US Secretary of State John Kerry has proposed a 20% cut in aid to Sri Lanka. Two reasons have been mentioned: Sri Lanka’s recently- acquired Middle Income Country status and ‘unease in ties over issues related to human rights, reconstruction and post-conflict political integration’. The first seems a sweetener that few would purchase, for the latter seems to be the real thing.
The amount, in actual terms, is a drop from USD 8 million to 6 million, and the related politics should be obtained from the fact that Kerry has proposed that over USD 80 million be released to Bangladesh. The word ‘punitive’ comes to mind. Indeed, a senior State Department official has all but used the word in an explanatory statement: “This reflects the fact that we had a difficult time in programming a lot of our money in Sri Lanka. We tried to do a lot in the North to help the IDPs to get back to their normal life and support reconstruction efforts there. But in several cases we had programmes we were trying to support, to which the government and the military got quite involved in them and so we were not able to pursue those programmes.”
The US has every right to assess the efficacy of aid programmes, to pick and choose where funds should go etc. If it doesn’t work, then it doesn’t make sense. Aid always comes with strings and aid-takers have to play along. On the other hand, where aid is perceived as a tool to control, especially ‘programmatic aid,’ then sovereign states can’t be faulted to erring on the side of caution. It must be noted that US diplomats have often acted in over- zealous and underhand ways in and with respect to Sri Lanka, the most overt recent example being a senior US diplomat in Colombo asking for a meeting with the CEB.
The US, interestingly, is better positioned than any other country to understand the reservations of the Government, especially when it comes to ‘programmes’ in the North. From the Oklahoma bombing to the Boston Marathon explosions through 9/11 and Anthrax scares of course, the USA has experienced terrorism firsthand. The anxiety produced prompted the US to declare a war on Iraq without a shred of evidence supporting the stated excuse for aggression, force a Government (Afghanistan) out of power, help support a regime strongly suspected of having rigged elections (that’s Karzai), kill tens of thousands and displace hundreds of thousands of innocent people just in order to capture the suspected mastermind of 9/11. The US then should understand the caution of a country that has just come out of a 30 -year struggle against terrorism. ‘Programmatic difficulty’ is therefore a poor excuse. ‘Not toeing the line’ would be closer to the truth.
If this is punitive and as some say a precursor to the imposition of a broader sanctions regime, the US should keep in mind two things. First, sanctions hurt people but make regimes more tenacious and even more brutal. They don’t necessarily result in regime change. Second, in the global context, an aid vacuum is being created for other players to make use of. There’s an ocean at stake and a strategic location too.
Both are selling-points that governments, whether popular or not, righteous or not, can and have used before.
Middle Income Country or not, Sri Lanka will have to learn to live with this global political economy of aid. Aid-dependency and aid-ineffectiveness are issues that have to be dealt with, sooner or later.
Kerry could think about all this but he could afford not to, right now. President Rajapaksa cannot stop thinking. That should say something about relative affluence and of course relative poverty.