And Civil Society (real) floors Civil Society (imagined)

NGOs are made of workshops, seminars, project proposals, reports, double-billing and overheads that make up more than two thirds of annual budgets.  They are also made of claims, chief among which is that of representational lie.  ‘We are civil society,’ NGO personnel like to think and state.  They are an incestuous bunch, these NGOs.  They form consortiums and forums which are made of the same groups and led by the same people.  They appoint each other to each other’s boards. They applaud one another and occasionally give each other awards for this and that. They quote one another. They scratch each other’s backs.

NGOs frequently organize workshops, attended naturally by like-minded people, where comments are carefully recorded. These are carefully screened, and selected comments quoted and marketed as ‘the common view’.  Many of the attendees are paid a ‘participation’ fee or gifted in kind.

NGOs have a huge problem.  For all the democracy-loving rhetoric, they are patently unable to deal with the fact that they lack transparency and accountability, and moreover that representational claims are scandalously hollow.  They say they represent ‘civil society’, but don’t say ‘well, no one elected us, and to be honest, our views are marginal or less and more seriously are based on assumptions that reality rebels against’.  Ask them to organize a demonstration or announce a public seminar and less than a hundred turn up.  Indeed, most of their operations are of the behind-closed-doors kind.  And yet, they bat on.  Courtesy of friends in big-name diplomatic missions and big-name countries whose political agendas vis-à-vis Sri Lanka coincide with theirs.   

I don’t think it is worth talking ethics to crooks.  What is more useful is to try and ascertain what the real (and not dollar-padded) civil society thinks about the issues that NGO pundits wax eloquent on and make grand pronouncements about.  Elections tell us a lot about public sentiment, even imperfect ones.  The electorate has overwhelmingly applauded the measures taken by this regime to eradicate terrorism from Sri Lanka.  The electorate has overwhelmingly, and repeatedly, saluted the measures taken by the Government in terms of reconciliation and the regaining of normalcy.

On the other hand, it can be argued that specific questions were not put to the electorate, and that sentiments expressed via vote could very well imply general approval on a wide range of subjects or indicate the absence of a credible alternative, rather than endorsement of policies regarding issues such as the ethnic divide (sic).  We haven’t had a referendum on these things and politicians, especially the victors, are wont to weigh convenience into interpretation.

We do have what are called ‘opinion polls’ but none of these are robust enough to stand the most basic requirements of credibility when it comes to reliability and representational worth for example.  The report submitted by three persons of questionable integrity to a man of questionable integrity who appointed them, and whose content sorely suffers on account of contradiction, hearsay, lack of source-reliability and so on, is an interesting case in point.  People have rejected on account of all these things and on the issue of legality and demonstrated malice in intent as well.   Others have applauded, without once responding to the above concerns, treating conjecture as fact.  Jehan Perera, one of the several ‘I-am-Civil-Society’ types, has quoted some unidentified persons who had expressed opinions in a for-invitees-only gathering and extrapolated the sentiments expressed as the general view of a particular segment of people.

A couple of weeks ago, however, a significant section of the real ‘civil society’ expressed their views on this report.  These were not ‘invitees’.  Neither were they paid to participate.  They did not belong to a small circle who hobnob with the high and mighty in diplomatic circles or sip cocktails in elegantly crafted lawns in Colombo 7.  They came from all parts of the country, represented all communities and all religious faiths. Some were old, some were young. Half were men and half were women.  They came together as elected representatives with considerable social standing and sway in their communities.  They were asked what they made of the above report. They unanimously rejected it. I am, by the way, a member of one of these societies and have personal shares too (comparatively abysmal, I might add). I wasn’t present at the AGM and had no idea that such a resolution would be tabled.

Let’s check the numbers.  This was, ladies and gentlemen, the Annual General Meeting of the SANASA Development Bank.  Now this bank grew out of the largest and most widespread thrift and credit movement in the country, one with a history that goes back to 1906 and which anticipated and practised ‘microfinance’ decades before it became a development buzz word.

From a movement which counts over 8000 primary societies or groups devoted to the subject of thrift and credit, with social, cultural and moral upliftment embedded into agenda, SANASA counts more than 5000 entities that are active and hundreds with assets and business that easily are the  best branches of well-established commercial banks.   A total exceeding 3800 own shares in the SANASA Development Bank. Each of these societies has 100-2000 members, with the average exceeding 400.  Even at an average membership of 200, this acounts for 740,000 people being represented at the AGM.  Throw in an average of 3 adults per family and you get over 2 million people being represented, for, typically, SANASA membership and operations are associated with households and communities.

That’s as accurate as one can get in ascertaining the sentiments of civil society this side of a national referendum, I contend.  These people, let me repeat, are elected representatives of grassroots organizations.  I am willing to wager that if all such elected organizations were brought together and their views on such issues obtained through secret ballot, the result would not be any different.

There are lessons here.  This should indicate for anyone interested in using the report as an instrument to affect regime-change the kinds of cost this country would have to incur. It should tell people  that this report cannot be used to further the cause of ‘reconciliation’ because it is considered a piece of garbage by vast sections of the population.  Thirdly, it is time that the real civil society stood up and got counted in ways broader than a vote on a resolution at a corporate entity’s AGM.

It tells something to the regime too.  The recommendations of the report’s backers, namely and principally ‘devolution based on the 13th Amendment’, should be summarily dismissed as politically untenable.

Malinda Seneviratne is a freelance writer who can be reached at
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