International institutions turn sour to Colombo government

[TamilNet, Thursday, 28 February 2008, 13:18 GMT]
The Sri Lankan state, which was gleefully making use of some of the International NGOs and the Colombo based intellectuals associated with them, as long as their activities were serving its interests in weakening the Tamil cause, now frowns at them and seeks for their disintegration. The latest story is the government's hand in the disruptions faced by the International Centre for Ethnic Studies (ICES) in Colombo. According to informed circles, there is a clear message from the Rajapaksa government that it would not tolerate any agenda of the International Community through such NGOs, when it comes to interference with the genocidal programme of the Sri Lankan state.

The following is the full text of the news report by Feizal Samath of the Inter Press Service (IPS) News Agency, published on Thursday:

SRI LANKA: NGO Scam Spolights Cozy Funding Deals

COLOMBO, Feb 28 (IPS) - An internal feud at Sri Lanka's best known non-governmental organisation (NGO), over alleged mismanagement and financial irregularities, has snowballed into wider issues of lack of transparency, corruption and cozy relationships between funding agencies and recipients.

NGOs over the years have often been accused by the government and sections of the media of interference in politics, the peace process and social issues, but the ongoing clash at the much-respected International Centre for Ethnic Studies (ICES) is threatening to tear apart the influential NGO community here.

Former employees at ICES say the recent sacking of its executive director Rama Mani, a French national of Indian origin, in a dispute over financial mismanagement is the tip of the iceberg for an institution swamped with debts and overspending for many years.

Last month Mani -- in office since January 2007 -- was dismissed by ICES chairman Kingsley de Silva, but she was reinstated by de Silva himself after the board of management said the chairman had no powers to dismiss employees. By this time, however, the government had ordered her visa to be cancelled, saying she was a 'security threat' forcing her to leave the country with her young son.

"There are many issues of bad management that we have been constantly concerned about and swirling debt which the directors and board of management chose to ignore for many years," said a former senior ICES researcher, who declined to be named.

While this should have started and ended as an internal matter, a group of 54 influential NGO workers, many heading major non-profit organisations, issued a statement in support of Mani and threatened to sever connections with ICES if she was not reinstated. The Canadian high commissioner also stepped into the furore, threatening to cut off Canadian funding for ICES projects if Mani was not retained.

The government, hostile to NGOs working in the conflict and peace sector which includes ICES, watched from the sidelines as Sri Lanka's biggest private ethnic research agency was falling apart, but stepped in to cancel Mani's visa saying she was interfering in domestic affairs.

Rajiva Wijesinha, head of the government's Peace Secretariat, known for bashing NGOs working in the peace and governance sectors, accused many in the group of 54 intellectuals of being in cahoots with ICES over funding in projects that were inimical to Sri Lanka's independence and integrity. One of the names appearing in the list is that of Oman Noman, an expatriate director of the UNDP regional centre, Colombo, triggering accusations that the international community is interfering in Sri Lankan affairs.

ICES officials are to appear before an ongoing parliamentary commission on NGOs to explain its finances and allegations of mismanagement.

Intellectuals within the NGO community say the ICES issue has raised wider issues of transparency and governance among NGOs. Jeevan Thiagarajah, executive director at the Consortium of Humanitarian Agencies (CHA), believes that many organisations do not follow best practices.

A major problem, Thiagarajah said, was one of ‘'cozy'’ relationships between funding agencies and recipients. "In many cases, funding agencies are not bothered about where the money is going and don't question the recipients on how money has been spent, as long as their agenda (donor's) is fulfilled."

Thiagarajah, a former ICES employee and now a registered member of the organisation, raised alarms about the state of its finances some years ago. He believes that there is a need for not- for- profit organisations to operate as companies, have clear accounts according to best practices and for their reports to be submitted to the authorities.

He says NGOs are registered through an act of parliament, or as faith-based organisations through the church or through the registrar of companies. "One of the biggest problems is that organisations that are registered through an act of parliament don't see the inside of parliament after that. Isn't it the role of parliament to scrutinise the annual report of these organisations regularly?" he asked.

Thiagarajah is among a group appointed by the government which last year looked at the Voluntary Services Act and recommended changes to make charity organisations (under which many NGOs are registered) more accountable.

Another intellectual who has worked with ICES in the past said the government is sensitive to NGOs which are pushing for resumption of peace talks and stopping the war, and "the ICES saga has given a good excuse for the government to bash NGOs over corruption and interference’’.

He said one of the problems in recent times is that with the resumption of fighting between government forces and Tamil rebels, funding for peace projects is drying up. Donors are also not increasing aid as Sri Lanka is now in the mid-income bracket and is not considered a poor country any more. "Thus a shortage of funds is leading to a lot of management issues for NGOs," he said.

The ICES was established by eminent constitutional lawyer Neelan Thiruchelvam in 1982 and headed by him until he was killed in a Tamil rebel suicide attack in 1999. Supported by the Ford Foundation, Canadian International Development Agency and International Development Research Centre, the centre functions as a global centre of excellence located in the global south to conduct research and develop policies and mechanisms to address issues of ethnicity, pluralism, and the prevention and management of conflict.

After Thiruchelvam was killed, it was led by Radhika Coomaraswamy, another accomplished academic, till 2006 when she was appointed as the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Violence. One of her associates, Rama Mani, then took over the helm of this influential NGO, though there was criticism that Coomaraswamy was continuing to interfere in its running.

What may have incensed the government was Mani agreeing to a proposal from promoters of the proposed Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect (GCR2P) to set up its regional centre for South Asia in Colombo with funding support.

The GCR2P is a new international organisation that aims to protect the lives of the most vulnerable populations facing grave insecurity -- through pressure on the government or direct intervention. Co-chaired by former Australian foreign minister Gareth Evans and Mohammed Sahnoun and enjoying the patronage of global leaders like Kofi Annan and Mary Robinson, it is to be headquartered in New York. R2P puts into practice the doctrine of interference in the affairs of sovereign states where security is an issue. Gareth who was in Colombo some months back to attend annual Neelan Thiruchelvam memorial lecture suggested that Colombo should adopt the R2P doctrine.

That drew charges of ‘'interference’' from government quarters. Peace Secretariat head Wijesinha said Mani and her colleagues in the group of 54 received large doses of funds totaling Rs 200 million (two million dollars) through an organisation called Facilitating Local Initiatives for Conflict Transformation.

The 54 intellectuals include eminent figures like Pakiasothy Saravanamuttu, head of the powerful Centre for Policy Alternatives, Jayadeva Uyangoda, a well-known political scientist and Jayantha Dhanapala, a respected international diplomat who recently made a bid for the U.N. Secretary-General's position.

President Mahinda Rajapakse's government has been raising concerns about what is seen as 'acts unbecoming of diplomats' by many heads of missions. In recent months the government has frowned on statements made by the U.S., British and German heads of missions urging resumption of peace negotiations.

The Sri Lankan head of another respectable NGO working on poverty issues, who declined to be named, said one of the problems with the non-profit community is the lack of professional management and proper internal structures. Organisations are set up by powerful personalities who use their influence to seek funding and when these individuals move away -- like ICES co-founder Thiruchelvam -- lose focus.

"There is so much money to make that the few people who run these organisations don't train others to write proposals and gain expertise in discussing projects with donors," the NGO leader said.


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