Peruse the websites, vision-mission statements and objectives in project proposals of NGOs and the majority will read like a Sunday School Sermon. It’s all good stuff. Lovely words. Beautiful intentions. You would be forgiven for thinking that the people who run these outfits are saints.
It’s all about liberty, equality and fraternity. Well, not those very words of course, but basically the same sentiments. Yahapalanaya or good governance, for example, is but a 21st Century regurgitation (considering the rhetoric if not anything else) of what the French Revolution tossed out in the 18th Century. Of course not all NGOs or the personnel therein are supporters of the yahapalanists, but in word if not in deed they are pretty much invested in the nitty gritty of good governance.
They don’t sing ‘We shall overcome’ or the ‘Internationale’, but there’s a lot of ‘we’ll walk hand in hand,’ in the subtext of engagement, almost like background music. It’s almost as though ‘Glory Hallelujah’ is playing on their minds all day long.
There’s love for all. Regardless of ethnic, religious or ideological preferences. They all should have an equal voice. There’s love for nature and talk of sustainable development. There’s swearing by the notion of democracy. There’s disavowal of crookedness, the bending of rules, the abuse of power and the subjugation of dissent.
It almost makes one think that all the problems faced by the people would be best addressed by these ladies and gentlemen. Let them take over and things will be fine, one is made to believe.
“Scratch them!” I say, and the lovely picture begins to fade.
Let’s begin with money. The good words are ‘accountability’ and ‘transparency’. The bad habit is that others are meant to swear by them. Sauce for the goose but not the gander, so to say. This is not to say that politicians and officials are squeaky clean of course, but then finger-pointers are generally expected to have untainted fingers. If there’s any inkling of double-billing or multiple receipts, non-events being mentioned in expense columns, payments to non-existent resource persons and any other kind of financial hanky-panky, then there’s something wrong.
NGOs club together, even if some of them vie for the same funds. If one indulges, the others close ranks. You don’t see any of the transparency-demanders querying the opaque among their brethren. In fact, if anyone calls some NGO or NGO personality out for any kind of wrongdoing, in addition to the inevitable hushing up we see the whistle-blower being vilified. Perhaps this will change once the Right to Information Act comes into force. It is no secret that NGOs lobbied the powers that be to exclude I/NGOs from scrutiny, to no avail. Kudos to those who drafted the document and got it passed in Parliament, therefore.
What NGOs do with bucks is an NGO touch-me-not. It’s not the only one though.
We see a lot of high-minded moralizing about tolerance, respect and such when it comes to identity issues. If, however, a minority entity, religious or ethnic, does the dirty, there’s deafening silence or else cute apologizing in the form of referring to religious freedom or wailing about alleged historical discrimination — narratives beautifully constructed with liberal infusion of exaggeration and the deployment of that neat device, selectivity. There’s a big holy cow right there. A touch-me-not, certainly.
Nature. It sells. Well, as a whole and in part. Sustainability, climate-change, biodiversity and conservation have as much buck-drawing potential as conflict-resolution, good governance and peace.
They are all tree-hugging, animal-loving elves, one might think. Their hearts bleed and their sorrow is sprinkled all over social media about the plight of perahera elephants, but they say nothing of horse racing or dog shows. That’s fine, for horses and dogs are better treated than some perahera elephants, one might argue. Then again, why not a murmur about slaughtering cattle, goats, chicken and pigs for their meat?
Lesser creatures of ‘god’ or else is it not about elephantine love but some other kind of religious angst which may even include a need for religious conquest and therefore requires potshots at Buddhist festivals at every turn? And then again, why the strange silence about ‘development prerogatives’ which result in destroying the natural habitat of elephants?
Then we have trees. They are lovely. There are lots of them in and around Wilpattu. No, that’s a no-go zone. A touch-me-not. Sure, there’s the tokenism if pushed of talking about the plight of people displaced by the war. Of course their housing problem needs to be resolved. On the other hand, lack of housing is not the preserve of this particular community. If one talks precedence and uses it to fell, we’ll be with zero forest cover in a few years. But no, while environmental NGOs have done a lot of work to draw fact and discard fiction, there’s absolutely no support from other tree-loving worthies in their tribe. It’s an untouchable community. Those who protest the destruction that’s taking place in Wilpattu are openly or in veiled terms accused of religious intolerance, by the very fact that the tree-fellers and the politicians backing them to the hilt, belong to a particular religious community.
The logic is simple.
It’s not about liberty, equality and fraternity. It’s not about being good and saintly. It is not about decency and civilization. It’s about outcome preferences that essentially rebel against vision-mission statements and rip to pieces the holier-than-thou rhetoric in the NGO narrative.
Finally, there’s capitalism. If equality is an issue, then capitalism should be the headline, strapline, body-copy, punctuation and footnote of all NGO texts. Not so. It’s a touch-me-not, the Mother of all Touch-me-nots, one might argue. A holy cow, in fact.
Governments, mostly made of those who are bigger sized miscreants than the majority of NGO personalities, have lost the moral authority to take on NGOs. Governments, however, are taken down by the people. Those who profess to represent, if they do not, need to be taken on and taken out. It is high time that civil society (R) — ‘R’ for ‘real’ — deliver some justice to civil society ‘F’ (‘F’ for ‘Fake’).
Malinda Seneviratne is a freelance writer. Email: email@example.com. Twitter: malindasene.