Whither or Wither NGOs?
Recently a friend of mine observed that many if not most NGOs, in their quest for values like transparency and reconciliation, embark on lavishly funded projects which target a broad audience but end up appealing to a discerning minority. Exhibitions at galleries in and around Colombo, discussions with foreign experts in closeted air-conditioned rooms and halls, and essay and art competitions that exclude a majority who have neither the energy nor the luxury to engage in them: these, she pointed out, tend to leave out the people who matter to those who want to achieve reconciliation and accountability. By doing so, she added, NGOs are not only alienating people but also discrediting themselves by shutting themselves off from people and thereby, the country.
She then showed me an expensive, glossily laminated book that an agency had brought out to commemorate independence. Around 30 photographs, each revolving around a particular theme, incident, or person, stood out on the pages, and the accompanying text, simple, brief, and poetic, pointed out the significance of the last seven or so decades in the country to some of its most ordinary, and extraordinary, personalities: a hawker on one page, a distinguished filmmaker on another, and so on.
The publication was worthy of the care and commitment its authors had put into it, yet my friend questioned, rightly I think, whether such a project would mean anything to Sri Lankans. While she did not couch her criticism in those terms exactly, I believe what she wanted to say was that millions of rupees had been spent on a book which would reach only very few. As for the rest who could read it, including you and me, we were privileged in ways that most others were, and are, not.
The problem with NGOs — and I mean most of them barring the occasional grassroots agency which serves its community — is their inability to go beyond their cloistered quarters. Many of them seem to believe that forums, discussions, and exhibitions in air-conditioned rooms somehow compensate for their lack of presence in the world outside Colombo or other major cities. If this had the effect of merely discrediting them in the eyes of people who should matter to them, there wouldn’t be an issue.
But it has also had the effect of turning the people who matter away from the very values the agencies advocate. One can’t blame them, because when you intellectualise reconciliation and projects which supposedly promote reconciliation, you distance yourself from a majority whose unfamiliarity with the language employed puts them off.
If you want to market these values, you have to market them to the people. While I’ve always believed that modern liberalism, the ideological stage from which these values are promoted today, is largely a construct of 18th and 19th century European, bourgeois, white, patriarchal civilisation, this does not and should not discount the universality and timelessness of values such as human rights, transparency, and accountability. That these have been hijacked today and put in the service of a neoliberal agenda is another question altogether; that is a legacy of the Cold War, the end of history and the clash of civilisations, and the Orientalist project still ongoing nearly three decades after Edward Said first wrote about it.
Taken by themselves, we should not fall under the illusion that because these are being touted in the long term interests of Western ideological hegemony, they should be discarded. To do so would be to mistake the messenger for the message, indeed to assume that such values are, by default, Western and alien to our civilisation. That is not so. Human rights, transparency, accountability, and reproductive rights are not, nor have they ever been, West-only. Historical narratives and accounts tell us that long before cities emerged in Europe, long before Luther pinned those theses on the Wittenberg Church, scholars and rulers from this side of the world were making important moral distinctions, going beyond the dual logic system that the West would later pioneer. Eric Fromm would contrast these two systems of thought in his To Have or To Be?, one of the most important treatises of the 20th century that unfortunately has been sidelined by Westernised intellectuals and radicals in Sri Lanka.
It would be more correct to think of freedom and individuality as universal values refracted through particular ideological systems. For instance, Rupa Saparamadu in her book Sinhala Gehaniya argues that, prior to Western colonialism, Sinhala women were treated quite well and rights were accorded to them. I myself take issue with such a claim — my friend Praveen Tilakaratne, responding to a piece by Senel Wanniarachchi on the image of the goddess Tara at the British Museum in which he makes a similar observation, likewise takes issue with that claim — but the fact that such an argument could be made, and historical evidence be marshalled for it, points to a narrative of rights, duties, and justice falling outside the matrix of Western civilisation.
The vexing question, then, is whether we must accept these values for what they intrinsically are or whether, given how they have been modified to suit Western ideological interests and preferred political outcomes, we should try to relate them to a worldview that differs from a Eurocentric perspective. Indeed, Iranian human rights activist and Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi has more or less suggested a shift in how we look at rights, framing them in terms of culture as well as modernity.
The struggle to “universalise” these values and tenets must be taken from another angle also. For far too long, the human rights agenda, as it’s called, has been criticised, not unjustifiably, for being not only Eurocentric and white but also middle class and elitist. In other words, they are seen as the preserve of English speaking upper or upper middle class society, a point that has more often than not been borne out by the reality; a glance at some of the big names in NGO society will make it clear that agencies tend to operate through cocktail circuits rather than tangible, lived encounters with people. Naturally this should not be the case, yet it is: from the choice of officials for agencies to the language they employ in their press releases, they project distance from rather than proximity to the people.
I realise the dilemma that these NGOs are caught in. Agencies rely on donors and donors can only give once certain criteria are met. Forgetting for the moment the vexing, debatable issue of whether donors set certain agendas that are detrimental to national interests — a moot point which I think deserves further analysis and assessment — the truth is that agencies are, not a little ironically, as bureaucratised as government departments, if in a less discernible way.
As such policies tend to be ironed out by top officials, then interpreted and reinterpreted by the rank and file of the organisation, policy is filtered through many layers, making consistency and uniformity impossible. Ohanyan (2009) argues that owing to this donors “capture” NGOs and deny them both ideological and organisational autonomy, an issue no doubt exacerbated by the erosion of the State in the developing world and the entrenchment of the NGO sector against the backdrop of authoritarian, weak regimes throughout the so-called Third World.
In fact it is when the public sector is on the verge of collapse and the State veers towards authoritarianism that donors focus their attention on NGOs. This trend is hardly specific to Sri Lanka, yet it is a phenomenon prevalent in countries like ours that fluctuate between long periods of authoritarianism and brief periods of neoliberal reform.
That, moreover, is not the case all the time: NGOs may flourish at times of authoritarianism since it can “market” the need for funds, but it can also erode in such periods. On the other hand, while donors may be willing to fund agencies when a country is transitioning from rightwing authoritarianism to neoliberal reform, once the transition is made, or is assumed to have been made, they may exit the industry since, frankly, there’s no further need for them. A visit to one or two offices of local agencies will make clear how lack of funds has left the sector impoverished, particularly in the wake of the post-2015 wave of neoliberal reforms that swept through the country and penetrated the State.
The fluctuating fortunes of NGOs deserve closer scrutiny. It’s certainly a paradoxical world out there, one which a seasoned academic, devoid of a bias for or against such agencies, must undertake to study. On the other hand, the universality of values these agencies espouse must not and cannot be denied. To fit them in the larger cultural mould we come out of, to relate them to people whose conception of individuality is different from how the West views it, is to embark on an endeavour far removed from the cocktail circuits and conference halls of many NGOs we have here.
Unless we do so, all we will get out of reconciliation will be lavishly laminated coffee table books that ultimately mean nothing to people who should matter in the more relevant scheme of things. Reform within NGOs, by NGOs and not the State, is hence an imperative need of the hour.
The writer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org