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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2672

Questioning NGO Corruption & Neutrality

By Shenali Waduge

A sector that has little accountability but claims its presences as the 8th largest economy is the NGO sector worth USD1 trillion a year globally with an employee base of 19million workers which excludes the volunteers. NGO presence in Third World nations has been in debate & not without reason. NGOs have been accused of imperialism, neocolonialism, carrying out Western foreign policy, conversions of the poor to Christianity, vilifying Governments even funding anti-Government political campaigns & most recently aiding & abetting terrorist & separatist doctrines not to mention their internal setup that also lists cases of corruption & mismanagement.

Western Governments may have had faith in NGOs to channel aid to developing nations through them, but the lists of allegations against NGOs doesn’t really merit or provide anyone to feel that NGOs are in any way without bias & free from corruption & mismanagement & this certainly requires closer attention since the UN itself has been plagued with almost a similar set of allegations – even its own watchdog the Office of the Internal Oversight has been accused of bias. In essence no one can even ascertain how many NGOs operate in the Third World but over $15billion is given to them in funding from international financial institutions & Governmental agencies, should we not have all the right to demand what has been done with this money since there is possibly only a very thin line that divides all these corrupt forces. Moreover, poverty still exists, children still die of starvation, heath problems haven’t lessened etc so what exactly has these NGOs with $15billion done annually?

Coined by the UN, Non-Government Organizations were meant to keep their distance from “officialdom” & supposed to do things that Governments will not do or cannot do. Not all NGOs are harmful & not all are bad, but the rise in the “harmful” numbers of NGOs is giving the good ones a bad name & their staff looked upon critically. Yet, taking NGOs as a whole the argument that they are positioning themselves to cater to bourgeois economics & bourgeois-influenced intellectuals gives credence to the argument that NGOs in general are carrying forward imperialist or neo-colonial agendas. The managers of the biggest NGOs manage million dollar budgets with salaries & perks that are comparable to international CEOs. Their VIP status often leads them to international conferences, confer with top corporate & financial directors & make policy decisions that affect millions of people. Can the NGOs explain why 70% of their incomes or rather the funds given to be utilized for development purposes should be allocated towards their administrative needs – salaries, perks, foreign travel, seminars suvs etc? We can then imagine how much of this 70% the expats must be pocketing as their salaries & perks leaving possibly only a paltry amount for the local junior staff which is yet above the earning capacity of the average corporate sector employees thus the attraction to join these NGOs irrespective of their moral identity.

Where have all the Aid gone?

NGOs spend about $US15 billion on development each year, about the same as the World Bank - 67% of aid by EU was channeled through NGOs, Oxfam was given USD24.1million by the UK Government & EU in 1998. The US Government gave $55million to World Vision the worlds’ “largest privately funded Christian relief & development organization”. The American Government in 1999 channeled USD711million to Africa via USAID. The cases of misuse of funds by NGOs are many & this article will not suffice to draw attention to the many cases that have received global contempt. There have also been instances of NGOs accusing the EU nations including UK, France & Germany of inflating their aid figures (March 2006, Oxfam) Of the many cases of abuses the Norwegian Refugee Council has been accused in Liberia of bribery, the French NGO L’Arche de Zoe (Zoe’s Ark) has been accused of trafficking children in Chad (2007), Transparency International’s 2008 Corruption Index report in Kenya places NGOs as the 2nd most corrupt institution in terms of taking bribes. Then in Sri Lanka, where there are 10 NGOs per sq.mile given Sri Lanka’s size we can but what where these developments have actually taken place.

In Batticoloa, where more than 10,000 women are employed in nearly 300 NGOs /INGOs set up for tsunami work, a racket involving 4 leading INGOs involved in making pornographic videos of these employees in exchange for cash has been discovered following the doctor who performed 75 abortions confessed. These women had been taken to hotels in pretext of training programs & coerced into posing for pornographic videos which have been put on sale. In March 2008, the Daily News exposed the arrest of a NGO staff member for child molestation in Kosgama. This NGO worker was caught while preparing to take several underage boys on the pretext of attending a seminar. He had also collected funds from parents to open accounts in the name of their children but had never produced these bank pass books. He had forged identification papers & several forged IDs citing different designations. Indeed, NGOs have much to be accountable for.

NGOs & conversions

The cases of NGOs whose sole motive in operating in Third World nations is to convert to Christian faith is also under review & criticism. They are accused of targeting the poverty stricken nations of the world & converting them to Christian faith by providing them monetary assistance – this was the practice that colonial rulers adopted & it seems the very same doctrine is being repeated through NGOs. In Bangladesh, NGOs have been accused of converting over 300,000 to Christian faith. When the Government cancelled the registration of two NGOs (Association of Development Agencies of Bangladesh & Society for Economic & Basic Administration) pressures from foreign missions compelled the Government to revoke the cancellation. Similarly, Sri Lanka is also experiencing a similar drive where not only poverty stricken Sinhalese but Hindus are being lured into converting & it has created a major debate with Bhikkus demanding greater attention. In the case of conversions it is obviously the monetary factor that is the motivating factor for these conversions thus a program to cater to this would suit the poor better. From time to time Norwegian Peace Research Institute of Oslo (PRIO) also sponsored studies which resulted in papers drawing up programmes on how best Norway could infiltrate key areas like the community of Buddhist monks to push their political line -- all in the name of peace, of course.

NGOs & politics

There are even instances of NGOs actively involved in political campaigning & even financing political campaigns to overthrow Governments - cases of Sierra Leon, Sudan, Rwanda all come to mind. In India there are over 1.2million NGOs some registered most not. The Society for Participatory Research in Asia estimates 19.4million people work in India’s NGO sector & most of them volunteers, one then can but wonder exactly how many a single NGO really employs. 400 NGOs have been blacklisted by the Council for the Advancement of People's Action and Rural Technology (CAPART) while the Central Social and Welfare Board (CSWB) have blacklisted 3,000 NGOs. In any case, it is not only difficult to find out exactly how many NGOs operate globally, their global workforce it is almost impossible to benchmark how much of the aid they get actually goes into development work. Yet, creative slogans, creative advertisements, colorful reports & eloquent key staff will naturally provide greater attraction than the white collar government officials who are certainly not media savvy & are less appealing on electronic media.

NGOs now play a central role in the policy of US-engineered "regime change" set forth in the notorious National Security Strategy of the United States. The case of Georgia being a perfect example. Wall Street Journal writes that the NGOs had "spawned a class of young, English-speaking intellectuals hungry for pro-Western reforms" who were instrumental in laying the groundwork for a bloodless coup to overthrow Eduard Shevardnadze. The covert operations using NGOs meets US National Security Strategy & the 2002 White House blueprint for a new, openly aggressive phase of US imperialism. Meanwhile, NGOs like the Liberty Institute--a USAID subcontractor managed by Mikhail Saakashvili, the US-approved candidate for Georgian leadership--worked hand-in-glove with the US Embassy (and presumably the CIA) to destabilize civil society. In Kenyan NGOs have been accused of being responsible for causing the violence that disrupted after the disputed presidential elections in 2007, while the Zimbabwean Government has annulled registration certificates of all NGOs in order to sift out those seeking to force regime change in Zimbabwe. Even the British Council has been accused of espionage by Russia.

Sri Lanka’s NGOs

The Sri Lankan newspapers have highlighted various critiques on the National Peace Council, Sarvodaya, Center for Policy Alternatives (CPA) & Prayathna funded by USAID through Academy of Education Development (AED) some of whom have been involved in exciting separatist thought amongst the estate workers in Sri Lanka. In Sri Lanka where a military drive is taking place the Government has demanded all INGOs/NGOs exit the zones. There have been varied opposition – how can any "development" work take place when warring parties are advancing. For all the development work being done over the years in relation to the vast amounts of funds that have been disbursed to these organizations there is little to see of what they have actually done. The Government continues to feed the people of the North, provides essential items & fuel, healthcare & even school books…& the LTTE themselves are recipients of this. The existence of the LTTE has suited many - 25 years of riding upon the LTTE needs to now cease – the Tamil leaders have made good with the existence of the LTTE, the Tamil people have also benefited in many ways, previous Government & foreign countries have benefitted – all the while the poor Tamils in the North & East have suffered & continue to suffer not because of the Sri Lanka Army but because certain people are using the LTTE for their gain & survival & wish to still force the present weakened LTTE to continue to fight despite not only losing ground but also loosing many of its cadres.

Sri Lanka has attracted many INGOs & NGOs & many more are seeing flocking to the country. There are said to be around 3500 NGOs of which 2500 are registered – most others function as companies. An official in the Department of Social Services has declared that only 10% of the foreign exchange brought in by NGOs has been used for development purposes. In the case of Sri Lanka many human rights organizations functioning as NGOs have built their careers on demonizing the Government in preference of LTTE terrorism. Despite the calls for a clamp down on LTTE front organizations we have seen only half-hearted responses. The Tamil Rehabilitation Organization (TRO) was banned by Sri Lanka for links with the LTTE & had its assets frozen. The US has also banned TRO & has also frozen its assets. The UK was easier on the TRO for soon a charity organization named Tamil Support Foundation sprung up before TRO was banned by the British Charity Commission. Australian authorities have also raided the TRO office in Australia & are investigating the fund raising activities of Tamil Co-coordinating Committee (TCC). Canada has banned the World Tamil Movement as a “terrorist” organization which should give a clear indication to all other nations that TRO operates in to follow. There are likely to be many more such front organizations

Most of these NGOs do not employ Sri Lankans to the higher posts that involve decision making (so much so for career advancement), there are others that are made up of only locals but these locals must at all times keep to the policies of those funding them at all times. Any deviation would probably mean having to look for another means of employment (International Alert fired its SL correspondent Ms. F Janzs who had written an article exposing LTTE links with Norway & other Scandinavian countries). What most of the NGOs whose foreign principles follow anti-Government agendas end up having to voice only what they are supposed to – their conscience becomes thus sold to the devil? So what do we picture of the many NGOs whose personnel are staying in luxury hotels in Colombo, conducting seminars in the same hotels, traveling in luxury SUVs, continuously on holiday to various parts of the island but issue statement of how volatile & unsafe the situation is in Sri Lanka so that their insurance & other risk allowances will not diminish.

We cannot deny & politicians must accept that professionalism in politics is a dying entity which in large measures may contribute to the rise of "seemingly" lesser evils in the form of NGOs. These NGO activists are today’s global actors & many are now openly engaging in world politics even national affairs – they have come to establish a stake in national security covert operations. With the UN as an umbrella organization having strings of cases that define it as nothing better than politicians smaller number of cases against NGOs have come to be considered less damaging. It is possibly this overlook by the general public that may have drawn larger Governments’ like the US to include them into their larger strategy of bringing nations under US kaleidoscope. The exact nature of NGO activity or the raison d’etre for these organizations to suddenly open offices, attract local employment & media coverage is likely to surface probably only after their modus operandi is complete & given this scenario it would suit NGOs perfectly to be asked to exit the country – happy that what they came to do has been complete. In Sri Lanka’s case the NGOs have glorified in the country’s omission from the Human Rights Council, they have had links with the terrorists, some vehicles have even served to transport small arms, there have also been occasions where Christian clergy have even carried sophisticated communication items for the LTTE though the Church claims that the person was a “layman belonging to his order” – can they please decipher this statement.

Norwegian NGOs like Red Barna was caught red-handed providing funds for Tiger organisations, Norwegian diplomats and peace monitors have equally been accused of being biased in the peace process led by Erik Solheim, who was a close buddy of the late Anton Balasingham. Solheim had on occasions even footed Balasingham’s hotel bills. Norway’s role in Sri Lanka was on the approval of the Indian Government but the Sri Lankan public has continuously questioned its impartiality. Recently, it was revealed that a fleet of heavy vehicles belonging to the Norwegian People’s Aid now with the LTTE - yet the news immediately went down as “stolen” by the LTTE yet raises the question why NPA did not report its theft immediately to the Govt. When we viewed the massive trenches dug by the LTTE in order to delay military advancement it was very clear that these NGO vehicles had been used over a considerable length of time to dig the trenches. Reasons to doubt The Norwegian People’s Aid is not unfounded since it has been accused of smuggling arms, ammunition & landmines for the Sudanese insurgent group Sudan People’s Liberation Army in 1986. Similarly, there is the Norwegian Government funded documentary titled "My Daughter the Terrorist" glorifying women suicide bombers (incidentally Sept 10 is World Suicide Prevention Day – is suicide then a matter for glorification & to be funded by a Government?) We can blame these NGOs but the Government of the day which allowed these questionable NGOs to enter Sri Lanka must be equally accountable.

Sri Lanka has had to endure the vilifications of the international community, UN organizations & human rights groups etc not because we are a small nation but because our leaders have not shown consistent visionary leadership. What made LTTE different from the JVP, why was the LTTE allowed to internationalize their "militancy" transform their "terrorism" to have the world believe that the country suffered from an "ethnic" problem? Why has Governments not demanded the international community & media organizations to remove this nonsensical "ethnic" problem element & replace it with "terrorism"? For 25 years the world has believed that the country suffers an ethnic problem – what have our foreign missions done to change this? The false propaganda must be effectively addressed & attacked with examples, with statistics to prove the truth for the truth will always counter false propaganda & even those with hidden agendas cannot continue their lies when truth prevails. Why should a now Tamil population of perhaps less than 6.5% be given 35% of the country's land mass & possibly over 75% of the sea? Will any foreign country entertain such self-determination demands?

As far as NGO neutrality is concerned, the important question still remains that instances of bias & internal corruption has demeaned their status quo to “interfere” & claim to be impartial in their role between any warring factions. The example of the 17 aid workers employed with Action Contra la Faim (ACF – Action Against Hunger) is a classic example that questions the moral stand of NGOs operating in foreign countries. This French NGO requested its local staff to leave Trincomalee to the office in Muttur (on 31st Aug 07) despite staff disagreement (2 staff applied for leave but was denied). Muttur came under LTTE attack (on 1st Aug 07) & people were asked to vacate & move to refugee camps.

The aid workers themselves were advised by the local Christian priest & the local divisional secretary to go to these camps while their relatives were eager that they make their way back to Trincomalee. With three vehicles & three drivers at their disposal why were the ACF 17 aid workers given instructions by their Paris & Colombo office not to move out of a highly volatile combat situation citing difficulty in picking them up if they were in different refugee camps. The humaneness of the Paris & Colombo office is questioned how "difficulty in picking up their employees" was of more interest than asking them to immediately vacate the office & move to safety when they had the logistics to do so. This should have been the first instruction when the LTTE attacked on the 1st which would have saved them from death 4 days later (4th Aug 07) None of the other NGOs in Sri Lanka was brave enough to question why ACF did not immediately remove their staff to safety – a similar situation was “created” in Kosovo that has now led to "intervention" & "independence" ….are we at all seeing a larger picture in the modus operandi of some NGOs….?

If NGOs are being criticized by a country & its people who feel disillusioned by what the NGOs are actually doing in their country despite all the hyped press releases & media coverage relayed globally, the activities of these NGOs certainly need closer scrutiny. If the international community is concerned when Governments fail the people then they must also show similar interest in investigating these NGOs - but if they are agents of imperialism what can Third World nations next opt for?

- Asian Tribune -

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