19 February 2014

On making valid points and fudging critical issues

[This was a follow-up piece on what I had written about prominent NGOs like the Centre for Policy Alternatives, National Peace Council and Transparency International were up to.  It is part response to a manifest dodgy piece by CPA chief Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu following my article and other comments on these NGOs.  This took place 3 years ago.  Still valid, I believe]
Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, in what he purports to be a response to critical reports about the Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA) of which he is the Executive Director and to what he thinks are ‘personal attacks’, has made some very valid and thought-provoking observations (see ‘Hack-attack,’ in the Daily Mirror of April 7, 2011).  He has not mentioned what the ‘personal attacks’ are or who has made them. Neither has he mentioned what these ‘critical reports’ are about or who the critics are. That’s interesting and pertinent. 

I did comment on Saravanamuttu and the CPA at length in an article titled ‘Is an election a ‘village tank’ to monitors and donors?’ in the Daily Mirror of March 22, 2011, mentioning the enormous sums of money that the CPA has received from the governments of several countries in its capacity as the most visible member of the Centre for Monitoring Election Violence (CMEV) and perhaps the only member with any real on-the-ground presence.  In that article I raised some questions about promise and delivery and about the logic of requiring scandalous amounts of money to pay for what seemed to be inexpensive services.  

I also asked why the CPA has not come clean on how much was spent on what and who got how much for what.  Elsewhere (for example in the Sunday Lakbima News of April 10, 2011) I noted the fact that the CMEV, for all the millions upon millions of rupees it has got its hands on over the last 12 years, failed to convince enough people about the importance of the work they do in order to build in sustainability to their projects.  I noted that the CMEV, perhaps for lack of funds, did next to nothing during the recently held local government elections. 

Saravanamuttu has, as I said, made some valid points.  He has said, for example, that the CPA had furnished all financial reports requested by the CID when MP Rajiva Wijesinha raised some questions in Parliament last year.  He has said that in any case the said information was already available with the Registrar of Companies in accordance with relevant audit requirements.  He has also raised the (valid) question, ‘why investigate right now?’ and added ‘why at all?’ He has asked whether the CPA (and other organizations) have been guilty of crime.  These are questions that the relevant authorities might want to respond to, although I don’t think that an investigative body has to launch action based on auspicious times or that investigations should be launched after it is established that a crime has been committed. 

In general, Saravanamuttu’s response does raise the question of selectivity, though.  In addition, the entire process and its political overtones does indicate that the regulatory apparatus is lacking in many ways and perhaps has in-built loopholes that make for inefficiency and hanky-panky.  As he has pointed out, the CPA and CMEV are legitimate bodies and recognized as such and moreover accorded respect by the Elections Commissioner.  If any mischief has been committed by the CPA/CMEV (and all indications are that they have) then the Elections Commissioner is automatically an accessory after the fact of mischief-making and other relevant wrongdoing.  C.A. Chandraprema has addressed the issue of flaws in the regulatory mechanisms in his article, ‘The legal basis of NGO impunity’ (The Island of April 7, 2011).

Saravanamuttu has not asked why the condition of accountability has not been raised with respect to other organizations, non-governmental, corporate and of course state agencies.  As far back as 2002, I insisted that for transparency and accountability to have any meaning in governance, there should be an Independent Audit Commission written into the now defunct 17th Amendment, flawed document though it was for reasons I have elaborated in many in the Sunday Island at that time and elsewhere subsequently. 

He claims he has been threatened, harassed, branded as traitor and that the public has been exhorted to spit on him.  He says he has been accused of being supportive of the LTTE and terrorism.  He has said there has been no substantiation of the allegation that he nor the heads of the other organizations about whose finances questions have been raised and which share with the CPA ‘a common critique of the regime’ have indeed been supportive of the LTTE and therefore terrorism.  This is not true.  Whitewashing the LTTE, bending backwards to legitimate that organization and give it parity of status vis-√†-vis the Government of Sri Lanka, turning a blind eye to fraternal organizations purportedly engaged in rehabilitation in LTTE-controlled areas when in fact they were knowingly providing money and material to the LTTE and doing the utmost to save the LTTE leadership during the last days of the conflict are only some of the ‘evidence’ of support, not to mention of course the fact that they were actively endorsing the LTTE’s preferences in all stages of all negotiations.  There’s nothing illegitimate in all this of course.  Feigning neutrality in the political arena and claiming to be apolitical, however, is rather disingenuous.  As for threat and harassment, again, this shows in the very least flaws in the overall security apparatus, even though it is true that those diametrically opposed to the views held by Saravanamuttu and his ilk have suffered the same kind of abuse but in greater magnitude with scars to show to boot.  

What I find strange about Saravanamuttu’s response is that thinks passing the buck to the Registrar of Companies is adequate answer to questions about financial matters.  This is strange because he claims often and is recognized by his donors and others who frequently quote him as representative of civil society.  This ought to make him answerable to the general public and moreover, given known antipathies, should not make him see state as organ of civil society in all things transparent and accountable.  Whether or not the mechanisms of the state are flawed, whether or not state agencies are engaged in a selective and unwarranted investigation of his organization, Saravanamuttu, knowing very well the problems pertaining to information flow between state and public, ought to have (but of course not required to) come clean about how much, from whom, for what and to whom. 

He says foreign donors are aware of what the organizations monitoring elections do and that the organizations report to these funders.  That multiple funders appear to have given money to the CMEV for the same project, that relevant amounts seem highly exorbitant and that the monitoring outfits appear to have axed sustainability in order to milk and re-milk a set of generous donor cows doesn’t give his boast much meat, especially since the other organizations he mentioned, PAFFREL and CAFFE (one assumes) would have also obtained similar quantities of dollar-milk from these very same dairy.  He has not explained why the CMEV required so much money and from so many donors.  He has not explained why the CMEV spent Rs. 1.12 million in rent for a headquarters to monitor activities in the Eastern Province over a period of 48 days, for example.

Saravanamuttu says that CMEV’s audited accounts are electronically available on the CPA’s and CMEV’s websites.  CPA’s website is, for the record, ‘under construction’ and does not give all the annual reports and none since 2009.  The CMEV’s accounts are hidden in the middle of a large pdf document in literally very small print. I am not claiming that the relevant auditors have been negligent or mischievous.  Audit reports are essentially summaries.  The onus on Saravanamuttu, who talks of transparency and accountability, is to give the details that don’t go into these reports. 

Instead of all this, Saravanamuttu chooses to point fingers at those who have criticized the CPA/CMEV, demanding that they reveal who gave them the information.  I have the photocopies of agreements that the CPA has signed with several donors.  Suffice to say I have friends in government as well as the cartel that calls itself ‘civil society organizations’. Saravanamuttu knows he has more enemies within that without, given competition for the same funds from the same donors. 

What is relevant moreover is whether the claims made are accurate or not.  He has not denied.  Nor has he explained, in the public interest that he professes to care so much about, how much was received, for what exactly and into whose bank accounts the money went.

He asks the valid question, ‘Are these individuals (those who have criticized and raised questions regarding the CPA/CMEV and others) acting alone or are they acting on instruction?’ I can’t speak for others, but I am hardly acting on ‘instruction’ for I owe no one any favours, except those I love and the tax payers who paid for my education.   Whether or not the state has got its act together, these are questions that need to be asked, especially considering the holier-than-thou nature of rhetoric spouted by the likes of Saravanamuttu about transparency and accountability. This is not about bucks. This is about big bucks.  It is about coming clean. Or closing shop. The ball is in Saravanamuttu’s court, not as far as the state is concerned, but insofar as ‘civil society’ is implicated.