Global Policy Forum

Sri Lanka: NGOs Face Funding Gap and Government Scrutiny

The NGO community in Sri Lanka is being assailed by the government, which purportedly sees these organizations as its opposition in governance. The state is particularly concerned about funding of local NGOs by foreign governments. These NGOs are viewed as the tools by which foreign powers are able to influence internal political affairs. The obscured influence of foreign governments through NGOs is a legitimate concern. However, this should not be used as an excuse for suppression of valid critics and opposition movements.

March 15, 2011

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."


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