The Defence Ministry’s Secretariat for Non-Governmental Organisations last month issued a controversial and internationally criticized order banning NGOs and INGOs from conducting media conferences, workshops or training for journalists and issuing media statements. The Secretariat’s Director and Registrar D. M. S. Dissanayake alleged that certain NGOs were going “beyond their mandate”, whatever that was supposed to mean. He warned that NGOs should not get involved in such unauthorised activities with immediate effect.
The response from NGOs was equally tough. The widely respected lawyer-activist J. C. Weliamuna said the secretariat’s order was unconstitutional and violated the people’s fundamental rights to the freedom of association and expression. Mr. Weliaumna said this was a continuation of the threats to civil society. It was a directive by a Government official and no one was bound by it. In the first international response the United States said the order undermined Sri Lanka’s longstanding and proud democratic traditions, including freedom of speech and of assembly.
In the aftermath of Sri Lanka’s worst-ever natural catastrophe, the 2004 Tsunami, the Centre for Non Governmental Sector-- a Government institution established to coordinate and facilitate NGOs in Sri Lanka—said it welcomed the initiatives and interest shown by NGOs and INGOs. It said the Centre’s role would be to coordinate the work of the NGOs and INGOs to ensure the best use of resources and provision of assistance to people in real need.
In an article on this page today, Sarath Fernando -- the founder of the Movement for Land and Agriculture Reforms (MONLAR) and well-known activist for the rights of the farmer community, proposes a solution where NGOs could work without or with less foreign aid so that Ministers like Wimal Weerawansa would not be able to damn all as ‘NGO dollar kakkas’.
According to Mr. Fernando, if a programme depends on local strength, the strength of the people and the benefits of working with nature, then the local people will monitor the work more carefully and there should be more accountability to the people. He points out that the Buddha, when he formed the Sangha, wanted them to wander around and preach the truth. They did it and they were respected. They begged for alms and people gave alms because what they did was good and honoured. They lived a simple and humble lifestyle or ‘alpechchathavaya’ because they did not have money for luxuries. We agree with Mr. Fernando that many NGOs go for foreign funds or are forced to do so because some members are known to desire luxury lifestyles with plush air conditioned offices, expensive cars and other luxuries. When they hold seminars or conferences some of the NGOs desire five-star extravagance which sometimes costs millions. Many independent analysts say that in the case of some NGOs, half the money they receive goes for their personal gain or glory, while half or less goes for the people or the cause they work for.
According to Mr. Fernando, NGOs are not an illegal phenomenon. They are recognized all over the world as they play an important role. It is the responsibility of the NGOs to win the confidence of the people by doing things that are useful and also by engaging in work that is for the benefit of the people and also being accountable to the people. It is in the name of the suffering people that funds are raised either locally or internationally. Therefore such funds belong to the people and NGOs using such funds need to be answerable to people.
While we urge the Government not to look for excuses to curb sincere civic action which echoes the voice of the people, we also call upon NGOs and INGOs to transform themselves into selfless, sacrificial volunteer groups which work for the common good of all the people of Sri Lanka.