focus. The NGOs became synonymous with making a fast buck out of donors’ generosity.
Today, NGOs are a multi-million rupee industry. Yet, transparency and accountability in this particular industry is sadly lacking. There is no financial accountability, except seedy annual reports, which were rife with accounting malpractices. Sri Lankans are kept in the dark over as to how many billions were received by the local NGOs and how those monies were spent. In the absence of financial accountability, many millions of those funds end up being siphoned by some of the fraudsters in the industry, who are no better than white collar criminals.
Sri Lanka needs regulations to monitor as to how funds received by the NGOs are being utilized. However, such a law should be unambiguous in its objective and leave no room for abuse by the State and its security apparatus. NGOs can be monitored by the Central Bank and not by the Ministry of Defence, whose intervention could lead to abuse.
The proposed laws should not lead to a witch-hunt or aim to suppress democratic activism of the NGOs. That is however, a moot point. Given the past track record of the government, even the most genuine NGO activists would have grave reservations about the government’s intentions. We cannot help, but share those sentiments.